Photography tips: how to shoot great starscapes

Posted on 5 February 2016

Make the most of South Africa’s huge, clear night skies: here are some tips on how to take the perfect starscape photo.


Photo by Teagan Cunniffe.

Photos by Teagan Cunniffe.

Also read: Five fatal photo errors (and how to avoid them)


1. Get away from cities

As if we need an excuse! To see stars at their best and brightest, you need to find a location far away from the light pollution in urban areas. A full moon also inhibits a star display so shoot when there is no moon or at the beginning of a cycle. A quarter-size moon will cast enough light on the landscape to reveal detail, but not overpower the light of the stars.


2. Bring the right gear

You’ll need a lens that can capture as much light as possible, one with a fast aperture of f/4 or larger is your best bet. A wide-angle lens, between 11-24mm, is tops for capturing the broad scope of the night sky as well as the landscape. Use a sturdy tripod and a shutter release cable or a remote trigger to prevent camera shake and ensure your images are sharp during long exposures. Invest in memory cards with recording speeds of 30MB per second (or faster) to reduce in-camera processing time. Pack a bright flashlight that you can shine on objects in the foreground to find and illuminate a focus point. The light will also stop you from stumbling about in the dark.

Also read: The one thing you’re doing wrong with panoramas


3. Find a focus in the foreground

Having a subject in the foreground, such as a tree, windmill or boat makes your image interesting. It adds a sense of location and scale, contrasting its size with the enormity of the sky above. Try ‘painting with light’ while the shutter is open. Shine your torch (or car headlights) on the subject, illuminating it in various ways. Check your viewfinder. If the subject is too dark, try another shot using more light. Alternatively, take two shots at different exposures and combine them in post-production to create a perfect image.


4. Set focus to infinity

Getting your focus sharp can be tricky, and the aim is to get stars as pin-sharp as possible. Using autofocus, point your camera at the sky above and let your lens zoom out all the way, until it comes to a stop. Then switch focus from auto to manual. Your focus is now at infinity, which is best for night skies. Alternatively, if you have Live View on your camera, switch it on and zoom in on your LCD screen. Using manual focus, turn your focusing ring on your lens until the stars are at their sharpest on the LCD display.


5. Get to know your ISO

On Manual mode, set your camera to the highest ISO level it can handle without your image being ruined by the resulting grain. ISO 800 is a good starting point. Set your aperture to the widest it can go (f/2.8 is ideal), and start with an exposure time of 15‒20 seconds. If you need more light, increase your ISO level and exposure time to a maximum of 30 seconds ‒ any longer and the stars will begin to streak with the rotation of the earth.

Looking for more tips? Look no further than our photo tips archive.

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