I'm leaving for holidays tomorrow, and there's a good chance that I'll be able to be by night on a field with no artificial light around, and no moon in the sky. I'd love to take some picture of the landscape: the starry sky + the surrounding mountains' silhouettes.

Apart from bringing a tripod (duh), what should I do to get the best possible results?

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ There are some good tips and links for standard landscape/star shots in this answer to the more-general question about getting started in astrophotography: photo.stackexchange.com/questions/1061/… \$\endgroup\$
    – ex-ms
    Commented Aug 6, 2010 at 23:33

5 Answers 5


The approach you take will probably depend on whether you wish to photograph star trails, do short-exposure astrophotography, or long-exposure astrophotography. Star trails are relatively easy to capture, however short and long exposure astrophotography must be done with a little more care. These tips assume you are using a DSLR.

Required Gear

To take quality star shots, you'll need the proper gear. The specific gear may change depending on the kind of photography your are doing, but in general, you'll need the following:

  • Stable Tripod
    • For star trails or short-exposure, any decent tripod will do
    • For long-exposure, an equatorial tracking mount will be required
  • High-ISO camera
    • While not absolutely required, a camera that supports high ISO (3200 or greater) will generally have better low-ISO performance, reducing noise over your longer exposures
  • Cable Shutter Release w/ Lock
    • A cable release for your shutter will eliminate camera shake caused by you pressing the shutter button, and should allow exposures longer than 30 seconds
  • Fast lens
    • Again, while not an absolute requirement, a fast lens allows you to stop down a little bit and gain sharpness without reducing light too much
  • Extra batteries or battery grip or ac adapter
    • Long exposures can really suck up the battery power, bring along extra batteries.
    • If you intend to do hour-long shots, a battery grip that extends your battery life will be essential.
    • It may not be possible to get truly long shots, say 2-3 hours, with a digital camera, without an AC adapter.

Another requirement is a moonless sky.

Capturing Star Trails

Capturing star trails is fairly strait forward. You will not be tracking the stars across the sky, so an equatorial tracking mount will not be necessary. To capture star trails above a landscape, you will need to expose for a lengthy period of time, from several minutes to possibly a half hour or hours. A camera with good ISO performance will greatly help here, as very long shots heat up the camera sensor, and can cause a greater level of noise than you would normally get. An ISO setting of 100 or less, preferably 50 or 25, would be best.

Before taking your shot, set up your camera on the tripod, and frame and focus your shot. You should use a battery grip, or if possible, and AC adapter, to ensure you can take very long shots. Make sure you really like the composition, because it could be 30 minutes to several hours before you'll see the result and be able to try again. Keep in mind, you'll probably have to experiment for a while (i.e. several nights) before you really get the hang of things, and get a decent shot. Thats just part of the process (I have not yet taken a startrails shot I really like myself yet, and I've been at it every moonless weekend I've had for several months.)

Once you have your shot framed, you'll need to configure your camera. Best to use manual mode so you have full control. Set your aperture to around f/4, your ISO to 100, and set your shutter speed to BULB mode (most digital cameras can't meter beyond 30 second shutter speeds, and require BULB mode to shoot any longer.) Attach your cable release, and enable mirror lockup mode if you have it. When you are all set, press the shutter button on your cable release, and lock it into position. A cable release that supports automatic timing is a huge plus here, as you can set a time, such as 30 minutes or 2 hours, and go to sleep if you have to. If you can't afford a timer release, a basic lockable cable release will do, you'll just have to keep an eye on the time and manually unlock when your time is up.

I recommend starting with 30-45 minutes and experiment a bit, and check the results. Having a laptop you can export the images to can greatly help in your experimentation phase, as it can be difficult to really gauge the results on a camera view screen. From this point on, its a matter of experimentation. Shorter exposures will generally be darker, star trails will be short, but they will be very clear. Longer exposures up to an hour or several hours will expose the landscape around you, possibly to near daylight levels, and your star trails will be very long, possibly 130 degrees for a several hour shot. If you intend to take a very long exposure of several hours, and have ISO settings below 100, I would try using them, and see how the results look. If the shot turns out too bright, adjust your aperture. An aperture of f/5.6 or perhaps f/6.3 might be required to keep the ambient lighting at an appropriate level after a long exposure.

To get really long star trails, it is better to expose using an intervolometer so you can get many shots of shorter length, taken only moments apart. Stacking multiple photos of short startrails will result in a single image with very long startrails. The clarity and brightness of stacked startrails images are usually better than single exposure startrails images. To adequately stack, you will probably want to look into a tool like DeepSky Stacker or IRIS astronomical image processing tools.

Capturing Short-Exposure Night Sky (Star and Milky Way) Shots

Another form of astrophotography is the short-exposure star/milky way shot. Like star trails shots, these also require a normal tripod, but use a higher ISO and wider aperture. Fast lenses are extremely helpful here. You'll definitely want a moonless night to capture a decent sky shot. Set up your shot like you would for star trails, but set your ISO to 800 or so, and open your aperture wide. A lens with an f/2.8 aperture will be helpful, but one with a wider aperture, say f/1.4 or f/1.2 will be even better. Speed is important here to get saturation without star trails. If you are looking to get zoomed shots with a telephoto focal length, try to use a lens with an f/2.8 aperture...otherwise you'll have a hard time avoiding trails. In general, wider angles are better than telephoto, as the more you zoom, the more apparent the motion of stars will be.

Exposures that are intended to capture the sky without star trails need to be shorter. Once your shot is framed and focused, I would set your shutter speed to 10-15 seconds. Again, use mirror lockup and a cable release to open your shutter. Since your exposure times are much shorter here, you have a lot more time to experiment. You can try exposures up to 30 seconds or so, however around there you will likely start seeing trails. Keep an eye on your image noise, and adjust your ISO setting and shutter speed as appropriate. Noise from higher ISO settings (i.e. 1600, possibly even 3200 or more if you have extremely high ISO performance, like say a Canon 5D Mk II) may or may not be a big problem if you can get a brighter exposure. A good night sky shot that captures a lot of stars may not exhibit visible "noisieness" due to the fine pixel-sized point-like nature of the stars you are photographing.

Again, experimentation here is key. You will have a lot more opportunity to experiment with the much shorter exposure times, so use it as best you can.

Capturing Long-Exposure Night Sky Shots

Long-exposure sky shots require a bit more equipment and care than the other two forms. To capture long exposures of the sky without star trails, a special kind of mount will be necessary. An equatorial tracking mount is one which, once properly set, will track stars across the sky with keen accuracy, allowing you to expose for several minutes without getting trails.

Long-exposure shots will generally use a higher ISO than star trails shots, but likely less than short-exposure shots. I would try an ISO setting of around 400, possibly 800. Since you will be tracking the stars across the sky, you will have more flexibility with your aperture. You can choose to shoot wide open, or stop down in 1/2 or 1/3 increments. If you shoot wide open with an ISO of 400, start with a shutter speed of 5-8 minutes. If you use a higher ISO, you can reduce your shutter speed, unless you want a more saturated shot. Apertures between f/2.8 (or wider) down to f/5.6 are probably the most useful. Stars are point light sources, and will be particularly susceptible to diffraction, so avoid very tight apertures. I would avoid going lower than f/5.6 unless your sensor is very large with very large photosites. Always use your cable release with mirror lockup.

As always, experiment. You may need to try setting your equatorial mount a few times to get it set right the first few times you try. Once set, you have a lot of flexibility to experiment. A camera with very high ISO performance, such as the Canon 5D Mark II or 7D, will greatly improve the quality of your shots, as well as give you more options. Shooting at higher ISO settings such as 1600 or 3200 can improve the types of shots you might be able to achieve, and expand the volume of stars you can capture in a single shot.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks a lot! Really helpful and detailed. Will post some result :D \$\endgroup\$
    – Agos
    Commented Sep 1, 2010 at 14:21
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ very detailed and covers almost everything! +1 \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 15, 2011 at 4:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ Fixed the link. \$\endgroup\$
    – jrista
    Commented Dec 22, 2015 at 17:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @jrista This is a great general answer but doesn't seem to address the core question — photography which mixed landscape and the night sky. Could you please add something addressing that? \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Commented Nov 27, 2017 at 4:15

tripod. Use your lowest ISO (50 or 100). I always use a cable release to avoid vibration in the camera. You'll get circular trails if you point the camera at Polaris (the north star; assuming northern hemisphere here); pointing it at something interesting and just letting the trails happen is fine.

exposure length is something to experiment with, start at 30 seconds and see what you like. For star trails, longer exposures or a series of shorter exposures and stack them together later with software are both options. The advantage of stacking a series of shorter ones is you can exclude a ruined image but you can't exclude that 10 seconds of headlights from a car in one long expsoure -- but you add post processing complexity.

bring a flashlight. I use one on a headband. I prefer using a cable release iwth a bulb lockdown and timing with a stopwatch to programming the camera.

for good night photography, you'll need to wait until it's very dark -- past astronomincal sunset. But the time from late afternoon through the twilight into darkness can be a great time to get some fascinating imagery. experiment and you may get yourself some nice "sunset" shots.

oh, and don't forget that you have another optiopn -- getting up really early and doing pre-dawn shooting, too. Depending on what stars/planets are out and what the weather is, that might work better. In the evening things are cooling off so you might get heat shimmer and other effects, pre-dawn things tend to be the most still and quiet..


  • \$\begingroup\$ oops. that was 35 seconds, 28mm, F5.6 at ISO 100 on an APS sensor, shot pre-pre-dawn as I was getting set up for a dawn shoot. \$\endgroup\$
    – chuqui
    Commented Aug 6, 2010 at 23:38

From my experience...

  • Tripod of course is vital
  • As is a shutter-release cable or, better still, some kind of automated/timed trigger (I have a battery grip with in-built time-lapse/long-exposure controls, you can also get external shutter releases that have the same timing features)
  • If possible avoid near/sub-zero temps unless you have some high quality gear (you'll end up with ice/condensation all over your camera/lens)
  • Take some test shots at your highest ISO and widest aperture to get an idea of what things will look like, and then reduce your aperture and ISO and adjust the shutter speed accordingly (e.g. test shot of 30 seconds at ISO 3200 and f/4 would be similar in brightness to a 4h15m exposure at ISO 100 and f/16.
  • Try to avoid going above f/16 or so to increase the exposure time, as on most cameras this will actually make things blurrier as you go to the extremely small apertures. If you can't make the exposure long enough within your camera's limits, you may do well to "stack" the images afterwards (see below).
  • Take a powerful torch if you want to get focus right on any fore-ground (e.g. a tree or house or whatever nearby).
  • Try to avoid individual exposures of more than about 30 minutes (the figure will depend on your camera and its CCD/CMOS sensor quality — see below about hot pixels).
  • You may want to get/use a viewfinder cap (some camera straps have one on them) to cover your viewfinder while taking the photos. This stops light entering from behind the camera through the viewfinder (e.g. if you're going to be sitting behind it with a laptop/torch/fire/...). Might be worth checking how much light will actually get into the image this way by taking a long exposure with the lens cap on in a dark room and shining a torch through the viewfinder.
  • If your camera has automatic dark frame subtraction, you might want to turn it off to avoid having to wait ages between each shot (the dark frame takes as long as the original exposure). Then again, it should eliminate/reduce hot pixels and noise in general, so if you've got the time it's worth leaving on. For your first attempts, I'd say forget about it though.
  • If you have multiple cameras (and tripods) take them. Apart from "just in case something breaks", you'd get to play around with some shorter exposures while your other camera is taking a 3 hour photo (or a series that combines to 3 hours if you're stacking).

As for hot pixels / stacking as mentioned above...

On most digital cameras (high end DSLRs included) you'll find that keeping the shutter open for long periods (e.g. an hour) will produce "hot pixels" in the image. These show up as red/green/blue spots all over the image from the pixels heating up from extended, continuous use. These of course won't damage your camera, just the photo you're making at the time.

Depending on your specific camera (some are much better than others), you might find it worth creating shorter exposures (of say 10-30 minutes) and stitching them together afterwards in Photoshop or one of these programs (that do various different 'astrophotography' things):

Some free applications:

Or some paid ones:


To shoot without visible star trails, you may calculate the exposure time in seconds by using this formula, called the NPF rule :

$$ t_\text{max} \approx \frac{17N + 14p + \frac{f}{10}}{f\cos\delta} $$


  • \$N\$ is the aperture of your lens (i.e., f-number) when you shoot
  • \$p\$ is the photosite size of your DSLR, in µm
  • \$f\$ is the focal length of your lens, in mm
  • \$\delta\$ is the lowest declination of the area you shoot, in degrees

The fundamentals of the "NPF rule" is explained here.

For example, assume you want to shoot an area close to Orion (declination ~ -5.5°) with a Rebel XS (pixels of 5.7 µm), and a 135 mm lens open at f/4.5. The exposure time shall be set at a maximum to:

$$ \begin{align} t_\text{max} &\approx \frac{17\!\times\!4.5 + 14\!\times\!5.7 + 135/10}{135\!\times\!\cos(-5.5º)} \\ &= 1.3 \text{s} \end{align} $$

If you the want to shoot the same area with a 35 mm lens open at f/1.8, the exposure time becomes:

$$ \begin{align} t_\text{max} &\approx \frac{17\!\times\!1.8 + 14\!\times\!5.7 + 35/10}{35\!\times\!\cos(-5.5º)} \\ &= 4.6 \text{s} \end{align} $$

that you can round to 5 s.


The essential principle behind star trails is stacking multiple photos together. To stack multiple photos first you need to understand how to take a single photo. It is all about the light falling on your camera sensor, since the light coming from the stars and dark sky is very low. So you have to get as much light as you can get without contrasting too much on the landscape involved, or getting movement of Earth in the photo.

So try increasing exposure time incrementally and see for yourself. In general cases, 15-17 seconds exposure will get you enough stars with the landscape involved (with wider aperture so that you can get enough light). So, in brief, this goes for normal star photography. For star trails all you need to do is stack those star photos.

Since you need to stack multiple photos together, you will need a sturdy tripod (unless you can stack photos perfectly in your photo editing software without ripping your hair off!). So grab your tripod and go ahead click multiple star photos and try overlapping those and see what you get.

For detailed technique, please follow this tutorial on my blog.


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