How to Photograph Stars

I've always been of the belief that the more you know the better it gets and that goes for a photo safari or trip to the bush as well.

Knowing animal behaviour, or having someone with you that does, will make it easier to anticipate the shot.  Knowing how to use your camera, or having someone with you that can guide, will mean you get better images.  Knowing the call of the birds in an area will add a wonderful and different new dimension to your experience.  But all of these things normally happens during the day, well mostly.

When the sun goes down and the sky is transformed into a canopy of stars many people put their cameras away and start thinking about the next day.

African night skies leave a lasting impression on many people who visit Africa and knowing how to capture the incredible beauty can add an entire new dimension to your safari images but also your entire wildlife photography experience.

Gerry van der Walt - Wild Eye - Star Photography
25 sec, f/2.8, ISO 1600, 14mm taken at 05h43

I recently posted the above image on my Instagram feed and quite a few people asked how to create an image like this. It's also a regular question on our photo safaris so here goes with the basics of how to photograph stars.

The Basics

To photograph the stars you will need the following:

  • DSLR with wide angle lens.  The wider the better but anything under 35mm can work.
  • As you could guess, a tripod is non-negotiable.
  • Remote control is handy but if you don't have one you can shoot on the self timer which works just as well.
  • A headlamp will make your life a lot easier when you're changing settings in the dark.
  • A small hand held torch is great when it comes to painting subjects in the frame.
  • The headlamp and torch are great but remember to turn them off when you are shooting.
  • A full, very bright moon is not great for images if your goal is to photograph the milky way.

The Technical Stuff

In order to photograph the stars you need to set your camera up to suck up as much light as possible.  This requires a good, solid understanding of how each of the variables - aperture, shutter speed and ISO - influences light coming into the camera and how sensitive the censor is to that light.

Gerry van der Walt - Wild Eye - Star Photography

For the purposes of this post let's keep things basic.  I'd rather you have a read through this post, try the basics and get a few shots to see what the results are and then we can can go deeper.  So, here we go.

As a starting point, to set up your camera to suck in the most light possible dial in the following settings:

  • Manual Mode:  First thing is to change your camera to M so that you can control all the functions
  • Aperture:  Dial in an aperture of f/2.8, or as close as you can get to it, in order for more light to enter the lens.
  • Shutter Speed:  Dial in 20 sec, which is shown as 20", so that your shutter stays open for longer allowing more light in.
  • ISO:  Dial in an ISO of between 1600 and 2000 to start with as your censor needs to be as sensitive as possible to 'see' the stars.

This sounds like a lot but these adjustments are pretty quick and easy to do and once you get the hang of it.

One more thing to do.

You need to set your lens up to manual focus.  This is different from manual mode on the camera and this will allow you to manually focus your lens.   This is necessary as the lens will more likely struggle to pick up any contrast in the sky and will keep hunting.

Since we would like to focus on something very very very far away we set the lens to infinity.

Here's what you need to do:

  • Set your lens to manual focus.  (Some cameras allow you to do this in or on the actual camera.)
  • Turn the focus ring while watching the rangefinder.
  • Focus the lens to infinity by lining up the infinity sign with the line.  On a Nikon the line is straight and on Canon it's an L-shape line that you need to line up.

Gerry van der Walt - Wild Eye - Star Photography Gerry van der Walt - Wild Eye - Star Photography

Once you have your lens on manual focus and your camera set up as specified about you are ready.

Take a few test shots

At this point you are ready to take your first star images.   Don't expect fireworks on your LCD from the first frame - although I have seen it happen in the past.  The settings above serve as a starting point from where you can then fine tune your exposure to get the results you are after.

So, once you have set up everything and you are pointing your camera at the sky you can fire off your first frame.  Remember at this point in time you're not worried about composition but rather getting the best exposure possible so make sure you get plenty of sky in that frame.

Time to play around

When looking at your first test shot you will more than likely see that it needs some work.  Either lighter or darker. It's at this point that you start playing around with the various settings in order to let more light - brighter image - or less light - darker image - into the camera.

To make your image lighter you can do one of the following things:

  • Slow down your shutter speed
  • Increase your ISO to the next / higher setting

When making an image lighter you want to do make these adjustments in that order as you would rather change shutter speed and leave ISO from a quality point of view.  First max out on your shutter speed one stop at a time until you reach a shutter speed of 30" and then start lifting the ISO.   On that note, digital noise in long exposure images is something to consider here but for we can deal with that in a future post.

For now, stick to the normal ISO mantra of as high as necessary but as low as possible remembering that it's necessary for the ISO to be pretty high.

To make your image darker you can do one of the following things:

  • Decrease your ISO to the next lower setting.
  • Increase your shutter speed

This time, again to maintain image quality and our image mantra, you will always drop your ISO first before increasing shutter speed.

Now start thinking about composition

Once you have the exposure sorted out you can start playing with composition.  This is the fun part and like with any other genre of photography, excuse the pun here, the sky is the limit.

Here are a just few things to think of and keep in mind when composing your star shots:

  • Include a bit of foreground to anchor the frame
  • Shoot in both landscape and horizontal orientations
  • Include strong, recognisable silhouettes in the frame
  • Use the milky way as a strong leading line through your frame

Here are a few examples of star images and the settings I used to create them.

Gerry van der Walt - Wild Eye - Star Photography
30 sec, f/2.8, ISO 2500, 14mm taken at 04h30

Gerry van der Walt - Wild Eye - Star Photography
13 sec, f/2,8m ISO 2500, 14mm taken at 03h50

Gerry van der Walt - Wild Eye - Star Photography
30 sec, f/2.8, ISO 2500 14mm taken at 04h42

Gerry van der Walt - Wild Eye - Star Photography
25 sec, f/2.8, ISO 1600 14mm taken at 04h46

The options are endless once you start exploring star and night time photography.

In future posts I will look at how to paint with light, to create images like the one of the Maasai warrior above, and also then how to process your star images as they require a little extra TLC to make them really come to life.

Like I said earlier on, these are the basics which will definitely get you going so head out into the field and give it a try.  You might just surprise yourself with your images and how easy this actually is.

If you have any questions please fire away and make sure to stay tuned for some follow up posts.

Until next time,


2 thoughts on “How to Photograph Stars

  1. Nolan Govender


    Hello Gerry!

    Awesome post! Those times that the above shots were taken, is that the best time to get such pictures?

  2. Mandeep Mistry


    Thanks for the tips, Gerry! We had our first experience of photographing the African night sky at the Amboseli last February and were completely blown away!! One of the things I pick up from your settings info is that most shots were shot just before dawn (circa 4-430am). Is this the best time when the Milky Way appears on the sky? Going back to our Amboseli experience, we were shooting at around 10-11pm and could not see it as clearly.

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