star shots-- basic tips

July 18, 2014

can't count 'em all, kalalau beach, kauai, hawaii. f2.8, 30 sec, iso 2000

Can't count 'em all is one of the two images displayed in the gallery that people ask me about the most. 

How'd you do that?

What kind of filter did you use?

Are those stars?

Is that lava?

Is that on the big island?

Do you have a motor that tracks the stars?

How come the stars are't moving?

And many more questions expressing both wonder and disbelief.

Many of the questions that i am asked about that shot are concern the settings and camera, but i always answer first with the location-- kalalau beach, at the end of an 11 mile long hike, deep in the wilderness that is the napali coast. You see, i think that's the most important part of night photography-- location and effort. Quite simply, in order to get the stars to show up well in a photo you need a black sky and that means you need to get yourself to somewhere, anywhere with little to no light pollution. I live in kauai so i am relatively lucky, but you can still find a black sky near to where you are, too. Just go online and look for "black sky maps" or "dark sky maps". I'm sure something will pop up that you can use to direct you to a dark location full of brilliant stars.

The second thing you need to consider--way before even taking the camera out of the bag-- is time: both time of the year (season) and time of the month (phase of the moon). Here on kauai we get a bright milky way from the end of june to about the beginning of october. And of course the milky way is brightest during these months when we have a new or black moon. If you can't shoot with a new moon, then look for a waning crescent or a waxing crescent moon. For me, unless if i am shooting star trails, i don't even try to shoot the milky way in the fall or winter. Millions of stars just not going to show up as well as they do in the summer. Likewise, i don't even bother the night sky when the moon is big. Sleep is just too valuable to waste on those nights with poor light. So in order to shoot the milky way, you are basically down to three or four nights a month, three or four months of the year. Which means when you go out to photograph the night sky, you better make it count. 


Kauai SkyKoke'e Night Sky and Paper Bark TreeI'm always looking for lone trees. I just love to photograph 'em. To me, they are symbols of strength, perseverance, community, shelter and much much more.
I drove up to koke'e early one evening on the night following a newl moon, looking for a tree that i could include in a shot of the milky way. I had been up the night prior, and photographed a big, fluffy mango tree, but wasn't totally satisfied with the results. I actually felt like I left something up on the mountain. So I decided to go up again and give it another try. I'm glad I did I am really pleased with this shot. I really like the dynamism of this picture. I also like how the paper bark tree encourages you to leave it and explore the image in it's totality. I wanted something that would show the earth and universe on the same plane. And I think this image conveys that feeling. After taking several shots, I called it a night and slept under this sky at my campsite in Koke'e. Waimea Canyon and Koke'e are truly special places on this very special island.
Waimea, Kauai
Photo taken with Canon EOS 5D Mark III, f/2.8 @16mm, 30s, ISO 200, No Flash.

koke'e night sky and paper bark tree, koke'e, kauai, hawaii. f2.8, 30 sec, iso 2000


Oh, i almost forgot-- don't bother with an overly overcast or cloudy sky. Check the weather! Plan your night shoot! This is very important!!! But, don't let a few clouds deter you, as they can add a sense of mystery and color to the night scene. Like the shot above of the paper bark tree-- i was worried that the clouds would obstruct the milky way. But it turned out ok. Incidentally, this shot was taken with a waxing crescent moon, 6% full. The light shining on the tree is from my headlamp. It's a technique called "painting" and i'll talk more about that later.

closer than you think, polihale, kauai, hawaii. f2.8, 25 sec, iso 2000


All right, so now that we've got the preliminaries out of the way-- black sky, no light pollution, time of the year, phase of the moon, weather-- let's talk about the basic settings and equipment that you'll need to get those stellar shots.

1. camera

2. lens (wide angle preferably. i'll tell you why in a second....)

3. tripod

these are really the only things that you absolutely need. optional items would maybe be

4. remote shutter switch (for exposures lasting more than 30 seconds or to minimize camera shake. you can also shoot with the mirror looked in "UP" position).

5. motor to track the stars (very expensive. i've only used once. when i was in college. in an astronomy lab. we photographed the moon. i have no idea how they work and can't really say anything about it other than i think it would be pretty cool to have).

6. headlamp or flashlight for safety and if you want to do any light painting.

7. delicious beverage

Now, just like everything else in the universe, star shots are no different-- there are many ways to do it. What i'm about to tell you is just how i do it. Nothing more. Nothing less. Try it and see how it works for you.

OK, camera settings. I use a canon 5d3 so these are the settings that seem to work well for my camera. Yours may be different, but not significantly, i don't think... anyway, here we go..

iso-- 1600 ~ 2000.

lately i've been shooting star shots at 2000 iso. This high iso allows lots of light to soak sensor. The problem with shooting at such a high iso is that the image will take on a bit of noise or a grainy look. for this reason i always shoot with noise reduction "ON". This in-camera feature helps to reduce the resulting noise of shooting at such a high iso (as well as the resulting noise from shooting at longer exposures). You should also try to minimize the effect of noise in post processing. 

aperture-- f2.8 (or the smallest f-stop that your lens allows). Basically what you want is a big hole to let in a lot of light. 

shutter speed-- 500/focal length = the number of seconds you can leave the shutter open before the stars begin to streak, causing unwanted blur and general fuzziness). Now, i shoot all of my star shots with a 16-35/ 2.8 wide angle lens. I almost always leave it at the 16mm focal length. So using the above formula (500/16) i can leave the shutter open for 31.25 seconds before the stars begin to "move." If your lens of choice is a 24mm focal length lens then you have (500/24) 20.8 seconds to leave the shutter open before streaking occurs. That may not be enough time to get a good, strong, bright starry sky. My advice would be to go shopping or borrow your friends wide angle lens. 

focus-- manual, infinity or do what i often do and set up early, auto focus on an object while it is still light and then set the lens to manual focus and then wait until it gets dark. very dark. the only problem with this method is that you may not know exactly where the milky way will be in the night sky. also helpful for focusing is a strong headlamp. you can shine light on an object nearby and let the lens pick it up then fire away. with this technique you will need to use a timer or remote switch. 

light painting-- if you choose you can light up the foreground by shining a headlamp, flashlight, cellphone, etc... for a portion of the exposure. say 5 seconds or so. it's all trial and error so take a few shots and play with it a bit. i lit the paper bark tree for 5 above ​or you can leave the foreground in silhouette like i did with the tree in the photo below. 

waimea town and milky waywith waimea in the distanceon the slopes of waimea i searched for a tree to place underneath the milky way. i really like the lights of waimea town in the distance and feel that these lights add sense of depth and an identifiable marker for our minds. the universe is not so far away. actually, we are in it.
location: waimea, kauai
series: hikari

on the slopes of waimea, waimea, kauai. f2.8, 30 sec, iso 2000


As for composition, i don't really have any rules or advice. Every tip or hint or rule regarding composition can be broken to brilliant effect so who am i to tell you how to compose a shot. Just keep in mind that on some nights it may be difficult to find the milky way with the naked eye so you may need to take a couple of shots in order to locate the galaxy, but once you dial it in, you should be good to go. Just frame it however you think it looks good. 

passing light, rapa nui (easter island), chile. f5, 30 sec, iso 400

And finally, remember that sometimes if you arrive early to a sunrise you may also be able to get a few star shots in while you wait. 

Those are some of the basics of star shots. Good luck and have fun!



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