Step-by-Step Beginner’s Guide: How to Photograph the Stars

Step by Step Beginner's Guide_How to Photograph Stars_Kellie_Netherwood-10.jpgA star-filled sky is one of my favourite photography subjects and the opportunity to shoot the Milky Way often influences my travel plans.  It’s not just the resulting visual image I find rewarding, but the experience itself.  I love the opportunity to get away from the city and into remote and quiet locations.  I enjoy the challenge of freezing a moment in time and capturing the essence of  my surroundings.  And most of all, I feel energised by the beauty, mystery and dramatic vastness of the great night sky.

Esteros del Ibera Wetlands, Argentina

Photographing stars for the first time can feel a little overwhelming, but if you have a camera that allows you to manually select aperture, shutter speed and ISO, a wide-angle lens with manual focus and a tripod, you have what you need to get started.

Follow this step-by-step guide and with a little practice and patience, it won’t be long before you’ve discovered how rewarding – and addictive – night sky photography can be.

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Step-by-Step Guide: Checklist for Beginners

   BEFORE THE SHOOT   STEP 1: Find a Location

  • Avoid light pollution – get away from urban areas
  • Scenic and accessible

   STEP 2: Check the Conditions

  • Clear skies
  • Dark skies – avoid the full moon, target the new moon

   STEP 3: Pack Your Bag

  • Camera that allows you to manually set aperture, shutter speed and ISO
  • Wide-angle lens with low f-stop
  • Tripod
  • Remote shutter release (or camera with self-timer)
  • Torch
  • Spare batteries and memory card
   PREPARE THE SHOT   STEP 4: Set Up Your Camera

  • Select manual mode
  • Remove UV or other filters
  • Fully charged battery (or spare close by)
  • Memory card with enough space (or spare close by)
  • Attach to tripod

   STEP 5: Compose Your Shot

  • Interesting foreground or a composition that conveys a sense or scale or place

   STEP 6: Set Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO

  • Select widest aperture (lowest f-stop)
  • Set shutter speed at longest exposure before star trails begin
  • Set ISO to 3200 as a starting point
  • Take a test shot
  • Adjust shutter speed and/or ISO to achieve correct exposure

   STEP 7: Focus

  • Set lens to manual focus
  • Move focusing ring to infinity
  • Adjust to the ‘sweet spot’
   TAKE THE SHOT   STEP 8: Take the Shot

  • Avoid camera shake by using a remote shutter release or self-timer delay in camera
   REVIEW THE SHOT   STEP 9: Review and Adjust

  • Check exposure
  • Check focus
  • Check composition


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More Information



STEP 1: Find a Location

In addition to finding a location that is both scenic and accessible, you need a location devoid of light pollution – so get as far away from city lights as you can.

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STEP 2: Check the Conditions

  • Check the weather forecast – clear skies are a pre-requisite to seeing and photographing the stars
  • Check the moon phase. The best time of the month to shoot the stars is during the new moon when the sky is at its darkest. But this doesn’t make other evenings impossible. Check the moon’s rise and set times – you may find a window you can shoot without the moon impacting your shots. You may also find the natural light of the moon useful in lighting up your foreground.  The shot below was taken with a full moon behind me.

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STEP 3: Pack Your Bag

What you need:

  • DSLR or mirrorless camera that allows you to manually select aperture, shutter speed and ISO (preferably a camera with high ISO capability)
  • A wide-angle lens with manual focus (preferably a fast lens with low f-stop eg f/2.8)
  • Tripod
  • Remote shutter release or camera with self-timer functionality to help avoid camera shake
  • Torch
  • Spare battery and memory card

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Step 4: Set Up Your Camera

  • Select manual mode
  • Remove UV or other filters from your lens (they can cause interference fringes that can be difficult to remove in post processing)
  • Have a fully charged battery in your camera and spare close by.
  • Ensure you have plenty of space on your memory card and/or a spare close by.
  • Ensure you lens is clean before you start shooting!
  • Attach to your tripod.

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Step 5: Compose your shot

The most appealing night sky photographs are those with an interesting foreground or a composition that conveys a sense of scale or place. Get creative and:

  • look for leading lines or interesting objects to place in the foreground (e.g. a road, tent, shack, rock formation, lake)
  • break the rule of thirds to bring more of the starry sky into the image
  • look for reflections of stars in water
  • create interesting silhouettes with mountains or trees
  • put yourself or a friend in the frame
  • try light painting the foreground (ie release the shutter, shine a torch on the foreground for a couple of seconds, turn it off until the shot is taken)

TIP: Composing a shot in the dark can be challenging, so try lighting the area in front of you with a torch OR significantly increase your ISO and take a test shot. This will over-expose the image enough to allow you to review the composition after you have taken the shot on your viewfinder. Remember, the over-exposure is just to provide enough light to help you perfect your composition – you’ll adjust to the right exposure in the next step.

Step by Step Beginner's Guide_How to Photograph Stars_Kellie_Netherwood-8.jpg Step 6: Set Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO

(nb: these settings do not apply to star trails)

  • Select the widest aperture (lowest f-stop number) your lens allows and keep it fixed (eg f/2.8)
  • Apply the “500 Rule’ to calculate the longest exposure before stars start to trail.
    • “500 divided by focal length = maximum exposure”
    • EG: if shooting at 16mm on a full frame camera: 500 / 16 = 31 seconds. (21 seconds on a 1.6 crop sensor)
  • Set your ISO and take a test shot (ISO 1600 or 3200 is a good starting point). Review and continue to adjust ISO and shutter speed until you achieve the desired exposure. Finding the right exposure requires a trade-off between desired shutter speed and acceptable ISO, but ideally you want ISO as low as possible to reduce noise in your image.


A star trail is a visual image of a star appearing to moving across the sky, caused by the earth’s rotation. It is achieved photographically by shooting with long exposures (ie greater than the exposure calculated by the “500 Rule”). Due to the longer exposure times, star trails can be shot with a lower ISO (eg 100 or 200). They can be shot as a single exposure (eg 45 minutes or longer) or multiple exposures (eg every 5 minutes) over a period of time (eg 45 minutes or longer), which are then stacked in post-processing.

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Step 7: Focus

Not focusing properly is almost always the biggest mistake beginners make when shooting the night sky. And it’s often not detected until the shot is reviewed back home on a larger computer screen. To achieve pin-sharp stars in your shot:

  • set your lens to manual focus
  • turn the focusing ring to infinity
  • adjust to the sweet spot:
    • switch to Live View
    • zoom into the brightest object in the sky (moon or brightest star) or foreground object if it’s the focal point of your image
    • adjust focus until the object is sharp
    • take note of where the sweet spot is and keep checking it doesn’t move.

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Step 8: Take the Shot

To avoid camera shake when taking the shot, use a remote shutter release or set the self-timer to delay.

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Step 9: Review and Adjust

Night photography takes practice and patience, so review your shots as your take them, adjust where required and try again. Use your histogram and zoom into shots you’ve taken to check exposure, focus and composition.

Esteros del Ibera Wetlands, Argentina


  • Shoot in RAW to give yourself greater post-processing control and opportunity
  • Be creative and experiment with different compositions and settings
  • Keep a lens cloth handy and keep checking your lens for dust or spots
  • Wear a head lamp for adjusting settings and a stronger torch for light painting
  • Be consider of other people shooting nearby when using your torch
  • Use light to your advantage. Well-timed car trails can add a great dimension to your shot or even ‘paint’ your foreground for you.
  • Be safe and have fun!

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Kellie is a traveller and photographer who is most at home when exploring the world beyond it. Through the intersection of her travel, writing and photography passions, she shares her experiences to inspire others to create there own. The desire to live life instead of existing through it has introduced Kellie to inspirational locations throughout seven continents and from this a passion for landscape and wildlife photography has evolved. She feels a particular connection to the polar regions and Africa. You can see more of her photography at


  1. Love this tutorial! I’m learning night photography and just got a remote shutter release that I’m testing out this week. Thanks for the great advice in your post. Your photos are beautiful!

  2. Thanks for sharing these tips on how to photograph with the stars. Will try this later tonight. lol

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