This Guide is a 5-Part Series which will focus on how to capture and photograph stars and the Milky Way. I’ll do a deep-dive into camera gear, how to prepare and plan your shoot, setting up your camera and getting that shot, and lastly, how to post-process your results.
Wikipedia defines Star Photography (Astrophotography) as:
photography for recording photos of astronomical objects and large areas of the night sky.
10 years ago if you Googled star photography, your search results would have been vastly different from today. It’s a different ball game with the current camera technology, and it’s only going to get better.
I’ve been photographing the stars and the night sky for close to a decade and I’ve learned a few things along the way – things I want to share. Here’s my definitive guide to plan and capture the night sky and milky way.
Before we get started
I can’t tell you the number of times I get asked “what camera and what lens did I use to make my photograph”? For whatever reason there’s a misconception that camera gear has this magical ability to fix your poorly composed and uninspiring images. We all know the answer to that.
Here’s an analogy I like to use. Would you ever ask a writer what they used to create their novel? Of course not! The success of the final manuscript is irrelevant whether a pen, a pencil, a typewriter or a laptop was used. It’s the ideas of the author, their ability to craft the story, not the tool used. They could have written in blood – yes more difficult, not to mention messy – but the results would have been the same.
I think same goes for photography, the camera is and will always be just a tool. Of course a better lens will give you sharper images and a newer camera body may have faster auto-focus but it will not help your composition, nor will it tell you how to create a better visual story. That, in essence, is the art of photography. The camera is nothing but a very sophisticated pencil. Keep that in mind.
What this guide will cover
We’ll deal with all things related to camera gear that you’ll need for getting those star photos. I’ll recommend camera bodies, lenses and tripods if you’re looking to pick up something shiny and new.
How does one go about scouting locations these days. I’ll show you what I do to prepare for the shoot and provide a list of mobile apps to use to help this along.
PART 3: IMAGE CAPTURE
Here we’ll tackle all thing having to do with capturing the image in-camera. It will be technical and I’ll throw a lot of numbers your way, but in the end you’ll have all the tools you’ll need to go out and capture the night sky and stars.
PART 4: CREATIVE TECHNIQUES
Once you figure out the technical aspect of getting stars in your photos, the rules of photography still remain: pleasing composition and storytelling. I’ll show you a few other ideas of what one can do to step outside these boundaries.
PART 5: POST PROCESSING
This one is self explanatory, I’ll go into the details on what to do with your images in post-production.
Part I: Gear
Today’s cameras are the best cameras in the history of photography. I repeat, today’s camera technology is the best in the history of the photographic art. When is comes to photographing stars, you will not be disappointed.
It doesn’t matters anymore whether you’re using a full frame or a crop sensor. Any camera you pick up today will give you incredible results. Heck, even your iPhone 11 or Google’s Pixel 4 has the ability to capture stars now.
If you’re trying to decide between a traditional DSLR or a mirrorless system, I would lean towards the mirrorless. Mirrorless cameras are here to stay and if you’re starting from scratch, I say go for mirrorless, it’s the way of the future.
But… you probably don’t need to run out and buy new gear. If you’ve purchased a camera within the last five years you’re more than equipped for the task. It doesn’t mean that because you have an older camera you won’t be able to shoot stars, it may mean it’s not the best tool for the job – i.e., writing your manuscript in pencil vs using your laptop.
For years I used a Canon Eos 5D II for my star photography. It was a very noisy camera, anything over ISO 3200 I considered too noisy, but it was the tool I had so that’s what I used. And some of my most memorable photographs came from using that camera.
So after all that if you’re still convinced you need to upgrade your current camera system here are my thoughts and recommendations. I’m not going to list every model under the sun for every camera company – that would be overwhelming. Also keep in mind, this list is a moving target as new models are announced, but a good starting point. I’ll include a few lens recommendations as well.
In late 2018 Canon finally entered the mirrorless market. Currently they offer just a few models but I’m sure more will be announced as this is the future of camera technology.
Entry level ($): EOS 6D Mark II
Mid-range ($$): EOS R (mirrorless)
High-end ($$$): 5D Mark IV
High-high-end ($$$$): EOS R5: Announced end of April, price and review to come!
Sony cameras are incredible for high-ISO performance and are considered the best noise performers of any camera system today.
Entry level ($): Sony 6500 (mirrorless)
Mid-range ($$): Sony A7 III (mirrorless)
High-end ($$$): Sony A7 RIV (mirrorless)
Nikon has a dizzying selection of camera bodies to choose from. Far too many available options I think. As I said earlier, mirrorless cameras are the future so if you’re buying a new camera system you might as well future-proof yourself.
Entry level ($): D7500
Mid-range ($$): Z6 (mirrorless)
High-end ($$$): Z7 (mirrorless)
Most of the newer Fuji camera models share the same sensor technology, the only difference are the bells and whistle features from model to model. Fuji is a crop APS-C sensor, but still a fantastic camera. I use one and I love it.
Entry level ($): X-T30 (mirrorless)
Mid-range ($$): X-T3 (mirrorless)
High-end ($$$): GFX-50S (mirrorless)
Regardless what camera brand or model you choose, almost any camera body you purchase today will give you incredible results. I would almost say these cameras will give you the best image quality in the history of photography. Let that sink in for a minute!
Regardless of how many megapixels your camera has, the quality of glass (lens) you choose makes a huge difference to your final results.
If you find yourself really getting into star photography, I would seriously consider buying a manual focus prime lens. This then becomes your star photography lens. Prime lenses are optimized for their focal length so you should see better results all around. Also, a manual focus lens is far less complex to build and thus more affordable.
For my Fuji system I have a lens I use exclusively for stars. If I’m not shooting stars that evening, the lens does not get put into my camera bag. It’s my vampire lens – it never sees daylight.
Prime lenses almost always have a wider aperture than zoom lenses. Aperture is that’s the f-number. The smaller the f-number – say f1.8 – the more light your lens lets in. And when you consider what we’re really trying to do – shoot in total darkness capturing pin-points of light – it then become obvious the more light we can collect onto our sensor, the better result we’ll achieve. More importantly, the more light, the better the exposure, and the more latitude we have to work with the image in post-production.
Many of my lens recommendations below are prime lenses and manual focus lenses, as auto focus is not critical with star photography. This list can go on and on so I’ll mention just a few options.
Canon compatible lens:
Sony compatible lens:
Nikon compatible lens:
Fuji compatible lens
One final item to consider when purchasing a lens specific for star photography is something called Coma. What exactly is Coma? It’s not really a flaw, but think of it as a deficiency with the lens. Let’s look at an example.
Here we have a Canon EF 24mm 1.4L lens. Fantastic lens, incredible sharpness, fast accurate auto-focus with beautiful results. But for star photography it falls short. And here’s why.
Looking at the test chart above we see that at the smallest apertures (f1.4 – f2.0) it exhibits severe coma characteristics. Coma is where pin-point stars become elongated disks of light. And in order to compensate and remove this effect, you would have to stop-down your aperture (change the f-stop value). So despite being an incredible lens, this lens is not the right one for this particular job.
The golden rule when buying a tripod is to get the most expensive model you can afford from the start. This should be the last tripod you’ll ever own. I didn’t do this when I started and I cannot tell you the number of tripods I’ve owned over the years. I’ve probably spent more money combined on those middle of the road tripods than I would have shelling out for that perfect tripod right from the get-go.
In the last few years, a number of newer tripod companies have popped up that are producing really great options. Most of these are still made in China, but the quality has improved dramatically.
On the question of aluminum vs carbon fiber, again, it’s all about what you can afford. A carbon fiber will set you back an extra 30% in price but the weight will differ only be 10% vs an equivalent aluminum model. The question you should really be asking yourself is, “What kind of a photographer am I?” Am I hiking for miles to get to my spot or am I driving right up to the viewpoint? If you’re driving, the weight shouldn’t really matter in this equation.
It’s one of the reasons I’ve switched to a mirrorless system is that it allows me to scale everyone down in size, mainly my tripod and lenses. When I moved from a full-frame system to a crop sensor, the total weight of my camera gear was cut in half. For me that was the most important factor as I’m mostly hiking, walking and canoeing with my gear.
Stiffness and Support
The other point that is often overlooked is tripod support and stiffness. What do I mean by that? If your camera and lens combination is hefty, then a tiny travel tripod will not keep your camera stable no matter what the marketing department claims. And for stars you need that stability to get pinpoint sharpness.
For the real keener, there’s an entire website dedicated to measuring tripod stiffness. The Center Column – Independent Tripod Testing.
There are too many variables to consider when you’re buying a new tripod. The most critical factors should be weight, height and stability. I’ll list the company website and you can explore and make your own decision for that perfect 3 legged beast. My only advice if you can, is to visit your local camera store and physically try whatever model you’re looking to buy. Tripods are a very tactile instrument and it helps to have some hands-on experience.
I’ve listed a few tripod manufacturers from most affordable to most expensive. But if money is no object and you’re looking for the best of the best, you can’t go wrong with a Gitzo or Really Right Stuff (RRS).
There are lots of gizmos to get but the only accessory you truly need for star photography is an intervalometer. If you’re planning on doing any time-lapses or star trails, you’ll need one of these external devices. Essentially it’s a fancy shutter trigger that has built-in functionality to control shutter speed among other things.
There’s this very arbitrary 30-second shutter speed limit on most cameras today. What I understand is in the early days of digital, camera manufacturers realized that anything over 30 seconds produced noisy images, so they capped this very arbitrary limit.
Some manufacturers have removed this limitation with the newer mirrorless model. For example, with my Fuji XT-3 I can shoot upwards of 15 minutes per exposure. Goodbye intervalometer!
Some other nice to haves are:
- red-light flashlight. This helps keep your night vision and as a general courtesy when shooting with others you don’t blind them.
- LED flashlight for light-painting. If you’re light-painting you’ll need a flashlight. Your choices are an Incandescent or LED flashlight. Incandescent has an orange tone light while the LED is a cool white.
- Appropriate clothing. It’s a given you need to dress for the occasion.
- Camp chairs for those long time-lapses and star trials. Also optional is a warm beverage or some hooch!
That about covers the gear aspect of star photography. There’s a lot to digest, but the biggest takeaway should be that gear is still just a tool and will not fix your photos, that’s called the art of photography.
One way to look at it: if your gear is getting in the way of you achieving a particular result or a kind of photograph, then maybe it’s time to upgrade.
Just a little plug for my photo workshops. I teach photography locally around Ontario as well as abroad. Please have a look at what I offer at Outdoor Photo Journey.