Spectacular images of the heavens grace many a travel brochure and website, and as a result, star photography is often misconceived as being a realm reserved solely for the professional photographer. This is far from the truth however.

The Southern Stars in particular are renowned for their brilliance, and the African bushveld is as good a place as any to make your first foray into this particular aspect of photography; you are far from any major light pollution, certain months of the year offer completely clear, haze-free nights, and the distant (or not-so-distant!) roar of a lion can add immeasurably to the experience.

Although summer is traditionally not the best time to photograph the stars, we do still get many clear nights during the season, and the different constellations of this time of year can make for wonderful variety in your stellar portfolio.

To get started, there are few essential items that you need to be in possession of:

  • A Tripod.

Photographing the stars requires the camera to be absolutely still; the slightest movement can ruin your picture, so a solid mount is necessary. The sturdier the tripod the better, as even a slight breeze can cause a lighter tripod to sway, spoiling the image.

One can get away with a beanbag if you absolutely have no other option, but then you need somewhere decent to mount it, and you lose the ability to make small and easy adjustments to your camera angle. 

  • A Camera with Manual Mode

Manual mode gives you complete control over your ISO, aperture and shutter speed settings, all of which combine to give you the correct exposure.

  • Wide Angle Lens with Wide Aperture

In order to capture the magnificence of the night skies, you need a lens that has as wide a field of view as possible. Using a telephoto lens might be useful to photograph the moon, but to include as many constellations as you can, you need to be right down in the 20mm range, or even less.

Ideally your lens should have an aperture of 2.8 or less. This means that the lens can open wider, which means more light can be captured in a shorter space of time. Although our eyes can see the stars clearly, cameras struggle, which is why equipment is important.

  • An Intervalometer/Camera Timer

This piece of gear isn’t 100% necessary, as most cameras will take an exposure of up to 30s without a timer, but if you want to start shooting at longer exposures, you’ll need one.

Now that you have all your equipment set up, let’s imagine we want to take a photo of the Milky Way, the densest band of stars visible at Londolozi.

The first thing to do is get your camera focused. A couple of test shots will usually be necessary to get this right, but the best way to start is to turn your lens’ focusing ring all the way until the infinity sign (that looks like an 8 on its side), then twist it fractionally back. Since the stars are an incredible distance from earth, just before infinity will be a good focusing point to start, but as mentioned, a couple of test exposures are often necessary to get it right.

The focal point is important. If you want to have something in the foreground, as in the case of this dead Leadwood, this needs to be where you focus, and not to infinity as indicated above. Cameras struggle to focus in the dark, so you will probably need a torch or some other kind of illumination to light up your subject while you focus on it.

The type of photograph you want to capture will dictate what settings you use, but here is a good jumping off point:

  • Manual Mode
  • RAW Image Format
  • F-Stop/Aperture – As wide as possible to allow for maximum light uptake. Anything wider than 2.8 and you will struggle to get a decent image without having to crank up your ISO, which will create a lot of noise.

Lenses that go down to 1.8 or even 1.4 are ideal for capturing as much light as possible, but it can be a bit of a struggle to focus them at night.

  • Focal Length should be between 10-24mm ideally.
  • Exposure Time should be between 10-40s depending on the lens you are using. Remember that longer exposure times may get the stars to smudge slightly, as despite being stationary to the naked eye, they are in fact moving constantly, which will quickly become evident on your camera.
    A commonly used rule is to take the number 500 and divide it by your focal length to get the maximum time you can leave an exposure before getting star trails. For example, a focal length of 20mm allows for a 25s exposure. Note: If your camera has a crop sensor, this will affect the calculation.
  • ISO settings are a tricky one, as greater ISO means the camera is more sensitive to light, and the stars will be more visible, but it also creates more noise. Ultimately your camera itself will often determine what ISO settings to use, as some models are better in low light. Some tutorials recommend ISOs of between 2500-6400, but I generally try to stay lower than this.

Once you have set up and got your settings dialed in, start shooting. Simply getting out there and giving it a go is the obviously the first step to take.

One last recommendation I would make is to set your shutter delay to 2 seconds. This means that once you push the shutter button to take the photo, the camera has 2 seconds in which to stop moving, which it will have done no matter how gently you pressed it.

Any questions, please add them in the comments section below.

Filed under Photography

About the Author

James Tyrrell

Photographic Guide/Media Team

James had hardly touched a camera when he came to Londolozi, but his writing skills were well developed, and he was quickly snapped up by the Londolozi blog team as a result. An environment rich in photographers helped him develop the photographic skills ...

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14 Comments

on How to Photograph Stars

Join the conversationJoin the conversation

Marinda Drake

James thank you for this lesson. I always admire the photos taken of the night sky, never tried it. Going to try it next time I am in the bush.

Angela Pearson-Bramson

Me, too!

James Souchon

We will definitely try in August next year!

Callum Evans

This post is so helpful, my star shots are often quite blurry. I often don’t get to use my tripod, so that’s probably why. The lens I use for these shots is a 18-55mm, so what would the focal length be in that case (55?) and what would be the right amount of time to get star trails?

Lucie Easley

Thanks for the information and for the photos in this blog bringing out the beauty of the night.

Judy Hayden

Oh my. Those are absolutely breathtaking. I save many of the blogs and picture you and your fellow adventurers send because I don’t want to forget the memory of a beautiful site or lost member of the animal kingdom. Even tho the animals are gone, I can look at the pictures over and over, I am inspired by their beauty. These pictures- you out did yourself. These I will save and share. We don’t have that kind of skies in Corpus Christi, Texas. Thank you

A B

wow interesting, I love taking scenic photography so this is great! Many thanks

Ethan Snow

Astronomy is favorite field and I am currently having a degree in it. And I love photographing the stars. And I love your photographs and ideas. Thanks

Jeff Rodgers

Great post and easy to understand . . . definitely on my list of things to try when I again visit Londolozi in February.

Denise Vouri

Great tips James. I’ve found that using a shutter release cord helps prevent shake not only when using a tripod but also when hand holding. One could also use a remote. I was advised not to bring a tripod when traveling in game reserves.

Amy Attenborough

Hi Denise. Tripods can be cumbersome on safari and a bit of a mission to travel with which may be why you’ve been advised against it. You could always rent one from the photographic studio here at Londolozi though so that you don’t need to carry it with you 🙂 Hope that helps! All my best, Amy

Michael Kalm

Thanks also for the lesson. I recently took some star pictures in Torrey, Utah and I made some newbie errors. The most egregious was forgetting to turn off vibration control on my lens. I was also advised to use “mirror-up” setting, and allow some time for the mirror to “settle” before taking the shot. How much time do you allow for the mirror to “settle” if you are using mirror up?

Joanne Wadsworth

I thought there would be only one gasp when seeing your image on Londolozi’s FaceBook page, only to open the blog! Heartfelt thanks James for your willingness to share your knowledge in detail so that we, who have never successfully shot the heavens, can now do so with a small degree of confidence. I’m going to try … you’ve made my day! Thanks!

Eulalia Angédu

James,thanks for the tutorial instructs.They will surely be very helpful in taking an unimaginable picture.Good work.

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