1. Know your camera. First things first, familiarize yourself with your camera and its settings. Is your camera sufficiently powerful to shoot at night? Does it have the basic functionality needed for a good night shot? Check to make sure you can manually adjust focus, shutter speed, aperture, and ISO (each addressed below). And a wide-angle lens is always helpful to capture the vast night sky.
2. Grab a bombproof tripod. The right camera, without more, isn’t enough. You need stability in the form of a solid tripod. Why? Because a single exposure can be upwards to 30 seconds in length, and perfect stillness is required. Have a tripod that is plenty sturdy, given the weight of your camera and any external forces (such as the wind). I currently use a MeFOTO Globetrotter Carbon Fiber tripod .
3. Find your spot. To photograph the stars, you’ll need to get away from most artificial light pollution (from cities and large towns). Head into the wilderness where the stars shine brighter. If you already plan on hiking, backpacking, or camping in a remote area, you should be set, assuming clear skies are in the forecast.
4. Focus on the stars. Once you find your spot with camera and tripod in hand, you need to turn to the camera itself. To vividly capture tacksharp stars, you will first need to set your camera lens to manual focus (as opposed to autofocus). Then, manually focus “on infinity.” Often lenses have an infinity marking (the symbol ∞) to dial to.
5. Nail your shutter speed. To capture starlight in a photograph, your shutter speed will need to be significantly longer than daytime shots 10 seconds, 20 seconds, or even 30 seconds in length. As a rule of thumb, if there is little or no moonlight or light pollution, start with a 20, 25, or 30 second exposure. One warning, though: depending on your lens focal length, too long of an exposure may produce star “trails.” The more you zoom in the greater star movement your camera will capture. Try a wider focal length (16mm to 24mm) to keep the stars tack sharp, even with a 30 second exposure.
6. Find the right aperture. Your camera’s aperture (the “Fnumber”) concerns the size of the shutter’s opening, which allows more or less light in during the exposure. The larger or wider the aperture, the smaller the “Fnumber.” For a night shot, set a wider aperture, that is a low “Fnumber,” to let in the most starlight. An Fnumber of f/2.8 or lower works well in the dark of night.
7. Adjust your ISO. The last primary setting, ISO, concerns your camera sensor’s sensitivity to light. The higher the ISO, the more light it will capture. But take note: when you increase the ISO, you also increase the level of “noise” in the photo, impacting the quality of the image. For starters, try an ISO between 2000 to 4000 depending on your camera and the degree of darkness.
8. Let your tripod do the work. After nailing down the camera settings, let your tripod maintain perfect stillness for the entire exposure. To increase stability, you can always hang additional weight, such as your pack, from the spring loaded hook located in the bottom of the tripod’s center column (available on MeFOTO tripods). Also, because even your finger pressing the shutter button can create slight camera shake, use a two second timer to take the shot!
9. Trial and error is a good thing. After you test out your initial camera settings, double check the image for focus and lighting. Are your stars tack sharp? Is the photo too dark or too light? If anything is off, adjust your focus or settings accordingly, and try again!
10. Experiment and have fun. Once you meet the goal of nailing down the right settings and capturing tack-sharp stars, the next step is to simply experiment. For example, you can get creative with artificial light in the foreground. Use a headlamp, a flashlight, or lantern. To mute or more evenly distribute the light, cover it with a white cloth (e.g., a shirt or a bandana).