Focus to infinity – The key to nighttime star photography

Milky Way over Ruby Beach in Olympic National Park
Milky Way over Ruby Beach in Olympic National Park

Photographing the stars at night can reward photographers with stunning images, but operating the camera in the dark of night can be challenging. One of the keys to a great shot of the stars is ensuring they are in focus.

Focusing a camera in the dark can be difficult for you and the camera. Camera focus systems rely on the contrast between bright and dark areas of the photo to achieve focus. Under a dark, moonless sky, there isn’t enough light for your camera’s autofocus system. Using your eyes and a DSLR viewfinder won’t be any better.

Sharp stars mean that your lens is focused to infinity, where objects at an infinite distance are at their sharpest. This may be as simple as turning the focus to the hard stop at the infinity symbol ∞ on a manual-focus lens. (More on this later.)

Autofocus lenses can be tricky. Modern auto-focus lenses all focus past infinity, so there is no hard stop on the focus ring, and once you go past infinity focus, your photos will not be sharp. There are several reasons for this. The camera’s fast autofocus motor needs room to move in and out without a hard stop. Changes in temperature and focal length on zoom lenses also mean slightly different spots for focusing to infinity.

Here are some techniques to focus to infinity for your next photography adventure under the stars.

Decide on your focal length

If you photograph the stars with a zoom lens, set your preferred focal length before focusing.

Ideally, your zoom lens would be “parfocal,” meaning that focus doesn’t change as you zoom in and out. The reality is that most zoom lenses are “varifocal,” where the focus changes as zoom magnification changes.

For example, if you use a 16-35 mm lens, the focus at infinity for 16 mm might be slightly different than at 35 mm.

Manual focus lens

A manual focus lens will have a hard stop at infinity focus. In many cases, it may be as simple as turning your focus ring to infinity.

However, manual focus lenses are not always perfect, so it pays to check the sharpness of your stars with actual photographs and make minute adjustments to the focus ring if necessary.

Compose using daylight

One of the best ways to set your focus to infinity also requires the most preparation time.

If you arrive at your scene when there is still daylight, even twilight, it allows time to focus your lens on a distant object like a mountain, tree, building, or horizon. Move your focus point to the center of the lens, and focus on the most distant object you can.

Once you have achieved focus, turn your camera to manual focus mode. The physical levers or switches for manual focus are the easiest, but you may have to change the focus mode in your menu system. Securing the focus ring on your lens with gaffer tape can help prevent you from bumping the focus later at night.

Arriving early enough to see the scene allows you to look for compositions of the sky that include foreground objects like trees, rocks, or mountains. It is pretty challenging to make these composition decisions in a pitch-black environment.

Take a picture of the focus ring on your lens

Many lenses have a focus distance scale viewable through a window on the top of the lens. A snapshot of this scale at infinity focus can help you set the proper focus in the dark by moving your lens’s focus ring to that point on its focus scale.

Using a zoom lens, set the focal length you plan to shoot the stars. During daylight or twilight hours, focus the lens on the most distant object you can, then take a snapshot of the focus distance scale on your lens.

For example, my Nikon 14-24mm lens looks like this when focused at infinity, with the focus point to the right side of the infinity symbol ∞.

Nikon 14-24mm focused to infinity
Nikon 14-24mm focused to infinity

It is essential to do this with the exact lens/body combination you plan to use, as even lenses of the same model might be slightly different due to manufacturing tolerances.

Focus on the moon

If there is a moon in the sky, even a sliver of the moon, use it to focus. The moon is extremely bright, is at an infinite distance, and is easy to focus on, even at night, for most autofocus systems.

Lunar Eclipse - January 20, 2019
Lunar Eclipse – January 20, 2019

Once again, put your focus point in the center of the frame. Put the focus point on the bright part of the moon and focus, either using auto or manual focus. For autofocus, it will be easiest to focus on the moon’s edge, which has the most contrast.

Find or create a distant light

A street light, building lights, or car headlights in the distance can be bright enough to focus on, so use them if they are present.

Of course, distant lights may be unavailable if you seek out the darkest skies. If you have a bright flashlight, illuminate the farthest object you can and focus on that.

Further away is better, but for a wide-angle lens, you should be able to focus at infinity with an object at least 25-30 ft or 8-10 m away.

Another option might be to turn on your phone’s flashlight and prop it up in the distance, then focus on that.

Focus on a bright planet or star

Some planets are pretty bright and can be used for focus. If Venus, Jupiter, Mars, or Saturn are in the sky, these planets will be brighter than stars, which are generally too dim to focus on. There are a couple of methods to use planets to focus to infinity.

Place your camera in live view and point your lens at the brightest planet you can find. In live view, zoom in on your focus point to the maximum available, then move your focus point so that it is directly over the bright planet.

Some recent mirrorless cameras can auto-focus on planets or bright stars. This capability is based on the age and capabilities of your camera, so you’ll need to check your manual and experiment with your camera. I am a Nikon shooter, and their low-light autofocus mode works well. Other camera makers have low-light star focus capabilities as well. The autofocus speed in the dark isn’t particularly fast, but it does work on bright planets and stars. Once again, zoom in on the focus point in your viewfinder and place the focus point on the planet. Engage auto-focus and wait a second or two; it should autofocus on the planet. Then, turn your lens to manual focus.

Some recent cameras have a special display mode that boosts the brightness of the viewfinder or monitor without affecting the final exposure. Nikon calls this Starlight view. Sony cameras refer to it as Bright Monitoring. If your camera supports a bright monitoring mode like this, use it during night shoots to help with composition and focus. Beware, these modes will use more battery power, so have extras available.

Fiddle with manual focus

As I described above, you snapped a photo of your focus ring at infinity focus, correct? If so, pull up that snapshot and use your flashlight or headlamp to set the focus ring to that spot.

Even if you don’t have a snapshot, set the lens at its infinity mark and use trial and error to achieve focus on the stars.

One way to do this is to use the back screen on your camera. Zoom in on your back screen and maneuver around to find a bright star or planet. While still zoomed in, make minor adjustments to your focus ring until the star appears like a pinpoint. Note that this works well on some cameras, but others may show you nothing but noise.

Another way to do this is to snap sample photos and review them. To make the process go faster, crank up your ISO setting as high as possible, say 12,800, 25,600, or higher. This will give you very noisy photos that you aren’t going to keep, but it will enable you to take quicker exposures.

Take a photo, then zoom in as far as you can on the image and look at the size of the stars. You want them to be as small and sharp as possible, not soft blobs of light.

Make minute changes to your focus ring, take another shot, and zoom in on focus again. This process can take a little time, but you can often nail focus with just a few test shots.

Out-of-focus stars
Out-of-focus stars

Confirm focus throughout the night

If you are photographing for an extended period at night, be sure to periodically check your focus by zooming into your photos on the back screen of your camera to check the focus of the stars. It is easy to bump your lens’ focus ring accidentally. Also, as the night progresses, the change in air temperature can cause the focus characteristics of your lens to change ever so slightly.

Star photos can look fabulous on the back screen of your camera when not zoomed in, but you may get home and be disappointed by your stars when you see the larger photos on your computer screen.

Night photography can be tricky when you are new to the process, but it is hugely rewarding when you get the hang of it. Keep practicing, and the process will get easier every time.