The Alto Star Gate


Today I’m going to zip through the making of the Alto Star Gate image, and show you just how easy it is to shoot the stars above – and how you can add a little extra somethin’ somethin’ to your images with the help of a flashlight.

Tools of the trade:

– camera with manual settings

– wide lens with a relatively fast maximum aperture (f/2.8 or faster)

– sturdy tripod

– high-powered flashlight (with an LED light if you have one)

– remote triggering device (not 100% necessary, but it’ll make your life easier in the long run)

The Down and Dirty:

Making an image like this is incredibly simple – if you’re new to star photography, you’ll be amazing at just how swiftly you’ll be able to put together gorgeous images if you do even the smallest amount of prep work.

The first thing I do when I set out to shoot the stars is, well, find the stars. The night sky above the Atacama Desert in Chile is one of the clearest in the world, with spectacular views of the Milky Way. I knew that I wanted to make the Milky Way the star of this image, but also add some interesting foreground elements, so I put my gear in a position to capture both at the same time.

I set my camera on my tripod and switched everything to manual – manual exposure in the camera itself, and manual focus on my lens. When it’s dark out your camera’s focusing engine will hunt for focus forever, so it’s best just to do everything yourself. I knew that I was going to light the rocks to the right, so I turned on my flashlight and set it as close to the rocks as possible, walked back to the camera, and used the light to set focus.

Next, I used my TriggerTrap mobile dongle + smartphone app to dial in what I thought would be a correct exposure; I started with a minute, but that actually added too much movement to the stars (for this image I wanted the stars to appear as they would to the naked eye). I dialed back the exposure time to 30 seconds, and locked it in. So, even if you don’t have a triggering device, you can still pull off a shot like this – just about every camera on the market today will allow you to do 30 second exposures in manual mode.

Next, I used the timer to give myself 10 seconds to get into position (tucked behind the huge boulder to the left of the image). When I heard the shutter open, I started painting the rocks to the right with my flashlight. I simply waved my light over every bit of exposed rock that I could for the duration of the exposure. It’s like whipping a light saber around with no one watching – tons of fun.

I went back and forth to the camera a few times to fine-tune focus and the exposure until I had it right where I wanted, though with this sort of image it won’t take long to get what you want; it’s an incredibly easy process.

I mentioned using a lens with a large maximum aperture. Fast glass lend themselves to astrophotography because they’re able to “see” more stars when used wide open – the reason why is another blog post in and of itself, but just remember that you want to use the fastest lens in your bag when you’re shooting the night sky. Faster lenses mean more trouble hitting focus in the dark, but that’s a small annoyance in the grand scheme of star shooting.

Image specs:

Camera: Nikon D800

Lens: Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 (I shot this in the D800 DX crop mode)

Aperture: f/2.8     ISO: 800     Shutter speed: 30 seconds     Focal Length: 11mm

Tripod: Manfrotto BeFree Travel Tripod

Trigger: TriggerTrap Mobile Dongle Kit

You can purchase the triggertrap mobile dongle kit for whatever camera you’re using here: This is one of the best investments you’ll ever make as a photographer.

Special thanks to the incredible Alto Atacama resort for putting up with me while I ran amok all over their property and the desert while working on my editorial features.

And of course, huge thanks to Chimu Adventures for helping to put together a brilliant South American itinerary.  Chimu Adventures is the finest travel outfitter in Argentina, and offers tailor-made expeditions that get at the heart of the country’s most essential experiences.


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