Improve your technique: How to expose for pinpoint stars
Keywords: landscape, night_photography, exposure, guides, tips_and_tricks, shooting_conditions, astrophotography, stars
There is a sweet spot in time every day where magic happens between the sky and the landscape. It is at this point where a photographer can make an exposure that shows pinpoint stars in the sky as well as details in the landscape.
Trying to capture detail in both the landscape and the stars can be difficult, but from about one hour before sunrise to approximately 30 minutes before sunrise there is a sweet spot that allows you to capture enough information in both areas to produce a stunning final image. The process involves great exposure control while you are in the field and a fairly good knowledge of post-processing techniques back at your computer. Using a camera that allows you to shoot RAW files will greatly help, since you’ll need to pull out shadow detail using software once you get back to your office.
Here are the basic steps in a checklist format. Take a copy of this into the field for you to use on your next star photography adventure. I’ll go through each of these steps in more detail below.
1. Start shooting one hour before sunrise.
2. Use a sturdy tripod.
3. Compose an interesting foreground.
4. Focus at infinity.
5. Use manual exposure.
6. Set shutter speed = 500/focal length.
7. Set aperture f/1.4 or f/2.8
8. Set ISO = 1600, 3200 or higher.
9. Check your exposure. Adjust ISO if you need more or less light.
1. One Hour Before Sunrise
If you are photographing in the morning, then be sure to be in position for your photographs at least one hour before sunrise. If photographing after sunset, then you’ll start shooting just after civil twilight. Photographing when it is darker will yield an inky-black landscape where you’ll only be able to see silhouettes. Photographing when it is lighter means that you won’t see the stars because the sky is too bright.
2. Sturdy tripod
As you’ll see in the exposure discussion below, your shutter speeds will likely be 10 seconds long or more. The only way to ensure sharp images is by using a tripod. Use a sturdy tripod. I really like the Gitzo carbon fiber tripods for their sturdiness, strength and lightweight design. The ultimate set up is the MAGICA integrated system, offered at the PhotoProShop, combining Gitzo carbon fiber tripods and Markins accessories.
3. Compose an interesting foreground
The goal of including the landscape in your star photographs is to show the interplay between the heavens and earth. Therefore, put a good amount of effort into finding a suitable foreground element. Try to think like a traditional landscape photographer who is composing for foreground, middle ground and the background.
4. Focus at infinity
Most landscape photographers use a small aperture like f/16 to maximize depth of field. After setting the small aperture, they focus at the hyperfocal distance or about 1/3 of the way into the scene. In our scenario of shooting stars, however there are two issues conspiring against the traditional hyperfocal focusing method. First, you’ll be shooting at a big aperture like f/1.8 or f/2.8. Second, you need to make sure the stars are crisp. Since f/2.8 won’t allow for much depth of field, your best option is to focus on the stars and not worry so much about the foreground.
You can do this by setting your focus manually, then turning off autofocus before actually taking the shot. This will prevent the camera from re-focusing when taking subsequent shots. In short, set the lens’ focus to infinity and leave it there.
5. Use manual exposure
Shooting in auto or aperture priority mode won’t cut it for your star photography. Rather, you’ll want to set your camera in manual exposure mode so you have full control over all three parameters of your exposure: aperture, shutter speed and ISO.
Originally written on September 11, 2014
Last updated on January 24, 2021
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Michael A. Folger (MikeD750) on December 14, 2016
Excellent tips. Short and to the point.
Ernesto Santos (esantos) on June 30, 2015
Mike - Excellent tips. I've used these techniques with very good success, and as you say the key is to use ISO to adjust exposure. This method also works when shooting the milky way.
William Chadwick (wchad72) on October 5, 2014
Sorry didn't read far enough ahead moderator please delete my comments Thanks
William Chadwick (wchad72) on October 5, 2014
Regarding rule 6 (shutter speed = 500/focal length) is this the true focal length of the lens or the focal lenght corrected for crop factor on a camera with a smaller sensor? Thanks
Joe Zamudio (cocavaak) on September 11, 2014
nice article. you don't see a lot of shots like this - or at least I don't. I "accidentally" made a couple she I was shooting the milky way this summer. 17mm, f/2.8, 25 sec, ISO 2000. I shot about 1.5 hours before sunrise.
User on September 11, 2014
Great info. Thanks alot, I'll try it.