November 24, 2020

How to Take Good Star Photos

How to Take Good Star Photos with Couples

I have to preface all this with the fact I am not an astrophotographer. I’m not the sort of nighttime photographer who plans sessions for months around the exact right light, position of the stars in the sky or sets my shutter speed to last literal minutes.

No, I am first and foremost an elopement photographer, and that means working star portraits into sessions in a way that prioritizes my couples’ enjoyment of the experience. I work with the gear that I have, push my camera to its limits, and usually spend no more than 30 to 90 minutes out of any session getting a handful of photos of the couple and the night sky. How well these images come out is a mixture of luck and patience.

No matter how the star photos come together, it’s still the day these couples I work with got married! As cool as it is, the star photos simply aren’t the main goal of this experience for any of us. So, knowing all that, I’ve devised a method for capturing star portraits with eloping couples in a manner that is reasonably quick, doesn’t require a lot of extra gear, and doesn’t ask anyone to stand still for obscene lengths of time.

If you’re an elopement photographer looking to get better at astrophotography for the purpose of incorporating it into your sessions—then this method is perfect for you! It’s something I developed over the years for the purpose of being practical. I’d be hiking up for sunrise elopements in the dark or hiking back after sunset, and the stars looked incredible!

The first few sessions where I took star photos, I didn’t even have a tripod with me—I’d prop my camera up on a rock, using sticks or whatever was handy to level the horizon. My goal was simple—quick, minimal effort, one exposure. I didn’t want to add a huge amount to my workflow, and the simplicity of this method allowed me to combine my experience photographing couples with my understanding of astrophotography without taking away from the importance of facilitating that “just married” feeling for the subjects of my images.

This isn’t going to be a resource to turn you into a master astrophotographer—there are much more qualified teachers out there for that. This resource is intended to help you get photos of a couple that have stars in the shot. Because my main focus is on being an elopement photographer, I want to best document the experience my couples are seeking – they probably didn’t choose their wedding date or location based on where the milky way is a certain time of year, so I work with what we’ve got.

Tips for Photographing at Night

If a couple says during the planning process that star photos are something they want to prioritize for their elopement, I do my best to educate them on what we can control to try for star portraits. However, the most amazing astrophotography images you’ve seen were likely crafted over the course of multiple days, or multiple attempts. I can’t control 9 months out when a couple picks a date if their location will have clear skies. But, we can control whether we go somewhere with a lot of light pollution from a city.

If a couple chooses a good location for star portraits, we then craft the day schedule to accommodate the time necessary to set up each star shot. For perspective: I can capture hundreds of clear images of a couple during the day over the course of 5 minutes. At night, after setting up the shot, I can probably capture a single star portrait in 5 minutes.

Steps to Taking Good Star Photos with Couples

  1. Choose a location without much light pollution.
  2. Get lucky with the weather and have clear skies.
  3. Set up your camera on a tripod and get your settings ready for that environment.
  4. Use light (I use a headlamp) to get your couples in focus.
  5. Set your focus.
  6. Recompose the shot.
  7. Tell the couple to relax & focus on their breathing with the intention of remaining still.
  8. Click the shutter.
  9. Check out the result, then do it again. 

Have a backup plan – If a couple is set on dedicating time to astrophotography and night portraits, but the weather just really isn’t working in your favor—then have a backup plan. Know a place you can go make a campfire and get some photos there or have another activity in mind to fill the extra time. 

Consider the human element of composing these shots – Couples don’t want to stand still for long periods of time, especially if these longer exposure images are occurring at the end of an already long day. Encourage your couple to remain comfortable – keep their coats on until you have your settings ready, or even wear coasts in the photo. Also, don’t tell your couple to “hold still” because trying too hard to be still actually makes people flex and shake. Instead, encourage them to relax, focus on their breathing, and find their most comfortable stance. 

Dim any headlamps for the photo – If you don’t, the bright light from the headlamps will compete with the light from the stars. Even if it doesn’t look like much in the viewfinder, the artificial light will be significant when you begin doing shadow recovery while editing.

Use the lights you have to focus – When it’s dark out, auto-focus can have a hard time choosing a spot. I use back button focus so it’s easier to set focus, then shoot. I also use live mode on my LCD screen, which you can zoom in from to ensure focus is correct before hitting the shutter. I’ll ask the couple, once they’ve found their pose they plan to hold for the shot, to turn their headlamps high so I can focus more easily. Then, remember to turn the headlamps back to a dimmer mode to actually capture the image. 

Astrophotography 101

The most basic understanding of how to take photos at night combined with a good understanding of how to photograph people will result in some great images if luck is on your side!

To take advantage of the moment, here are some astrophotography tips for getting star portraits of couples:

Avoid light pollution

Light pollution in a photo usually comes from big cities or towns, but it can also come from the moon or any nearby lights – having a full moon on a clear night can make it difficult for stars to appear in an image. Being aware of where the moon will rise, turning your headlamps to a lower setting, and simply getting deep into nature can make the biggest improvements to your photos—check out the most recent Blue Marble map for some ideas!

If there is too much light pollution, it will make the stars appear as hazy spots of color instead of clear lights in the sky. I almost never shot star portraits when I used to work bigger weddings because we’d rarely be far enough away from the venue or town to avoid the light—but with elopements, I found myself naturally working in places with less light pollution.

Cloud cover & weather are out of your control

When planning and preparing with couples, I ensure they understand I can’t promise star photos. Weather, especially as far out as elopements are planned, isn’t something you can really plan for—getting a clear night is really just luck. Even if there isn’t cloud cover, particulates in the air can also affect the clarity of stars in photos. Wildfires in the summer send a ton of smoke into the air or a change of wind direction can leave a layer of smog.

Your date informs the location of the stars

Your couple might not have chosen their date based upon where the stars will be, but you can certainly take this into consideration while planning the timeline and exact locations. The milky way is at different places in the sky depending on the season – in the northern hemisphere you’ll get the best view from April through July, facing southward.

Moon Phases can work for or against you

A full moon can make it harder to see the stars, but you can also avoid its harshest glow depending on the time it will rise or set. The moon can also display a subtle alpenglow, which might be visible in images if the rising moon is to your back while shooting. A completely new moon is also not ideal, because the lack of ambient light can make it extremely hard to shoot at reasonable shutter speeds and bring out any definition in your surroundings.

Working with what you have is better than nothing

Even if you don’t have each of these elements working in your favor, it could be worth trying to capture some astrophotography with your couples. Rarely do my favorite images check all the boxes of a perfect scenario, but the fact we got creative and moved forward anyway can make the memory that much better. 

Gear Up

The right gear can be extremely helpful when it comes to getting star  portraits, but the best gear is whatever you have with you. You don’t need the fanciest camera, lens, or accessories to shoot at night. But, you do need to know how to use what you have. Here are some non-negotiables I’ve found to be essential for getting the quality of star portraits I’m after.

  • Camera with good shadow recovery & high dynamic range, plus ISO capabilities of 5000+
  • Tripod (I love the JOBY Gorillapod)
  • Headlamps that have a dimmable feature and a high of 300+ lumens
  • Lens with open aperture & a wide-angle (Nikon’s 24mm f1.4 is my go-to)

Camera Settings for Capturing Star Photos

I wish I could tell you the exact settings I use each time, but that you need will be dependent upon your gear and the environmental factors during the shoot. In general I tend to underexpose in camera, and then I push the shadows a lot while editing. I keep a close eye on my histogram charts to ensure I don’t loose too much data in my RAW files. Even though a lot of the screen looks too dark, Nikon has amazing shadow recovery that I rely on when shooting at night. Some basic settings I use every time I photograph at night:

  • Shoot in RAW to capture as much data as possible for editing
  • Shoot with a high ISO
  • Shoot in live view, which lets me get the camera low to the ground and still compose the shot

I do tend to always start with the same settings, then bump something depending on what the light that night calls for. My go-to settings are aperture at f1.8, ISO 2500, and a shutter speed of 4 seconds.

Tips for Editing Star Photos

When I start in Lightroom, the original RAW files are basically always underexposed. However, paying close attention to my histogram charts allows me to ensure I haven’t lost too much data in the shadows. The first thing I do when editing is to pull those shadows and reduce contrast. Use a gradient filter or a brush to bring out more detail in the stars without removing too much light or detail from the couple.

Want to learn more editing tips for other parts of your portfolio? Check out this blog post on how to get perfect skin tones in Lightroom or this blog on my 3 best tips for photo culling!

Written by

Maddie Mae

Award-winning Destination Elopement Photographer + Business & Marketing Coach

Founder of @adventureinstead

I help wedding and elopement photographers discover what sets them apart—and make that their “secret sauce” to building a thriving business.

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