What I Learned On My First Star Photo Shoot

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!

  • Dave

    Sweet photos. Looks like a great trip. I was in Moab in October and was trying to convince by brother to drive me into Arches NP at night (I can’t drive stick). No luck. Any how, what kind of adjustments in LR do you recommend to bring out the Milkyway?

  • http://thelightcavalry.zenfolio.com/blog mark

    Thanks, Matt. Really useful article with excellent tips, eg expose to the left. I also appreciate your openly subjective asides here and elsewhere, eg star trails, black and white.

    Have you written about using tablets on a shoot?

  • Peter Nord

    I use an old 28 f/2 manual because I’ve had it for years, it’s sharp, and the infinity focus stop removes the focusing guess work. Using the interval timer during a meteor shower, I can let the camera work while I’m warm inside. Fun looking through the exposures to see if there’s a good meteor trail. Kind of like fishing.

  • Dennis Zito

    Matt, these are spectacular photos! Man, I love how you explained everything is such detail! I’ve always wanted to shoot the stars, but like you I’ve never been anywhere I could do that without some light pollution. We are planning a trip from Parker, CO to Moab and Monument, UT this spring so this is really good info for me! Also, thanks for the hint on the Motel in Monument, I’ll have check it out! Looking forward to tomorrows blog!

    Thanks again, safe travels … Fantastic photos and info!

    • http://mattk.com Matt Kloskowski

      Thanks Dennis! Let me know when you’re going and if you need any tips :)

  • http://photobee1.blogspot.com/ Myer Bornstein

    here is a trick ab out focusing. prior to going out, focus the lens with auto-focus at an object at least 30 feet away, look at the distance scale and see where the infinity mark is, note it and use that mark to set your lens for thee night shooting. I take the focusing ring in place with gaffers tape. I then set every to manual and go from there

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/76892948@N07/?hide_photostream_welcome=1 Eric Larson

    Nice work. Have you seen what Royce Bair has done with light painting? Look him up on Flickr, or Into the Night Photography on Blogspot. He posts a new “nightscape” image to his Flickr page each Thursday.

  • http://www.sydspix.wordpress.com Digital Lady Syd

    Great post and great tips. I love astronomy and have experimented a little with this. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://JohnBarrettPhotography.com John “The Snake” Barrett

    Glad I could help Matt. Looking forward to the next time we go out.

  • Phil Cook

    As always, great post Matt. Never been to Monument Valley but is definitely on my bucket list. Never knew there was a hotel with such great views so will definitely be keeping a note of that.

  • http://blog.tonivaughan.com Toni

    Matt- great post, I love the photos and have been dipping my toes into star photography myself. In fact I attended the “Mastering the Night” precon at PSW Vegas in Sept., which was great. You didn’t mention white balance, what white balance where you using?? (especially in the first photo with the purple color in the sky)…I live in Arizona and still haven’t made it to Monument Valley but it’s on my short list of places to visit.:) Thanks

  • http://gravatar.com/haraldph Harald Harnang

    Hi Matt, thanks. Great shots, great place. And very different from my surroundings. Why not take a trip to northern Norway and shoot Northern Light (and stars and moon). No problem with light pollution during winter time. Take a look: http://www.infoto.no/Other/Natur/3728835_RbRnzL#!i=1529325940&k=NdwC8P5&lb=1&s=A
    Moon at left, Northern Light above, light from stars and from some houses in the far background. 30 sek exposure time. Easy, but very cold.

  • http://imagesbyjw.com Jan Winther

    Excellent article, Matt. Wish I could try it here, but like you, light pollution makes that impossible. How ever, the nights are getting longer up here, so I will definitely give it a shot when I’m at a dark sky location.

    I got the 16-35mm lens myself, and absolutely love it. However, in this case I was wondering if you have thought about trying the inexpensive 50mm f/1.8 for this type of photography. It sounds like a nice wide open aperture to use, and will also lower the ISO substantially. In your case the ISO would be down around 400-800.

  • http://www.sergiomarcheselli.it Sergio Marcheselli

    Thank you, Matt. Great shots and very useful post. Ciao! :-)

  • http://blog.jfwphoto.com John F. Williams

    Thank you Matt! I’m definitely booking that flight to visit friends in Phoenix now, with a major side trip north.

  • http://gravatar.com/rifter13 rifter

    Wow. I guess I shouldn’t complain too much about light pollution . I can get out of it in about 30 minutes to 1 hr from home. Though, I have done that, and it is a LONG freaking drive home after that. :-) Good beginning to the story. I like the night pictures, but I am getting more and more into timelapse for night photography.

  • http://wernerpriller.wordpress.com Werner Priller

    …just be careful, Matt, you might get addicted to it;)

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  • Dave Clark

    Have you tried setting your camera to auto ISO? I can set my camera (Canon 5D MKII) to manual, choose my aperture and shutter speed, auto ISO then chooses the appropriate ISO for that combo so long as the solution is between 100 and 3200. But I admit I’ve never tried this under such dark conditions. If it works, it would sure beat the heck out of ISO trial & error.

  • http://www.wolfnowl.com/ Mike Nelson Pedde

    A list of tips from John Paul Caponigro:


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  • http://www.facebook.com/john.webb.9250 John Webb

    Thanks Matt. I must try a star shot. There is an old tree that will be a good foreground in my local park.

  • http://www.brianboing.com Brian Boing

    Thanks for posting the link to the hotel you stayed in. My wife and I are planning a trip next month there and I am wondering what direction the view of the valley from the hotel is facing? is it good for sunset or sunrise? Great work BTW!

    • http://mattk.com Matt Kloskowski

      You’re welcome Brian. The hotel is best for sunset. Sunrise is good to, although you’re facing somewhat into the sun. But it all depends on the time of the year too. But I think it’d be great for both sunset and sunrise.

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