Starry Nights: How to Take an Out-Of-This-World Astro Self Portrait

Vincent van Gogh had it right: a clear, starry night can make a gorgeous background. However, photographers often experience lighting and focusing difficulties when trying to incorporate stars into their images. In this short video tutorial, photographer Matt Granger demonstrates how to use stars to your own photographic advantage by creating what he calls an “astro selfie”:

1. Find a clean viewpoint of the stars with minimal light pollution and clouds

The best place to find these types of views is out in the country where headlights from passing cars and floodlights from nearby buildings won’t add ambient light to your shot, compromising the camera’s ability to record the stars.

2. Use an ultra-wide angle lens

While a regular wide-angle lens might work just fine, an ultra-wide lens will be an even better choice because it will allow you to capture even more stars. To shoot his own astro selfie, Granger employed an ultra-wide angle Zeiss Distagon T* 15mm f/2.8 lens with his Nikon D800E camera.

3. Perfect your camera settings and the look of the stars

Lay your camera flat on the ground, aiming straight up at the sky, and see where your camera settings stand by taking a test shot. Make adjustments to get the stars looking just the way you want them to. Keep in mind that you will ultimately want your ISO to be as low as possible to minimize grain and your shutter speed to be as long as possible to let in the most light and capture adequate detail in the stars. Granger’s final settings were ISO 1600, f/2.8, and 25 seconds.

4. Perfect the light on your face

Now that you have perfected your camera settings, you will need to use whatever light source you have on hand, be it a flashlight, a lantern, or an iPhone flashlight, to illuminate your face as you lean over your camera to incorporate your face into the shot. After taking a test shot, you will likely find out that using a constant light source provides too much light with your current camera settings.

iphone torch light outer space milky way

This was Granger’s first shot with his iPhone torch. Even 3 seconds of light proved to be too much.

To minimize light intensity, try holding the light source as far away from your face as possible and letting the light shine on your face for only 1-2 seconds before you step out of the frame.

5. Consider your depth of field

As you craft your shot, remember to consider aperture and the effect it will have on your image’s depth of field. Using a wide aperture like f/2.8 will create distance between yourself and the background, while f/8 and above will begin to make background elements sharper. Proper aperture for your image will depend on your depth of field preferences. If you do select a wide aperture like 2.8, you might experience trouble getting both yourself and the stars behind you in focus. For that, Granger recommends using manual focus.

“Your focus point is a third of the way to your total depth of field,” said Granger. “So actually I manually focused the shot beyond myself so the back of the focus caught me and then the front of the focus was enough to catch infinity and the stars.”

astrophotography astro stars selfie galaxy night starry

Here is Granger’s final image, with clarity and sharpness boosted in post.

Granger by no means claims to be an expert in astrophotography. Instead, he describes the process of taking an astro selfie for most photographers as an experimental balancing act.

“It’s all about thinking about the different lights in the scene and the different zones of light you want and whether you want to include or restrict movement and how you use the balance of those zones of light.”

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