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Scott Kelby's Photo Recipe: Shooting a Starry Sky

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In this excerpt from The Digital Photography Book, Part 5, Scott Kelby shows you how to get spectacular shots of starry skies.
From the book

The Digital Photography Book Boxed Set Get The Digital Photography Book, Part 5, or order the entire 5-book boxed set, now available.

BEHIND THE SCENES: We’re taking a photo at nightfall, so it’s a very low-light situation. That’s why we’re on a tripod and using a cable release, so there’s absolutely no movement whatsoever from pressing the shutter button.

CAMERA SETTINGS: For a wide shot of the sky, you’re going to need a really-wide-angle lens, like the 16–35mm here, zoomed all the way out (at 16mm, here). Turn your autofocus off on the lens, and manually focus your lens to infinity. You do this one of three ways: (1) If you have a lens that has a Distance Scale window on the top of your lens barrel, rotate the focus ring on your lens until you see the infinity symbol (it looks like the number 8 lying on its side). If your lens doesn’t have a Distance Scale window on top, then (2) leave your autofocus on, aim at the moon (or the largest star you can find), or any light (even on the ground) far, far off in the distance, and once it’s focused, switch your lens to manual focus. Or (3) use your camera’s Live View feature. Press the magnifying glass button to zoom in really tight on your LCD window on the back of your camera, then switch off autofocus and manually focus on the stars. Once focused, then zoom the screen back out to normal. Now, you’re focused to infinity. The f-stop here was f/4, with a shutter speed of 15 to 20 seconds max (there’s not a whole lot of light up there, so that shutter has to stay open a long time, but if it stays open longer than 20 seconds, you’ll start to get star trails from the movement). The ISO was at 3200, which is pretty high, but you can help lessen the high-ISO noise by turning on Long Exposure Noise Reduction. Just know that after your 15- or 20-second exposure, your screen will go black as it takes another 15 seconds for the noise reduction to do its thing.

Final Image


THOUGHT PROCESS: As you read on the facing page, the process of taking the picture is actually pretty easy—just some simple steps and settings. The challenging part of shooting stars and/or the Milky Way is finding the right location to take your shot—it has to be a sky with absolutely no light pollution whatsoever (light pollution is any light coming from a city, even one way off in the distance, or light from a neighborhood, or construction site, or any man-made light of any kind). You’ll also need a really dark, nearly moonless night—try to shoot near the new moon part of the cycle (other times, the light from the moon is so bright it tends to wash out the stars or Milky Way). In most cases, you’ll have to get quite far away from any city or town (literally, an hour or more—if you’re in the middle of nowhere, you’re probably in the right spot). Also, the Milky Way is only visible from around February to September (though July and August are thought to be the best overall times). Once you’ve found the right time and location, the rest is easy, but without the right location, you’re not going to get the results you’re looking for. When shooting stars, like in real estate, it’s “location, location, location!”

POST-PROCESSING: Start by increasing the Contrast amount quite a bit, and then you can further increase the brightness of the stars in Lightroom’s Develop module (or Camera Raw) by dragging the Highlights slider to the right. Of course, finish things off by applying Photoshop’s Unsharp Mask filter.

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