Getting The Shot: Shooting the Stars

If you’re lucky enough to have witnessed seeing the Milky Way with your own eyes at night, I can bet you’ll remember it for the rest of your life. But capturing that moment in a photo to share with people for the  rest of your life, now that is a different story. How many times have you tried to capture those incredible stars that blanket the night sky with your camera or phone and ended up with either a black screen or a blurry mess of dots? Don’t worry, we’ve all been there.  And I wanted to explain how I got this shot to help you capture those stars the next time you spend the night camping underneath them!

Gear Required: A camera capable of shooting under manual settings and a tripod for your camera.

I took this photo on a backpacking trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. My girlfriend and I drove up to the Franconia Notch after work on a warm Friday in November to hike up to the Lonesome Lake Hut via our headlamp light. We made it up to the lake around 8PM, before the moon had risen over the Franconia ridge which is pictured in the distance in the photo. After putting the gear away into the hut, I went back down to the lake’s edge with my camera and tripod. The lighting was perfect! Just enough to illuminate the surrounding mountain range and catch the stars reflection, but not too much to blow out the picture. I set up my travel-sized Joby Gorillapod tripod and locked my camera into it. And then I started to shoot photos for the next hour or so.

Normally, I stand by adage that the camera has nothing to do with a good photo, only the photographer does. However, shooting the stars at night can be a difficult task without some proper gear. For example, a lens with an aperture less than f/4 will make your job much easier since you’ll be shooting at night and will want as much light hitting the sensor as possible. And the bigger the sensor size, the better. Since a bigger sensor, like that on a full frame DSLR camera, will capture more light than the sensor found on a mirrorless camera micro 4/3 sensor. But other than that, you can make any camera work.

For this shot, I was using my Nikon 1 J4 mirrorless camera (glorified point-and-shoot), with a 18.5 mm (50mm equivalent) f/1.8 lens. When shooting the stars, I like to open my aperture all the way up to let as much light in as possible, which I alluded to in the previous paragraph. As for the ISO and shutter speed, well this is the balancing act. A low ISO (160-200 range) will allow for a cleaner, less grainy photo in the low light conditions that night shooting presents. To compensate for a low ISO, you’ll need to have the shutter open for a longer period. Usually, not an issue when you have your camera on a tripod, but a problem that arises when shooting the stars with a long shutter speed is the movement of the stars. Stars will noticeably move through your frame if your shutter his held open for more than 20seconds. So this is where the balancing act comes into play, and trust me, there is never one setting that works every time you shoot the stars.

I start by picking one setting that I think will work, ISO 800, 10s at f/1.8. The picture results in a grainy image of the stars and overexposed because of the high ISO and long shutter. So from here, I will try to speed up the shutter. This results in a darker image, that is less grainy. But it isn’t show the full range of stars in the sky. So I will drop my ISO to slow down the shutter speed. I continue to play with these two settings until I find the perfect balance of a clean image that also shows the full night’s sky. I struggled to get the stars in the sky and the reflection of the stars on the smooth lake for what seemed like forever. Either the sky or the lake would come out clear, but never both. I also had to play around with where I was focusing the image on, the sky, the mountains, or the lake in the foreground. I eventually settled on 25s at f/1.8 ISO 160 while focusing on the mountains.

In post, where I edit the photo to bring it back to how I remember it, I brought the image into Lightroom. This is a part of the Adobe (photoshop) suite and is offered for free through the AppStore. To brighten up the sky,  I bumped the exposure up to +1.67. To keep the mountains in a sillouette, I increased the Contrast up to +40. Highlights were bumped up to +18 to bring out the stars in the sky and reflection on the lake. And shadows were dropped down to -35 to keep the mountains and shoreline dark. The white and black levels were both increased to +3 to balance out some color issues. 

Lightroom App on my iPhone

Here are some tips to help you get the shot if it’s not coming out the way you want. If your image is still turning out blurry even though you have your camera on a tripod, it could be caused by you pressing the shutter button. Try to set your camera up on a 1 or 2 second timer to let your camera/tripod stop shaking after you press the shutter. Another tip might be remove any lens filters or hoods you might normally shoot with on your lens. The sensor needs as much light as possible, and try to avoid/remove anything that prohibits that. And lastly, some times your stars might be out of focus. Try to bring the focus wheel just a tad back from the infinity point and that will actually capture the stars better, even though the stars’ distance is closer to inifity than what your focus is dialed to.

Three additional challenges that I faced to get this shot were the following. One, a near full moon was rising over the mountain range in the distance. This was constantly adding more and more light to the shot that I had to compensate for as I trialed my settings. Two, when shooting in the dark, your eyes become so sensitive to light that sometimes your picture looks better on your screen than it will when you bring it up on your computer. After I shot this, I swore I got 1 million stars in the picture and everything was so clear. But when I brought it back to my computer to edit in post, the image was very dark and barely any of the stars were as visible as I thought they were. So sometimes, you need to over-do the photo to make sure it displays well when you get home. And three, this was November in the White Mountains, so it was cold! Navigating the settings on my camera were getting more and more difficult as I began to loose feeling in my fingers (and toes) from standing around to take these pictures.

After all the time down by the water, I eventually got a shot I was satisfied with. I didn’t know it at the time, but when I got it back on my computer screen I couldn’t have been any happier. Sure, given more time and maybe a larger sensor in the camera, I could have gotten more stars to show in the picture, but I was happy with how it turned out.

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