Photographing the Moon and Stars
Capturing the Heavens after Dark
The moon and stars make great subjects for night photography. While capturing celestial objects seems arcane and tricky, it's actually well within the reach of beginners, and many types of night sky photography require no special equipment.
Yes, a telescope with an equatorial tracking mount and a camera with an insanely high ISO range are fabulous things to have if you can afford them. On the less prohibitively expensive end of the spectrum, an entry-level DSLR, a remote shutter release, and a sturdy tripod allow for longer exposures, which can be helpful. You don't need any of that stuff, though, to take some cool pictures of the night sky.
I use a point and shoot Fujifilm FinePix SL300 and a consumer-grade DSLR, the Nikon D5000. For many shots, the FinePix SL300 is perfectly adequate and somewhat more convenient than the bulkier D5000. It's also a better candidate, given my limited budget, for shots of subjects like the tide pools at my favorite beach. A drop of water or a few grains of sand could ruin my day with the DSLR, but with the point and shoot I wipe them away and keep shooting.
If you're working on a camera that doesn't allow you any manual control over ISO, aperture, or shutter speed, you may have trouble capturing properly exposed moon and star shots. Even so, the night sky can be used as an interesting backdrop for closer, more evenly illuminated foreground objects.
As a beginning photographer, the coolest thing I've found about photographing the night sky is that even shots that don't come out as you pictured them still come out interesting. However basic your equipment and skill set, point your camera at the sky and give it a try. You may be surprised at how frequently the results are awesome.
All photographs taken by the author.
The Moon as a Background Object - Using the Night Sky as a Background
John Deere Dreams of Space
Taken with my point-n-shoot. Lit by flashlight.
Overexposed, the moon is still interesting.
We'll start with a shot that uses the night sky as a background, because this is something that can be done with just about any camera and no extra equipment. Especially when there's a big, bright, juicy moon involved.
First, choose a foreground object. You'll want this to be either something that's either already illuminated or within range of your flash or flashlight. I used a tiny toy tractor.
Whether you choose your settings manually or rely on your camera's automatic selections, this will be a pretty long exposure, so you'll want your camera to be steady. No tripod? No problem! Set your camera on a conveniently placed chair, stool, tree stump, or just on the ground. If you need help getting the right angle, pour some beans, rice, or good ol' dirt into a plastic bag and you've got a handy-dandy "beanbag" to support your camera at the angle of your choice.
In light this low, your camera will almost certainly choose a very wide aperture if left to its own devices. This will produce a soft halo around the overexposed moon. If you want the moon's light to split up into "rays" for a star-like look, you'll need to use manual or aperture-priority mode and choose a smaller aperture.
Focus on your foreground object. A flashlight is a very useful thing to have, here, as it should provide enough light to allow autofocus to work properly. If your camera has a self-timer function, turn it on! Using your camera's timer will help eliminate any shake when you take your picture, a serious boon if you don't have a remote release.
Take your picture. Now take another one. And another. For all night sky pictures, it's a great idea to take a few more shots, even if you think the first one nailed it. This is especially true when you're not manually controlling all of your settings. Sometimes your camera will make weird decisions at night, and problems may not appear until you see the picture in a larger format.
Taking Pictures of the Moon - The Moon as a Subject
My First Moon Photography Adventure
Taken on the FinePix SL300, along with fifty or so blurry images of a white blob.
Taking pictures of the moon isn't hard, but it is kind of counterintuitive. The moon is a very bright object. Our eyes effortlessly pass us a detailed image of its surface, but our cameras are more easily fooled.
In general, even on cameras with extraordinary zoom capabilities, the moon takes up such a small portion of the frame that your camera, left to its own devices, will overexpose the moon due to the darkness surrounding it.
To take pictures of the moon and capture any meaningful level of detail, you'll need a camera with either a full manual mode or a shutter priority mode, and you'll want to use a very fast shutter speed. The full moon should be treated like an object lit by bright, direct sunlight. After all, that's what it is!
Decent zoom is also a requirement for a photograph of the moon, which means you'll want to use a tripod or beanbag and a remote shutter release or your camera's timer for a nice, clean shot. The awesome optical zoom abilities of compact superzoom cameras makes them an affordable alternative to a DSLR with a telephoto lens.
As of this writing, there's only been one full moon since I decided I wanted to take a picture of it, so the picture above represents my only moon photo so far. It was taken on the SL300, which gives me 30x optical zoom, put to good use here. I used a low (100) ISO and a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second.
Helpful Moon Photography Tutorials
These are the tutorials I found helpful for learning how to take a picture of the moon. If you're not used to manually adjusting any of your camera's settings, you may also wish to learn the basics of how ISO, shutter speed, and aperture affect exposure.
- How to Photograph the Moon
An explanation of basic techniques and some common problems associated with photographing the moon.
- Moon Photography
The section on determining image size is very helpful.
- Taking Photo of the Moon Using a Point-and-Shoot Camera (and some othe dirty tricks)
A moon photography lesson just for users of point-and-shoot cameras.
- Friday Foto Talk: Photographing the Crescent Moon
Crescent moon photography is fun, but can be a bit challenging. Whether you're looking to capture just the glowy little sliver you can easily see or the suggestion of the full sphere barely visible around it, this is a handy little guide.
Photographing Stars and Constellations - The Fun and Frustration of Star Photography
Even in my hideously light-polluted front yard, Orion can be coaxed out of the night sky, and the busy street provides a bed of light trails. Taken on the D5000, a 30 second exposure and a 10 second exposure, manually blended in GIMP.
Stars are more difficult subjects than the moon. Finding the right ISO and shutter speed to capture a lot of these tiny sky lights without too much noise can be very tricky, and if your star shot includes foreground objects you need to worry about aperture and focus, too.
Further complicating matters, the stars are moving subjects. Your camera's position in relation to the stars changes fast enough to blur them if you choose a shutter speed over about twenty to thirty seconds.
All that being said, star photography is really, really fun. And even though it's hard, it's not as hard as a lot of tutorials make it sound. Yes, it would be divine to take some star pictures a thousand miles from the nearest city lights with a wicked fast lens and an equatorial tracking mount. That doesn't mean that star photography is impossible under less ideal circumstances. I've had a great time dabbling in star pictures at my own horribly light-polluted home, using my D5000 and the 18-55mm kit lens.
Use a steady tripod or beanbag, choose the least light-polluted, most star-laden portion of the sky you can find, and give it a whirl. If your only subject is the sky, use the largest aperture you can and focus on infinity. If you're including a foreground object, you will need to either narrow your aperture to allow greater depth of field or, if the foreground object is close and you can't get both it and the stars in focus, take two or more images and combine them in your graphics editor of choice.
Star Trails - Capturing Motion in the Night Sky
Polaris in the Back Yard
Taken with the D5000 as 100 30-second exposures, stacked in GIMP.
In a lot of ways, star trails are much easier than regular star photography. Where exposures must be kept short for crisp, clear stars, star trail photography uses very long exposures or many shorter exposures shot at regular intervals to capture the slow progress of the stars through the night sky.
Star trails, like any star photography, are easiest on or near the night of the new moon. For brighter and more plentiful trails, it's best to take your pictures as far as possible from the nearest city lights. So far, though, circumstances have conspired to keep me bound to my own back yard for the dark nights surrounding the new moon, and I've managed to capture perfectly discernible star trails despite the light pollution.
Given the light pollution issue, I've had better results combining multiple shots than with a single long exposure. On my D5000, I can set my exposure, aperture, ISO, and focus, and then begin continuous shooting, taking a specified number of shots at specified intervals. The image above used a hundred 30-second exposures at 45-second intervals, which were combined in a hurry in GIMP by simply opening them all as layers and setting the layer mode of all but the bottom layer to "Lighten Only." Using this method, I was able to get a peek at the "circle" of star trails around Polaris, though it sits toward the center of town and the heaviest light pollution in my patch of sky.
Helpful Star Photography Tutorials
Star photography encompasses so many different styles and techniques that it can be hard to know where to begin. These are the tutorials that I have found most helpful as a beginner working without special equipment.
- Tips for Photographing Stars With Basic Equipment
An excellent guide to star photography for beginners!
- How to Photograph the Stars
A brief star photography tutorial with some lovely examples.
- How to Create Dazzling Star Trail Photos, From Start to Finish
A thorough and beautifully illustrated guide to capturing star trails by combining multiple images.
- Long Exposure Star Trail Photography
Star trail photography using a single long exposure.
- Creating Star Trails with Exposure Stacking in GIMP or Paint.NET
You don't need expensive software to stack shots for star trails.
Beyond the Basics - Exploring the Universe with Your Camera
The night sky offers a nearly limitless wealth of opportunities to capture exciting and beautiful images. Next on my list is a trip up into the less light-polluted mountains to try my hand at photographing the Milky Way. With a small telescope, you can photograph Venus, Mars, and Jupiter, or capture the moon's surface in exquisite detail, and more powerful telescopes are becoming increasingly affordable for the hobbyist. And cameras, of course, get better every year. It's an exciting time for amateur observers of our fascinating universe!
A guide to photographing the parts of the universe you can reach with your DSLR and affordable amateur equipment.
Though I'm new to photography, and newer still to photographing the night sky, it's a pastime that has brought me tremendous entertainment and satisfaction. If you have a question, please leave it here and I'll be happy to give the best answer I can. If you also enjoy photographing the moon and stars, I'd love to hear your tips or suggestions!