The night sky: How to photograph stars and the Milky Way
November 7, 2017
It’s an exciting challenge to take on a dark, star-filled night as a photographer. Whether it’s chasing the elusive Milky Way or showing the motion of the stars over a period of time to create star trails, you need to think carefully about choosing the right location, the right time of year and night, the right weather, the right settings and finally the right post-processing to bring the heavens into frame. Read on to discover some of my tips and tricks for producing sparkling results.
How to photograph stars: Timing
Shooting the Milky Way requires a fair amount of planning and research. First, although it’s visible all year, the galactic core itself, which gives such oomph to night shots, is not visible in the Northern Hemisphere during winter. April is the first month to start planning your shoot and September the last. The PhotoPills app will help you plan your shoot on or around the new moon since with moonlight, the Milky Way appears washed out. The app also gives information on when astronomical twilight is over and the stars are fully visible.
How to photograph stars: Location
Once you have a clear night, with little wind and no moon, choosing a location is your next priority. What the vast grandeur of the Milky Way requires is a good foreground to anchor the final picture. There are many foregrounds that suit the Milky Way, from water to rocks, old buildings, hills, mountains and silhouetted trees. The only essential requirement is for there to be as little light pollution as possible, and you can find the best places by using sites such as Dark Site Finder.
Unfortunately, the UK does not have many light-free areas, so if there is a distant glow from a town, try to make it work for you as part of the picture. Here is your chance to do something different. Several of the spots I have worked at had never been photographed at night, so it was a joy to do something fresh and different. Think out of the box – and that doesn’t mean another clichéd shot of a ‘person with headtorch’ shining up at the Milky Way!
How to photograph stars: Setting up
Setting up your shot when you want to photograph stars, requires thought, practice and patience. Remember, the Milky Way is not static, so you need to be on site in plenty of time to set up. The Milky Way moves from south east to south west over the summer months, so you need to position your camera and tripod facing this direction. If your land feature is a rock formation, one aim is to have the diagonal of the Milky Way (rising from right to left) coming out of the rock or over the rock.
It’s important to think of the overall composition. Again, the Sky Guide app is useful, as the virtual view shows exactly where and when the Milky Way will rise, and most importantly when the galactic core is visible.
How to photograph stars: Focusing
Once you have an idea of your composition, there are various ways to focus when you want to photograph stars. I have found using live view with a torch, or having a friend aim their torch on to the foreground, both work pretty well. Some astro shooters swear by focusing on the stars, but infinity on wide lenses such as the Samyang 14mm f/2.8 or the Sigma 14mm f/1.8 is pretty close, so anything focused over two to three metres away is sharp all the way to the stars themselves.
It’s worth noting that the rising Milky Way looks pretty dull and nothing like most published astro shots. Start with a tungsten white balance, as this can be warmed up later if needed.
How to photograph stars: Post-processing
Our eyes are not good at night vision and the raw file is just the start of the processing journey. With a good raw image, bring up shadows and blacks (unless you want a silhouette). Use an adjustment brush on the stars to bring up exposure, clarity and contrast to taste. There is much more detail in the raw, and I like to think of a good astro photograph as showing an owl eye’s view. There is nothing wrong with adding punch to your picture but don’t overdo it. A mask sharpen filter in Photoshop can help ping out the stars, and if necessary, run Nik Define to reduce noise.
The result should show what the glory of the sky can offer. Once you have mastered the basics, then it’s time to take it up a notch. With a geared or panoramic head, try for a Milky Way panorama.
One of my best Milky Way shots was when I went out for aurora (no show in Shropshire!). I thought I might as well set up for astro and as I did, the full moon rose in the east. Ignoring all that I had learnt, I continued shooting and one photo came out perfectly, with foreground rocks on the Stiperstones, the full-moon light turning the valleys strange and ethereal, and the Milky Way leading up and vanishing into the high clouds. Learn the rules, then go for something new.
10 simple steps for the best camera set up for Astrophotography
- A full-frame camera that can cope with high ISOs is recommended for this type of work. Often you are dealing with a fair amount of dynamic range.
- Raw all the way! Shooting in raw gives you so much more control over processing your final file, to recover shadow detail and dial down bright starry highlights if needed.
- Use the 500 rule to avoid trailing stars. This is 500 divided by the 35mm equivalent focal length. So, 500/14 for the Samyang equals 35 seconds. In practice, I try to shoot shorter – around 25 seconds.
- Shoot in manual or bulb mode. If using a 14mm f/2.8, start with ISO 3200, 25 seconds, f/2.8 and alter ISO to suit.
- Use live view as it causes less vibration when the shutter opens and closes.
- Your head torch can now help you focus on the foreground you have picked. Use live view to focus, then turn off AF. The Sigma 14mm f/1.8 is sharp to infinity beyond about three metres, even wide open.
- Because of the shape of the Milky Way, it is often better to set up in portrait mode, with the Milky Way as a diagonal lead-in line.
- It’s important not to touch the camera at all, so use a remote cable to get the sharpest image possible.
- Take lots of test shots, and adjust settings and position accordingly to make sure your horizon is straight.
- Don’t worry if the image on the back of your camera looks slightly dull. The raw file is only step one on the journey to bringing the stars to life.
A strong, lightweight tripod is essential for the long exposures needed to capture stars, as well as a geared head for precise adjustments to frame both foreground and sky. I use the Manfrotto 055 Carbon Fibre with the Xpro Geared Head.
Fast wideangle lens
The superb new Sigma 14mm f/1.8 has completely changed my shooting, enabling me to go wide open with a lower ISO. The Samyang 14mm f/2.8 is a fantastic budget lens which is surprisingly sharp.
Sky Guide and any weather app
The right weather is crucial to a good night shoot. Checking weather updates right up until heading out is essential. A clear night with no moon is best for the Milky Way and stars. Sky Guide has a superb overlay to check out where the Milky Way is, in order to frame your shot.
Andrew Fusek Peters is a conservation photographer and nature writer. He is currently on commission for the National Trust and Natural England on Shropshire’s uplands. His books include Wilderland, Upland and the National Trust guidebook for the Long Mynd. www.andrewfusekpeters.com.
Andrew’s book Upland (Graffeg, £20, ISBN 9-7819-1086-2681) explores the wildlife and landscape of the Shropshire Hills. ‘It is a passionately written and lavishly illustrated account of the natural history of one of Britain’s best kept secrets. Andrew Fusek Peters has thrown his heart and soul into this book, and it shows’: Iolo Williams, TV wildlife presenter.