I’m on my way back from a quick trip out west to shoot Monument Valley, Page Arizona and Bryce Canyon. I’ve always been interested in night photography and star photos, but it’s pretty hard to do living where I live in Florida (because of light pollution). So while I was out there I took the opportunity to do some late night shooting.

Note: Make sure you click on each photo to see it larger

The First Location
For my first try at shooting the stars, I got myself a room at the Monument Valley View hotel. It’s a hotel right in the heart of Monument Valley and it’s rooms have balconies that look right out into the valley. It was such a cool view. So a few friends (RC, John “the snake” Barrett, and Chuck Barnes) came over and we all set our tripods out on the balcony for some shooting. It was actually a great setup. I could shoot and look at my photos on the laptop to figure out what to fix (since it was my first time).

Here’s a poorly stitched iPhone photo where I moved too fast for it to shoot correctly. But it still gives you a good idea of what the view was from the balcony 🙂

The First View
The view was awesome. Part of what I find (from looking at photos that inspire me) makes good star photography is having an interesting foreground. You’re generally not going to see too much detail. In fact, a lot of star photos I see, show the foreground as a silhouette. That’s why it’s even more important to pick something interesting. What better foreground then the scenery at Monument Valley? And the best part about it was that the view was right on my balcony.

(Here’s one of the first photos I took. You can see a hint of the Milky Way as well as the moon starting to rise in distance)

The First Shoot – Shutter Speed
Okay, I knew some basics going into this. First, I knew that I wanted to be shooting in Manual mode so I could set everything exactly as I needed. I knew that one of the most important parts of star photography is a shutter speed that doesn’t blur the stars. See, if the shutter stays open too long then the stars appear to move, and look blurry. It’s not an exact science, but depending on which way you’re facing, that shutter speed is between 15-30 seconds. So my first tests were to find out which shutter speed worked here. In this case, I found 15-20 seconds was the sweet spot. At first though, I did think 30 seconds was good from looking at the LCD. But that’s why it was such a benefit to have the laptop nearby for my first shoot – so I could load the photos immediately and really zoom in and look at what’s going on. At 30 seconds, you could tell the stars were blurred.

(Blurry Stars)

The Lens
Another thing to keep in mind is that most people I find shoot star photos with a wide angle lens. I used my Nikon 16-35. So those numbers typically work well for wide focal lengths. But if you zoom in, then those shutter speeds need to be even faster. There’s technical formulas to figure it out, but honestly, I find it easier to just do some test photos. The shutter speeds are short enough (somewhere between 5-15 seconds) that you probably won’t spend much more than a minute or two figuring it out. And even if I knew the formulas, I’d probably still do test photos anyway 🙂

The Rest of the Gear
Camera: Nikon D800
Lens: Nikon 16-35mm
Cable Release: Vello Shutter Boss Cable Release
Tripod: Really Right Stuff TVC-33
Ballhead: Really Right Stuff BH-55

The Aperture
Once you figure out what shutter speed is right, then you need to start working on the other aspects of exposure. For most star photo shoots, you want to choose the lowest f/stop number that your lens will give (widest aperture). For me and my Nikon 16-35 f/4, I chose f/4. If I had a lower aperture setting I would have definitely used it (the other guys were using a 24-70 f/2.8 lenses so they used f/2.8).

(Here’s a photo of the moonrise. It actually looks almost like sunrise doesn’t it?)

Now, that’s very different from what we usually think with landscape photos. We usually want to shoot at f/11, f/16, or even f/22 to get the most depth of field and keep everything sharp. That’s great when shutter speed doesn’t matter and your subject isn’t moving. But remember the whole thing on shutter speed I just mentioned? Well, since the stars are moving (well, I guess technically the earth is really moving) you need every trick you can get to keep your shutter speed down around 15-30 seconds. So that’s why we go with a wide aperture setting. Remember, in this case, there’s not much foreground detail so you’re mainly concerned with getting the stars sharp.

The next part of the equation is ISO. Here’s a quick recap first. We’re in Manual mode right? Shutter speed is now fixed at 15 seconds. We know that can’t change or the stars will be blurry. Aperture needs to be at the lowest setting your lens will allow so that your photo won’t be underexposed (remember, you’re in complete darkness so 15 seconds really isn’t that long of a shutter speed). The only other variable here is ISO. If you keep your ISO low (100 in my case), the photo is underexposed and you barely see anything. So what do you do? Raise the ISO. Again, it’s not an exact science. Though I’m sure somebody knows another technical formula you can use, I found doing test photos was simple and quick. First, I tried 200 and that was too dark. So was 400, 800, 1600. I finally landed on 3200 and got a properly exposed photo.

(Here’s a photo right before sunrise, about 5 hours after the previous photos were taken. Yeah, this star shooting stuff and sleep don’t go together 😉 )

For me, this was probably the hardest part. When everything is dark and there’s no moonlight to light anything, you basically have nothing for your camera to lock focus on. So I set my camera to manual focus and and focussed the lens at infinity. I took some test photos and that wasn’t quite sharp so I backed off just a bit from infinity and that seemed to nail it. Depending on the scene you’re shooting you can also try live view on your camera, but it was literally pitch black where I was shooting so live view didn’t work.

Lessons Learned
As with anything, there were some lessons learned along the way.

1. First and foremost, I learned what the general settings were. So the next time I shoot, I’d immediately set my Shutter Speed to 15-20 seconds. My Aperture would automatically go down to it’s widest setting. I’d probably try to borrow a wide f/2.8 lens from some one too. I love my 16-35 for landscapes but it only goes down to f/4 which means you need to crank up the ISO more to offset it. I’d immediately set my ISO to at least 1600 and do a test to see if I needed to go higher. So basically, my camera settings and technical stuff would be good to go in about a minute, and I could quickly start concentrating on composition and being creative.

2. Use a cable release or self timer. Your tripod and camera need to be absolutely still. I just picked up a Vello ShutterBoss cable release from B&H photo and it worked great.

3. If you don’t have a laptop nearby, then make sure you zoom in (way in) on the photos to make sure the stars aren’t blurred. I’m telling you, this is huge. When you’re looking at your LCD without zooming in, even the blurriest of star photos looks sharp.

4. Obviously noise is a problem with higher ISOs. Since I had the luxury of having my laptop nearby, I did an experiment. I tried lowering my ISO to 1600. The photo was definitely underexposed, and you couldn’t see the stars and sky like you should be able to. So I opened the photo in Lightroom (or Camera Raw) and increased the Exposure setting. It looked perfect! So rather than settling for a noisier photo at 3200 ISO, I decided it would be better to not get it quite right in-camera, and take advantage of just how good Lightroom and Photoshop are when it comes to adjusting Exposure.

5. Chances are you won’t be able to see anything through your viewfinder. So composition is basically a guessing game. If that’s the case, once thing that helps get your camera level is the virtual horizon feature that some cameras have. Get familiar with it and exactly where it is in the menus.

What About Star Trails?
I figure somebody reading this is probable wondering about star trails. You know, the photos where the stars form a streak across the sky (here’s some examples from 500px.com). For me personally, I don’t like star trails. To me, it’s kinda like infrared. Photographers love it, but the rest of the world looks at it and wonders why the trees are white and the skies are black. People don’t view the sky in long exposure, so when they look at those photos they wonder if it’s a bunch of shooting stars or did the camera move or something like that. Photographers know it’s cool because we know the work the went into it. But most people don’t see it that way. Now, you may totally love star trails. That’s perfectly fine. But for me, it’s just not my cup of tea.

Part 2?
Here’s a teaser photo for next week (see below). You may have noticed at the beginning of this post I wrote “First Location” and “First View”. That’s because I actually did two shoots while I was out there. The second location was a bit different. First, we light-painted the hills and trees and the Milky Way was actually in view. So we had to contend more with focus and exposure. But I figured I’d write about that in a post early next week so stay tuned.

Thanks for stopping by today. Have a good one!


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