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Top 5 Star Photography Tips from a Pro

Posted by HikerCass at Oct 13, 2014 02:30 PM |
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Just in time for WTA's Northwest Exposure photo contest, photographer Dave Morrow shares his tips on taking better photos of night skies—and the stars!

Just in time for WTA's Northwest Exposure photo contest, photographer Dave Morrow shares his top five tips for capturing amazing star shots.

Dave has also put together a free 31 page eBook bundle for the Washington Trails Association community. The bundle includes three great WTA hikes perfect for viewing the night sky, 3 tricks for focusing at night, and his top 10 planning tools for photography and hiking, plus a bunch of free photography tutorials! Click here and grab your copy!

1. Find dark skies

Finding a dark area in which to view the night sky should always be the first step you take when planning an adventure under the stars.

You can use the free Blue Marble Light Pollution Map to find a dark area which is close to you, or a location you would like to explore on a future trip. When looking at the Blue Marble Map, locations with more light pollution are shown in yellow, and dark sky areas are shown in dark blue. The best night sky viewing and photography locations are shown in dark blue.

In Washington State we have some amazing locations and national parks with very dark skies. Need a suggestion? Try the Olympic Peninsula and Olympic National Park, Mount Rainier National Park, Palouse Falls State Park, Mount St. Helens, and the North Cascades.

Hiking Under the Super Moon
Hiking under the super moon in the Mount Baker Wilderness. Photo by Dave Morrow.

2. Find clear skies

Using the Clear Dark Sky website you’ll be able to find a dark night without many clouds in the sky.

You can use the National Weather Service weather charts to find out cloud cover percentages for any location within the US. Usually cloud cover percentages between 0 and 60% will provide the best conditions to view the night sky with 0% being the best.

Here is an example of the cloud cover charts for the Enchantments in Washington State.

The Wild Coast
The wild coast off Olympic National Park. Photo by Dave Morrow.

3. Select great photography equipment

You’ll need the following 3 items at minimum in order to photograph the night sky.

  1. A sturdy tripod
  2. A camera with manual mode that can capture images in RAW Image Format.
  3. A wide angle lens in the range of 10-30mm (out of 35mm/full frame).

You can find all of the other equipment that can really increase your chances of getting some nice star photos in Dave's free star photography tutorial.

The Milky Way in the Mount Baker Wilderness
The Milky Way in the Mount Baker Wilderness. Photo by Dave Morrow.

4. Focus your lens at night

To help your chances of focusing at night, try focusing at infinity (the furthest point on the horizon) during the day time, and mark that focus point on your lens. Now you can return to this same focus point later at night for perfectly sharp photos. You can also focus on infinity at night by trial and error, but it takes much more effort.

Sometimes you’ll need to use focus stacking to achieve full depth of field. This is a more advanced technique, but well worth learning.

Twilight on Reflection Lakes
Twilight on Mount Rainier's Reflection Lakes. Photo by Dave Morrow.

5. Select the right exposure time, aperture & ISO setting

Exposure time

Click here to view the 500 Rule Chart while reading the following paragraphs. Feel free to print it out and keep it in your camera bag if you like. If you aren’t shooting with a full frame camera, this should be taken into account. The chart includes different crop factor camera options in addition to the full frame sensor size.

The 500 Rule calculated exposure time is only a function of lens focal length. ISO and Aperture do not affect the 500 Rule exposure time or vice versa. I will cover the aperture and ISO settings below, but first we need to calculate exposure time.

To calculate the maximum exposure time your camera take without producing visible “trails” behind the stars, divide the number 500 by the focal length in which you will be shooting. The 500 Rule is only a rule of thumb; you may have to adjust the exposure time up or down a few seconds as required.

Longer exposure times pick up more light, which means you will see stars that are further away from our planet and not visible to the human eye.

If you take a picture and see star trails in it, decrease the exposure time a few seconds until you don’t see the trails anymore. If you take a picture and it’s not bright enough, increase the exposure time until very small star trails start to show up in your photo. This simple exercise will allow you to nail down your exposure time very quickly.

For star trails, just use the 500 Rule in reverse!

Shoot Me to the Stars
Shooting stars and brilliant Mount Rainier. Photo by Dave Morrow.


An aperture value of f/2.8-f/4 will work very well for taking photos of the night sky, but f/2.8 is preferred. The goal here is to allow the most amount of light to hit your camera’s lens/sensor in the least amount of time, so wider (lower number under the f) is better. I don’t suggest using an aperture any wider than f/2.8 as it will become very hard to focus at night.


Now that we have narrowed down all of the other camera settings, the only one left is ISO. ISO is the only destructive/noise inducing setting. This is why we selected exposure time and aperture prior to selecting an ISO setting.

There is no reason to degrade picture quality by increasing ISO (to obtain a brighter exposure), when you can keep the same picture quality and increase the brightness using a longer exposure, given your photo is not exhibiting star trails.

That being said, after you’ve adjusted all of your other settings as denoted above, start with an ISO of 800 and increase it until your photo is bright enough. This will take some trial and error shots. There is no need to over-exposure your star photos; they can be fairly dark just like the night sky that surrounds you. The best method is to try to match your photos to the landscape/stars you’re looking at. The camera picks up much more data than is actually displayed on the preview screen. This data can be brought out in post processing.

The Milky Way Over the Pacific
The Milky Way over the Pacific Ocean (Olympic National Park). Photo by Dave Morrow.

Final words of advice

Play around with your BIG THREE, aperture, exposure and ISO until you are getting the shots you like. Each of these settings directly reflect on each other and the amount of light that hits your sensor so a slight change could make all the difference in the number and brightness of the stars you’ll see in your photos.

Experiment as much as possible and experiment in ways that may be mentioned in this tutorial. After a few nights under the stars you’ll be an expert!

Dave Morrow is a landscape photographer, workshop instructor and word slinger with a passion for travel, the truth, and all things strange. He currently teaches star photography & adventure workshops spanning the entire west coast of the United States as well as online star photography post processing ( editing ) group workshops. Dave’s goal is to educate photographers from across the globe, bringing them together and exploring the night skies in some of nature’s darkest and most beautiful locations. For more information on Dave’s workshops, tutorials--and of course more photos--head over to or find him on Facebook and Google+.