Tips for Star Photography at Brimham Rocks

Andrew Warn, Photographer Andrew Warn Photographer
Star photography at Brimham Rocks, Nidderdale, North Yorkshire

Discover the night sky at Brimham Rocks through your lens with the help of photographer Andrew Warn.

You will need

  • DSLR camera
  • Tripod
  • Remote control - helps from knocking the camera when pressing the shutter button.
  • Clothing - you are going to be out for quite a while, extra clothing might be necessary as the night draws in.
  • Food and drink – it is always nice to have a snack and a thermos of hot tea

Where to take the photograph

Generally the darker the location the better as this allows to take pictures without too much light.
Scenic locations make the overall picture interesting so having some large rocks will really help. Many National Trust sites fulfil this criteria.
In order to take star shots you need to take control of the camera manually. This means setting the aperture/shutter/ISO and focusing yourself. If you are not familiar with these controls it is worth looking into them as a separate topic before trying to get this type of shot.
There is no exact setting to use for every single occasion as the amount of light each night can be different, depending on light pollution, moonlight and even snow but there are guidelines which will help you get the wanted exposure.
At night the shutter needs to be kept open for longer periods to allow light to hit the camera’s sensor. A tripod is essential to avoid blurry photos due to camera shake.
Below are settings that assist in taking a correctly exposed picture. Remember, this is a guide so experiment to find the perfect exposure for the given conditions.
If the moon is not out or there is little illumination coming from the moon experiment with these settings:
  • Set your camera to “M” for manual so you can change your settings as needed
  • Have your camera use its widest lens. An example: if the widest lens you have with your DSLR is an 18-55mm f3.5/5.6 then set it to 18mm. Basically the wider the lens the longer your exposures can be (if needed) while allowing stars to remain as dots and not as trails. Also a wide perspective can help give the scene a more dramatic look.
  • Set your aperture to its fastest (its lowest number). In the case of the lens above this would be F3.5. The lower the number the more light you let into your camera and generally when you are in a dark location this will help quite a bit.
  • The shutter can vary significantly depending on circumstance and ultimately the overall feel of the picture that you want. As the maximum shutter speed depends on how wide the lens is it is simpler to just experiment with shutter speeds between 10-30 seconds. If the photo seems too bright don't have the shutter open for as long and if it seems too dark then keep it open for longer. The other important factor is the stars themselves. When zooming in on a photo check that the stars still look like dots. Once they start turning into lines the shutter will have been open for too long. This will be trial and error until you are happy with the result.
  • Changing the ISO basically changes how sensitive the camera’s sensor is to light. The higher the setting the more sensitive and the quicker light can be recorded, the lower the setting the less sensitive and the slower light can be recorded. Not everybody’s camera has the same sensitivity so if your camera has a maximum ISO of say 2500 and I've suggested going higher then just go with the highest your camera can do. This can vary massively depending on conditions. Once again this is going to be experimentation but a lower setting of 1600 to a higher setting of 4000 are typical values I have used. Start with either the higher figure and work your way down or the lower figure and work your way up. A little like the shutter speed you are looking to see if your picture is too bright or too dark and changing the setting accordingly.
  • Manual focus is the last thing to change and depending on the lens depends on whether it is done on the lens or on the body of the camera. We are trying to set the focus to infinity. The stars are a long way away, show up small when we view on a camera and are very difficult for the autofocus on the camera to deal with. So we have to set this manually by selecting manual focus on the lens if there is a switch, or selecting it on the camera body if there isn’t. Once manual focus is selected you need to turn the manual focusing ring on the lens to infinity. The infinity symbol looks like a figure of 8 but on its side. It is best finding out where the exact infinity mark is during the day time as finding it in the dark can be quite difficult. Once you have found it, it can be worth taping it in place so you don't knock it while handling the camera.
  • Now is the time to take a shot and see how it goes. Don't expect your first, or possibly even third or fourth shot to be perfect. It really is a case of checking each photo and changing a setting or settings until you are getting the picture you want. So an example could be Lens at 18mm, aperture set to F3.5, shutter at 20 seconds and ISO set to 3200 and focus always set to infinity. I check my picture and it generally looks good but is a little too bright. So I can either change my shutter to make it stay open for less time or lower my ISO a little until I’m happy with the way it looks

Just as a quick guide

  • When taking night shots with the moon up, the settings to change are the same but the values do differ as there is quite a bit more light around. Having something on the ground to make the picture interesting can be more important than when the moon is not there.
  • Typically the lens is set to a focal length which makes the scene look nice and not necessarily the widest the lens can go.
  • The aperture is set around F8 to F10. This allows for more of the earthly objects (trees, rocks, lakes) to be in focus and not just the stars.
  • Shutter speeds may vary between eight seconds and 15 seconds (because the aperture is set to F8/10 less light is entering the camera shutter speeds are still fairly long).
  • ISO can be lowered as well and typically can be between 500 and 1000 but if you need to change it lower or higher than these values then that is fine. Infinity focus is still set.
Ultimately there is a relationship between all the settings used and learning more about them means you are more likely to get the image you desire. However, going out and making mistakes and learning from them is one of the best ways to do this. I hope this guide helps and happy photographing!