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How To Take Pictures of Stars with a DLSR Camera

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Anyone with access to a DSLR camera and a tripod (or a steady surface) can take stunning photos of the night sky with all of its glorious stars. You will even start to see some Nebulae, Galaxies, Globular Clusters, the Milky Way, Meteorites, Auroras and more.

Taking pictures of a starry sky (nightscape photography) is a wonderful experience that may help you learn some of the constellations as well. A camera sensor, like the one in your DSLR, is capable of recording much more light than our eyes can see. This is why we are able to enjoy much more detail in a photograph than with our naked eye alone.

Whether you are just getting started with a new camera, or have just never attempted night photography before, the simple steps below should give you a strong foundation to put into action the next time you are under a clear night sky.

How to take pictures of stars with a DSLR Camera

Have you ever tried to take a picture of the moon at night? Chances are (if you are new to astrophotography), the results were less impressive than you had hoped. Well, taking a successful image of the stars in the night sky can be even trickier.

This is because night photography is unlike daytime photography, and creates many new challenges. Low light situations require a completely different approach to photography than you may be accustomed to. It is not possible to take pictures of stars using the “auto” mode on your DSLR camera, because it was not designed to record a nightscape image.

Instead, you’ll need to use a specific set of camera settings that allow you to capture long exposure images of the night sky and all of the wonderful treasures found within it. The DLSR camera used in this guide is a Canon EOS Rebel Xsi (1000D).

Step 1: Camera Settings

Camera Settings for Astrophotography

The first thing you will need to understand is that in order to capture enough light for your camera’s sensor to pick up lots of stars in the photo, you need to take a long exposure photograph. This can range from 5-30+ seconds depending on your equipment and conditions. To do this, you will want to make sure your DSLR is in Manual Mode.

Manual mode gives you complete control over each internal camera setting, and it can be a bit daunting to shoot in this mode for the first time. Manual mode is indicated by an M on your camera’s dial (Canon or Nikon).

The camera settings available to customize in this mode include:

  • Aperture (F-Ratio) of the camera lens
  • ISO (Sensitivity to Light)
  • Exposure Length (How long the shutter stays open)
  • White Balance (Daylight, Auto etc.)

These variable camera settings will change depending on the camera lens you are using. For example, if you are shooting with a lens that has a focal length of 18mm or lower, you shouldn’t see any star trails (due to the rotation of the earth) until you shoot an exposure of 20 seconds or longer.

Wide-angle lenses (such as the Rokinon 14mm F/2.8) have an extremely large field of view, which not only capture more of the sky in a single shot, but are also more forgiving in terms of star trailing. A lens with longer focal length (such as the Canon 50mm F/1.8) will capture a higher magnification image, but stars will begin to trail much sooner.

For this guide, we used a Canon 18-200mm F3.5 lens, at the widest focal length of 18mm.

Exposure

The maximum exposure length you can shoot is generally limited to the focal length of your camera lens. Unless you are intentially trying to capture a star trail image, this exposure will likely be under 30-seconds. If you want to shoot longer than that, a tracking camera mount is needed.

If your exposure time is limited to under 30-seconds on a stationary tripod, you’ll need to experiment with the other camera settings that affect the amount of light captured in a single shot. The focal ratio of your lens (eg. F/2.8) can make big impact when it comes to collecting light in a short period of time.

This is called aperture, and it’s one of the most important camera settings to consider when taking pictures of stars.

Camera Settings for Night Sky Photography

Aperture

On my camera lens, that is a setting of F3.5. The lower the F-number, the more light the camera brings in.

ISO

The next setting you will want to adjust is ISO. This is the camera’s sensitivity to light, which is very important for our purposes! Generally, you will want to use the highest ISO your camera has, this may by 1600, or even 6400 or higher.

 

Increasing your ISO will introduce more noise to your photo, but the trade-off is more stars and more light-gathering ability. You may want to use a lower ISO if you are finding your photo to be too noisy. Modern photo-editing software like Photoshop CC does a great job a reducing noise in post-processing.

White Balance

For our purposes, Auto White Balance or Daylight White Balance works just fine. You also want to make sure that you are shooting your photos in RAW format. This gives you the opportunity to really bring out the images full potential in post-processing. You will need Adobe photoshop to make these adjustments, so if you don’t have it, a .JPG photo will have to do!

Step 2: Setting up your camera on the tripod

Now that you have the proper settings for night-time photography, you are ready to point your DSLR to the heavens and capture more stars than you have ever seen with your naked eye alone!  Securely fasten your camera to your tripod via the removable mounting plate. Make sure that all of your adjustment knobs are tight before leaving your camera on the tripod.  DSLR’s can be heavy, and you will be angling the head straight-up in some cases.

 

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Focus

To achieve proper focus of the stars, do not use autofocus. Manually focus your lens to infinity, then focus back a hair. Take some test shots and try to get the stars to look as tight as possible. Another way to achieve focus is to use the live-view mode of your camera, and focus on something far away (like a street lamp). Zoom-in while in live-view to really get it right.

Star Trails

In a 30 second exposure, you will notice small star trails because of Earth’s rotation. (Yes, even in 30 seconds!) The star-trailing is subtle, and will not affect the overall look you are trying to achieve. If the stars are trailing too much for your liking, knock your exposure down to 20 seconds if you wish.

Step 3: Take the shot!

Drive Mode for Astrophotography

Activating the Shutter

Set your drive mode to a 2 or 10 second delay to avoid shaking the camera slightly when activating the shutter. You can find this option in the Even the slightest movement (like pressing the shutter button) can be enough to create a shaky shot! The drive mode option screen should look something like this:

Things to keep in mind

Make sure that your lens has not fogged up, or your shots will look blurry. A blow dryer will remove dew if necessary. Light pollution is your biggest enemy when it comes to astrophotography. Get as far away from city lights as possible for your star shots. If there is a city glow near you, point away from it. You may find that a shot in the city using a high ISO and long exposure produces a very bright, washed-out photo. If this is the case, bump your ISO down, and shoot a shorter exposure. eg. (ISO 800, 15 seconds)

 

Milky Way astrophotography image by Ashley Northcotte

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