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How-to's

Starry Night Photography - The 500 Rule and other tips

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp)


Keywords: landscape, night, sky, photography, shutter, speed, stars, jrp

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In the landscape, the sun is down and the afterglow has passed, so your first thought is to put your camera to rest and return to where you can get set for a good night sleep. That is good, more so if there is a scheduled sunrise shot. However, you may be missing the opportunity to make some stunning night photographs, shooting up the sky. At the expense of some shut-eye time, try it, you will love it. And it is easier than you may think at first.

01

Death Valley National Park by J. Ramon Palacios (jrp)
Nikon D700, 14-24mm f/2.8G AF-S @ 24mm, f/2.8, 30s, ISO 3200
On a Gitzo Series 3 tripod with Markins Q20 ball head.
Click for an enlargement

 

There are three main types of star photography: “static” stars, star trails and time-lapse. I will concentrate here on well-rounded “static” stars.

02

Time lapse of the sky at ANPAT 12, by Dennis Owens (DennisOwens)
Nikon D3s, 14-24mm f/2.8G AF-S Nikkor @ 14mm, 30 minutes, ISO 200
Click for an enlargement

 

OBJECTIVE

Stars without trails
 

CHOOSING A LENS

Focal Length
One should choose a wide or super wide angle lens. Why? Because if you have a foreground you want it to be in acceptable focus and you also want to cover as much as possible sky with the stars in perfect focus. The 14-24mm f/2.8G AF-S Nikkor is an ideal lens for this kind of work.

Speed
As fast as possible. f/2.8 is preferable over slower lenses. The reason is because you want to be able to shoot at acceptable ISO speeds, to reduce noise, even if you have an extended ISO range available in your camera. A lens with a maximum aperture of f/3.5 is still acceptable, but with f/4 it starts to be not recommendable. A slow lens will need higher ISO. More on this later when we touch the 500 Rule and its effects.

CHOOSING A CAMERA

Format
An FX format camera is preferable. With a DX the effective focal length will be increased by its crop factor. 1.5 for Nikon. Nevertheless, a DX format camera will work well for the purpose if the chosen lens effective focal length is 35mm or less.

High ISO Performance
To shoot into the darkness of the sky at night, you may very well need to shoot at ISO 3200 and you need as much image quality as feasible. So you need a camera that performs well at ISO 3200 or a little higher.

CHOOSING A TRIPOD

Mislead by some newcomer manufacturers and sellers of tripods, buyers tend to think of “load capacity” as the most important variable to consider when selecting one. Magnification and vibration dampening are more important.
When shooting stars magnification is not an issue, but, since you will need long shutter speeds, typically between 15 and 30 seconds, the presence of the slightest wind may ruin your shots with the wrong tripod. All of the images shown here were made on a Gitzo Series 3 tripod with a very capable ball head.

CHOSING A LOCATION AND THE BEST TIME TO SHOOT IT

If you are at liberty to select the location, the date and time, start by choosing a location where there is no light pollution from nearby towns, or worst, cities, at least in the direction you would be shooting.
The best time to shoot is when there will be clear dark skies and a not too bright moon. There are a large number of apps that tell you about the location of stars. For stars and constellations identification I have SkyView, SkyMap and several others.
For the weather and more, one app that is preferred and frequently mentioned in the forums by many landscape Nikonians is The Photographer’s Ephemeris. It will tell sunrise and sunset times. As a map-centric sun and moon calculator, it also shows how the light will fall on the land, day or night, for any location on earth. Most apps are now available for both iOS and Android phones.

WHAT ELSE

A cable or remote release, used in combination with the camera’s Mirror Lock Up (MLU). If your camera doesn’t have MLU, at least use the Exposure Delay menu setting, to dampen the mirror slap vibration.
A loupe to review your images in the rear LCD and check on your focus.
A good lamp or flashlight to paint the foreground.
A headlamp to see where are you stepping in the darkness, with a red filter to avoid bothering others or ruining their shots.

CAMERA SETTINGS

Shoot RAW. This increases your chances to make adequate corrections to your NEF file in post-processing.

Exposure Mode: Manual.

Metering: Matrix.

White Balance: 4500° gives me true colors, as true as possible. Of course there is nothing wrong with getting creative via changes to the white balance in post-processing.


Focus: at infinity, then take it back a bit closer to you.


Lens aperture: f/2.8 or the largest your lens has (f/3.5, f/4)

ISO at 3200 to start experimenting. Make another shot at 1600 to compare.

Shutter speed: follow The 500 Rule.

 

(38 Votes )
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Originally written on September 21, 2016

Last updated on October 4, 2017

J. Ramon Palacios J. Ramon Palacios (jrp)

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

San Pedro Garza García, Mexico
Admin, 45264 posts

41 comments

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on November 30, 2017

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Jim, go to page 2

Jim Donelson (jcdonelson) on November 30, 2017

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You title the article "The 500 Rule and other tips" then you neither explain nor state the 500 rule.

Gary Worrall (glxman) on November 30, 2017

Awarded for his high level skills, specially in Wildlife & Landscape Photography

Great Article JRP It is amiss of mw that I haven't tried this already ........Gary

Paul OLeary (madpogue) on October 29, 2017

@Michael Hurder, maybe your camera manual has a cross-reference for actual color temperatures of its named WB settings. Did you check there?

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on October 13, 2017

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Michael, article about night photography ... no, we don't have one for film or for digital here. On white balance, I only remember Direct Sunlight, 5000K degrees.

Michael Hurder (MKHurder) on October 13, 2017

Also, I keep forgetting to ask. I have WB settings with names, not kelvin values. Is there a chart that converts such?

Michael Hurder (MKHurder) on October 13, 2017

jrp: Is there an article about night photography with a film cameras?

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on October 5, 2017

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Wade, thanks for your comment. 500 is a number derived empirically, i.e. by actual practice after shooting at given focal length at various seconds of exposure until they consistently found round stars. For the formula to make sense, i.e. yielding a result in seconds, the 500 (in this case) needs to be stated as mmXsecs (also expressed as mm-secs). mmXsecs/mm = secs. For any other focal length not in the table, you just divide 500 over that focal length. So yo really don't need a table. I'll email you a complete chart from 10 to 35mm.

Wade Ramsey (WKR) on October 5, 2017

Thanks for the very informative article. But I don't understand the formula you use for the 500 rule, divide 500 mm-secs over the focal length of your lens in mm to get the maximum exposure time. What are "mm-seconds?" And how do you divide them "over" the FL in mm? Does that mean divide them "into" or divide them "by" the FL? The chart is very helpful, but I have a DX camera and an 11-16 f/2.8 lens and the chart only goes down to 15mm for DX.

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on October 2, 2017

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

John, at low ISO you will either not get the stars or burn some pixels in the sensor. under a dark sky only horrible noise seems to be detected. If you have made some images of stars at that low ISO, please post them. I would love to see them.

John McDonnell (jmcdonnell) on October 2, 2017

I would recommend keeping the ISO in the 400 to 800 range if possible to help reduce noise.

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on January 26, 2017

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Thank you, Michael Don't forget to show us your results in the Landscape forum

Michael A. Folger (MikeD750) on January 26, 2017

Great article JRP. You hit all of the areas with succinct information. I'll heading to Utah later this year and am looking forward to putting your tips into practice.

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on November 22, 2016

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Jay, You are most welcome.

Jay Newmark (drbrog) on November 21, 2016

Great article JRP. Wish I saw this before a recent visit to Haleakla. Thanks for sharing.

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on October 10, 2016

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Keith (kmox2163). You just need to get acquainted with the publishing format for our articles. At the the right hand side of the bottom of a page (before author and comments) you will have the option of clicking on for a previous page (if any), the next page, or show all pages at once. The 500 Rule is explained here on page 2.

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on October 10, 2016

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Jim (Loncevac), maybe they discovered their mistake and decided to be too detrimental to have your article side by side with theirs ;-) Good trick that of the gafer tape.

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on October 10, 2016

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

(Edited by jrp Monday, 10 October 2016 ) Hi, Tom I feel more comfortable -for composing- using the 24mm focal length, but that is very personal. I have seen remarkable images at 20mm. Using lenses with shorter focal lengths introduce the problem of distortion in the foreground.

Ben Ransom (Ben___) on October 9, 2016

I've only done a little bit of astro shooting (love it!), and don't yet know whether to use in-camera Long Exposure Noise Reduction. First of all, does it do NR on Raw, or just JPG? (I only shoot raw.) I've shut it off for time-lapse to save battery power for longer sequences, and turned it on for static stills, when battery is not a concern. --Thanks! (Nikon D750)

Keith Moxham (kmox2163) on October 8, 2016

Apologies for being a bit slow, but what is the 500 rule - Keith

James Keenan (Lomcevak) on October 6, 2016

Nicely done, particularly the table accounting for FX and DX cameras mounting the same lens - effective focal length is the key to making use of the 500 Rule. I wrote to Sky & Telescope magazine about a night sky article they did that did not account for effective focal length, and got a highly technical response that essentially said lens focal length was focal length, crop factor was not an issue. They proposed using my letter and their rebuttal in the magazine as a teaching point for the readership - at which point I made my case again for effective focal length in more basic terms and said if they still felt they were right to go ahead. Never heard from them after that, and they did not use my original. For night sky I focus on infinity during daylight using camera AF and the most distant object I can see, the switch camera and lens to MF and use gaffer's tape to hold the lens focus ring in place - it can stay on for days and leaves no residue when you remove it.

Tom Egel (tegel) on September 28, 2016

Donor Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Donor Ribbon awarded for his very generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Winner of the Best of Nikonians 2018 Annual Photo Contest

Thanks for the excellent article and inspirational photos! Besides the 14-24, are there any other lenses you can recommend? I have the 20 and 24mm f/2.8 AIS primes along with the 16/2.8D fisheye. My main body is a Df. I've dabbled with the 20mm a few times, but the results have been just okay. I'll definitely try again using your suggestions here, but I'm interested in your opinion on what to expect with my existing gear. Thanks, Tom

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on September 25, 2016

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Richard, Brian, Billy, Tom, thank you for your comments

Tom Jacob (sevendayimages) on September 24, 2016

Awarded for his continuous knowledge and images sharing with community members Awarded for his win at the Best of Nikonians 2016 Photo Contest Awarded for his in-depth knowledge and high level of skill in several areas.

Very nice write-up JRP, thanks for posting this because it made some things clearer and with sense now :) Will try it out, but it will be difficult to match the excellent pictures included in your article. Thanks for taking the time. Cheers

Billy Close (Bclose) on September 24, 2016

Ribbon awarded for his support to the Fundraising Campaign 2017

Great Info, Texas has some state parks that are designated as being Dark Sky parks. Great for this and they have extremely low to no light interference from outside sources. I am sure most states have something similar to this.

Brian Sullivan (BrianS) on September 23, 2016

Incredible set of images! Thanks for sharing this info! While night time shooting has always interested me I have actually never done it. Perhaps someday... Cheers! Brian

Richard Luse (DaddySS) on September 23, 2016

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Excellent! Thanks Ramon for the clear information and the 500 rule chart.

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on September 23, 2016

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Dave, please show us your work when you get a chance to practice this type of photography. And there is so much that can be done with foregrounds!

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on September 23, 2016

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Donna, Thank you. I know you will do superb stars images.

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on September 23, 2016

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Very kind of you, Geoff. I'll check on the photopills app that Jordy recommend.

David Summers (dm1dave) on September 23, 2016

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Great article! I am looking for some star shooting opportunities.

Donna Knodle (dgknodle) on September 22, 2016

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A very informative article which will give me the push to try this type of photography. You really explained the how's and why's that need to be done to obtain shots like yours.

Geoff Baylis (GBaylis) on September 22, 2016

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Great article, thanks. I was planning to undertake my first attempt at photographing the stars next month, so this info is just what I needed to get me underway. I already use TPE, but thanks also to Jordi for the tip about photopills. Geoff

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on September 22, 2016

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Thank you, Susan. We might get a chance to use the rule ;-)

Susan DiCriscio (Scout330) on September 22, 2016

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What a great article! Thank you, hope to be able employ these rules in the upcoming ANPAT

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on September 22, 2016

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Marsha, glad you liked it.

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on September 22, 2016

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

(Edited by jrp Thursday, 22 September 2016 ) Joe, thank you. Yes. I've seen those stars color differences, even under ugly light pollution like in my shot here. I would rather make the sky darker than altering WB temperature.

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on September 22, 2016

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Jordi, thank you for commenting. I've seen what phopilld does and is great but I am an Android guy.

Marsha Edmunds (meadowlark2) on September 21, 2016

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Good information, Ramon. I'm looking forward to capturing some Milky Way and Northern Light shots and will enjoy referring back to this.

Joe Zamudio (cocavaak) on September 21, 2016

Nice! I think too many photographers use a cooler white balance that makes the sky blue - that is not real. Also, a common mistake is to crank up the ISO or process so that all the stars are white. The stars are various colors and when you zoom in to your photo you can see that!

Jordi Viñas Bascompte (jordivb) on September 21, 2016

Good article! I also use TPE, but I'd recommend one more app called photopills (only iOS though)

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