How To Photograph Starscapes

nightscape over lake

One of the most amazing phenomenon’s that mother nature has to offer us, is the starscape. With an endless amount of glittering lights, a vibrant and colorful atmosphere and the feeling that you’re part of something bigger than yourself, this phenomenon can boggle the mind with its beauty. For many photographers it’s their favorite type of photography and I am one of those photographers. I just love shooting nightscapes.

Having a nightscape photography session can be very simple or a little complicated. I will tell you all about the different types of starscapes and how to get the best results possible on your shoot. We’ll start with defining what a starscape is and what gear you need to use with it, then I’ll also tell you all about how to compose your shot so it captures the right mood for the perfect photograph.

What is Starscape Photography?

Starscapes are night time landscapes where the heavens are the main subject. It’s capturing the beauty of nature while showing the universe that we can only barely see with the naked eye. The most common types of starscapes include milky way, aurora, and star trails. There are many more types of techniques and styles that you can create but I will focus on a few that I feel give the most consistent results for any person starting off in this type of photography.

What Gear Do I Need To Do Starscape Photography?

You don’t need very expensive equipment to get good results when doing nightscape photography. All you really need is a camera that can do long exposures, lenses, and a tripod. The type of camera doesn’t matter, whether it’s a DSLR or a mirrorless. I personally use my Nikon D7000 but if you have any current Nikon or Canon Camera or an older model like the D90, D80, etc, they all work well for shooting nightscapes. If you are looking to get into nightscape photography, you can read my guide for night photography cameras.

What Settings To Use For Starscape Photography

For any type of starscapes you will need to use a long exposure. The longer the exposure, the more detail and clarity you will see in your image. I have found that exposures between 5 and 20 seconds work best for me though it all depends on what look you are trying to achieve. Another great thing about shooting landscapes at night, is that since there isn’t really any light around, you don’t need to worry about any light pollution. Reducing the amount of light in your image will increase the contrast, making it appear more dramatic and appealing to the eye.

Set your ISO to 100 and check your aperture. This will help expose your image and I usually set my f/stop between f/8-f/22 depending on the lens I am using, but get an idea of how much light is getting in and adjust it accordingly. Another thing to keep in mind is the type of camera lens you are using. With my Nikon camera I take it everywhere and use my 18-140mm lens which takes a while to clear. If you have a camera with a smaller sensor size, like the Nikon D7000 or a compact mirrorless camera, you may want to get an f/2.8 or f/4 lens to allow for more light to enter the camera.

Starscape Photography Tips For Better Results

So now that you know the basics of how to take a good starscape shot, it’s time for some tips on how to get the best results. Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years from trial and error.

Use a sturdy tripod

Using a tripod is one of the most important things you can do for any type of photography, but especially when it comes to night photography. With the camera taking long exposures, you need a sturdy and reliable tripod that will keep your camera steady throughout the entire exposure.

Get to a place with low light pollution

The darker your location the better. Light pollution can be a serious problem in shooting starscapes.

I suggest shooting somewhere with little to no light outside of the stars in the sky, or find a location far away from any city lights or roads that have streetlights. A good place to look at local night sky conditions in your area is the Clear Sky Chart.

Look at the weather

This tip is kind of obvious but it’s important to know what the weather is like before setting out for a night photography session. Not only will it help your planning, you may never get that perfect shot due to cloudy conditions.

Choose a good foreground subject

This piece of advice may not apply to everyone, but I have found that having a foreground subject helps add context and interest to the shot. This can be anything from a tree, mountain or even a lake in some cases.

Choose the right lens

Often times I like to use a telephoto lens to get in closer with my subjects. This is generally easier with a longer focal length and only works if there are no light sources around you.

If I am trying to get a wide angle shot, I’ll go for the 70-200mm lens and take advantage of what the full frame sensor is capable of shooting. The wide angle also allows me to take more in so I’m not completely filling the frame with my subject.

Take multiple exposures and blend them together

This process is called stacking and can help give your starscape photo more detail and clarity. I use Photoshop to do this but there are a lot of other programs, like StarStax that will do the trick as well.

Hold off on shooting any Milky Way shots until after midnight

The Milky Way is not going to become visible until after dark. If you do try to shoot it too early you will likely get a lot of light pollution and just be wasting your time. I generally suggest waiting until around 11 pm or later before shooting the Milky Way.

Conclusion

I hope this article has helped you learn more about how to take good star photography. There are so many ways to shoot a picture and the sky is just one of them. Never stop taking pictures because you may be surprised at the amazing pictures you take along the way.