With the warmer weather upon, there’s no better time to ditch the jacket, grab your camera and tripod, and head out to shoot some amazing star photography. Astrophotography, as it’s also known, can be intimidating to new photographers, which is why we’ve turned to Seattle-based photography instructor Tobias Gelston for his step-by-step tutorial below on how to shoot awesome photos of the night sky.
Gelston, who teaches photography on YouTube and via in-person workshops, says he loves all forms of photography but capturing beautiful photos of the night sky above a gorgeous landscape is his favorite genre. He shot the incredible photo at the top of this story at Mt. St. Helens in Washington state. You can see more of his work on his Instagram page and more tutorials on PhotoRec TV.
Find a dark spot. I like to use DarkSite Finder for help. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t have the darkest skies – your camera can capture stars that you won’t be able to see with your eyes.
Check the moon schedule. Here’s a good site to help you. Anything above 30% will wash out many stars and the Milky Way but you can find a time when the moon is set or just before moonset or moonrise. Some moonlight can be great to illuminate your landscape.
Make a plan and check the weather. ClearDarkSky is a great resource for understanding if clouds will impact your visibility. Some clouds can actually look very interesting.
Gather your gear – camera, your fastest and widest lens, and a tripod. A remote release is a bonus or just use 2-second timer. A small headlamp with the red mode is really helpful too.
Practice at home first. Make sure you can easily put your camera on the tripod and turn on Live View if you’re using a DSLR. If you have a mirrorless camera, it will automatically be on. You’ll also need to access the Magnify Live View and Playback functions. Now do that all with your eyes closed. Seriously. The less you rely on lights when you are out in the field the better.
My suggested camera settings are Manual (M), manual autofocus, and shutter speed set to 10 seconds. You’ll want your lens on your widest focal length and widest aperture. (A lens with f/2.8 or better is ideal.) Set ISO to 3200.
Turn Live View on if you’re using DSLR, or just look through the viewfinder on a mirrorless camera. With your camera on your tripod, point the lens at the brightest star you see in the sky. Magnify that star to the max, and now move the focus ring carefully toward infinity. The star is most in focus when it is a small, sharp point of light.
Take a photo and magnify the resulting photo. Are the stars sharp? If not, repeat step 7. It may take some trial and error to get the stars as sharp as possible.
Once you have your focus nailed down, take some time to judge your composition. Once you have everything dialed in, take more photos and adjust your settings if necessary. I usually end up at around a 13-second exposure, ISO 2000 – 2500, for my best results. Divide 300 by your focal length to get an idea of the max shutter speed. Longer and your stars will turn to streaks.
That’s it! To see a more detailed explanation of how to photograph star and star trails, watch my video below.