Some questions about photographing stars?

Question by Matt: Some questions about photographing stars?
What should be the focus? Multi, Center, 0.5m, 1m, 3m, 7m, or infinity?
and how would you know which to use? (in photographing anything, not just stars)

What about the metering mode? Multi, Center, or spot?
and again, how to know which to use?

last, how would you know which aperture setting to use? (there’s only two, F2.8 and F5.6)

Best answer:

Answer by kevinlc
What you are asking can be either not necessarily difficult, but very technical, or relatively simple. Do you want to shoot star trails or shoot the stars so they are frozen points?

The more specifics you can give me the better I can answer your question.

Star Points (using a nikon Full frame DSLR)

Tripod, No filter, use lens hood to block out side reflections, close viewfinder curtain, Manual exposure: 1/15, f/5.6, manual focus set to infinity, ISO 640, active D lighting off, long exposure NR off, high ISO NR off, exposure delay mode on, Mirror Up, use a remote trigger, put something heavy on the camera to hold it still (NOT THE LENS), use tungsten white balance, shoot in RAW

Night photography with a DSLR is one of many challenges people are facing. Photographing the stars is the trickiest part in night photography. The metering system can be fooled because it measures the lights and darks to get accurate compomising results. But to photograph stars, it is completely dark so the meter give you a much slower shutter speed and higher apertures to brighten the image. That is one of the built-in light meters’ weaknesses.

To freeze the stars is quite difficult while ignoring the metering since it will simply ask you to do a long exposure using the highest aperture. The stars move during the long exposure, which means stars will leave ‘mini star trails,’ a faster shutter speed is required to freeze the stars to avoid any trails behind the stars.

It is perfectly safe to increase your ISO to 640 (or higher if you want a faster shutter speed than 1/15 of a second) because the noise performance has improved dramatically in DSLR’s in the past year. The noise (or grain) might become noticeable on large prints (bigger than 8 x 10, such as 11 x14 or 16 x 20). The point is – ISO sensitivity of ISO 640 is perfectly safe to get a decent shutter speed such as 1/15 of a second along with F/5.6 aperture.

Why can’t we use the maximum apertures such as f/1.4 or F 2.8? It is because at the highest apertures the ED (extra-low dispersion, an element coating most lenses) on lenses tends to cause chromatic aberration (red or blue color fringes on the brightest highlights in the image). At the medium aperture of either f/4, f/5.6 or f/8 the aperture diaphragm closes down to reduce the total amount of light to enter the lens.

Why tungsten white balance? It is a special effect by decreasing the color temperature to the cooler/colder colors to make the sky to appear more bluish instead of orange-red or pitch black sky. You can easily adjust the white balance in post processing apps.

Star trails

Basically use a tripod, set focus to infinity, make sure the focus is set to manual so the camera does not try and refocus, and use manual exposure – the camera won’t be able to detect light if you are in a location lit only by the stars. Also try and use a timer to set create your exposure, so you are not physically touching the body when the shutter moves. If your camera does not allow for automatic shutter speeds long enough to produce the length of trails you desire you will have to use a remote or find an alternate method to keep the shutter open longer.

Another note for both types , keep your tripod low, the lower it is the steadier the camera will be. And with night photography you DO NOT want the camera to move at all.

When to use different metering modes: when to use different types is very subjective, matrix metering is for metering an entire scene, spot metering exposes for only a very specific selected area of the scene.


Alright, the same general principle applies if you are not using an SLR. Using manual focus and metering set the aperture to f/5.6 and shutter speed to 1/15 – it should show on your camera as just 15. Try and set the ISO to as close to 640 as you can and go with trial and error from there. This is a tricky task even with a pro camera, it will be even more difficult with a point and shoot. I hope you can get it working!

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2 Responses to Some questions about photographing stars?

  1. Albin says:

    I asked myself the same question 2 days ago, I ended up buying a timer remote to do some time lapse photography.
    here is something certain: trial and error.
    you do need a tripod and set your cam on timer to avoid touching it and the shutter opens, best is to have a remote of some sort as it is simpler and fuss free.
    to help you getting this right, you need to have your aperture wide open (it will be night after all),manual focus on infiniti as you will shoot the sky.
    in an ideal world you will use a wide angle lens (you are shooting the sky, not the moon for example).
    the only thing i am not too sure about is the exposure time, 30 seconds will get you some star trail already, so I would stick on 10sec maybe, don’t take my word for it though.
    your meter will most likely go wrong so it is basically your guess! worst case scenario you can always push the exposure later.
    and a personal advice, don’t point only to the sky, try to get some other thing such as trees lit by a fire for example, it will look cooler
    hope that helps

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