Why Does Leather Smell?

Whether it’s brand new truck seats, your latest pair of cowboy boots, or a new leather bag, most people have a preconceived idea of what leather should smell like. This smell has the tendency to send our imagination to a faraway place with rugged terrain, wild adventure, and wide open spaces. But what’s ironic about all of this is that the familiar smell that we have come to associate with leather may not actually be natural at all.

What I am about to reveal to you below may be quite shocking, so brace yourself.

The reality of the ‘leather’ smell common to most mass-produced leather goods you can find in department stores and cheap online marketplaces…just ain’t good for you or the environment.

unrolling leather hide

It’s important to note before we continue that I, Mr. Lentz, use a natural type of leather called Vegetable-Tanned. The leather is preserved in tanks using different tree barks and is much more expensive due to the natural process used to preserve the fibers.

This differs greatly from leather used by competing shops:

leather couch

When Leather Meets Chemicals

In fact, that typical smell that most are familiar with, is created when leather is treated with a lot of chemicals. Sadly, most of the leather we’re used to smelling in mass-market goods gets its scent from a harsh mix of chemicals that you’d run far away from if you knew what they were. According to the EPA, these are some of the most common tanning agents used in the world today:

  • Trivalent chromium
  • Alum
  • Syntans (man-made chemicals)
  • Formaldehyde
  • Glutaraldehyde

Not only are toxic ingredients like chromium salts used in chrome-tanned leather, but things like lignosulfate and specialty chemicals are also added to commercial leather products before finishing. The International School of Tanning Technology provides a list of 48 different chemicals that are commonly used in leather processing…48! The most notorious one of these chemicals is a type of chrome, which is known for putting certain tannery workers around the world at risk from exposure. Chome-tanned leather I should note is probably the most popular type of mass-market leather used in the world today. It is extremely cheap to manufacture, has an immediately soft feel, and unbeknownst to most consumers…also happens to wear out much more quickly.

An odor research study published in Chemical Senses reported that various smells presented were described as both leather-like and medicinal. That’s no coincidence. We’ve gotten so used to leather smelling like chemicals that it’s become hard to tell what pure leather should actually smells like. It’s time to get back to basics…


Natural Leather, the Mr. Lentz Way

As you should know by now, harsh chemicals and unnatural ingredients have no place in my workshop. That’s why I use natural tree bark tanned leather (Vegetable-Tanned) for all of my leather products. Full-grain Vegetable-Tanned leather from the top U.S. tannery is the best leather that money can buy because of its extreme density of fibers, strength, and natural preservation process. I have chosen to buy my leather from an extremely reputable U.S. tannery that conforms to strict U.S. standards developed by the EPA. The tannery is known for the best quality natural vegetable tanned leather in the world. Unlike other types of leathers that use chemical solutions to rush the natural process, vegetable tanned leather relaxes and softens into shape over time for maximum longevity. Basically you need to wear-in your wallet or bag over the first week or two to help the fibers stretch into shape.

handmade leather dye

From there, I only use natural dyes that I make right here in my workshop with pure and simple vegetable matter. As I’ve mentioned before, high-quality leather deserves high-quality care, which is where leather conditioning comes in. To soften things up, I only use leather conditioner made right here in my workshop that’s made with extra virgin olive oil and purified beeswax.

When I work in my shop, I don’t use gloves because I don’t have to. Natural ingredients are the key to staying in this business for the long-term.


What Leather Should Smell Like

The end result of my eco-friendly method to dyeing and conditioning is a pure and natural leather that has a slightly different smell than the average leather you’ll find in those big-city stores. Thanks to the vegetable tanning, natural dyes, and chemical-free conditioning process, my leather smells rich, earthy, and slightly sweet. It’s not an overbearing smell or one that stinks up your whole house. Instead, it’s a subtle smell that will remind you of our great prairies, deserts and mountains. Pure, naturally treated leather should have a mild smell and be easy on the nose.

mountain lake view

I hope this helps you understand a bit about why leather smells and what different smells can tell you about a piece of leather’s quality and production process. When your next Mr. Lentz product arrives on your doorstep, take a big whiff, close your eyes, and let your imagination wander. This is the true smell of rugged terrain, wild adventure, and wide open spaces.

Mother’s Day Sale 20% Off

mothers day sale on leather goodsMother’s day is coming up quickly, so make sure to get your orders in. Right now I’m making and shipping most orders within 3 business days. I’m also giving 20% off select items in the shop including purses, some wallets and accessories. Head on over here: Mothers Day Sale  to see all the items with a discount. A lot of items will also ship free! Sale ends soon.

Shop Now

Leather Dog Collars and Leashes

leather dog collar for small dogsSmall Leather Dog Collar (Dogs up to 15 lbs.)

I just finished designing a new line of leather dog collars and leather leashes. Now there’s a style made for every size of dog with the width of the collar to match. In this new series of dog gear I spent several months sourcing and testing the materials to get it just right. I am now using a new type of leather just for dog collars and leashes, called U.S. Full-Grain Latigo. Latigo leather is typically used in the horse saddle industry due to its extreme durability, resistance to stretch, water resistance and flexibility.

(At the time of this posting, there’s a sale: 20% off if you order both a collar and a leash together. Just add to your cart and it will apply automatically).

leather dog collar for small dogs

It is stuffed full of high-end wax and oils to keep the leather fibers strong and holding up in the longrun. You wont have to remove the collar when your dog wants to jump in that lake either. This collar will shed off water like a raincoat. The next big feature of all of my leather dog gear is the stainless steel hardware. It is the strongest type of metal you can get for use in buckles, D-rings, keepers and O-rings. To be quite honest, you should only buy dog gear made with Latigo leather and stainless steel hardware, it’s just built to last. leather dog collar for medium dogsMedium Leather Dog Collar (dogs 10 to 55 lbs.)

I rivet together each piece with an extremely durable type of rivet called a solid drilled brass rivet. These rivets are not too commonly used simply because other makers just don’t know about them. They are difficult to set, but once in place they are extremely strong. Much more so than a typical rivet and especially more so than stitching. leather dog collar for medium dogs

The collar shown above uses 8 solid drilled brass rivets that will stand up to even the toughest of medium dogs.leather dog collar for large dogs

Above is a 1.5 inch wide collar meant for large dogs (40 to 90 lbs.)leather dog collar for medium dogs

.leather dog collar for large dogs

Available in 2 color options. High quality Latigo leather is usually only available in these two colors, so if you see any exotic colors out there, you certainly should question the quality.large leather dog collar for strong dogs

I created this extra strong large dog collar for those that have very strong pets. Dobermans, Mastiffs, Rottweilers, and any other very large breed will fit well into this collar. It is 1.75 inches wide and features a double tongue roller buckle of stainless steel. Everything is riveted in place with 12 solid brass drilled rivets.large leather dog collar for strong dogs

.leather dog leash for small dogs

A new feature of my Latigo line of leashes is that I offer custom lengths. This is not typical of handmade leather leashes and allows you to get a length just right for the size of your pet and the style you walk with. Shorter dogs typically require longer leashes and vice versa.leather dog leash for small dogs

Though every piece of leather is already full of wax and oil, I still ship each collar and leash with a tin of my own all natural leather conditioner. If you see heavy use and the collar tends to get wet a lot, you may consider applying a thin coat of this every now and then to replenish lost oils and wax. It’s very easy and I have a short video and info on how to do that here.leather dog leash for small dogs

Each leash comes with stainless steel clips and O-rings. The O-ring allows you to clip your dog to a post when you need to walk away, say for your morning cup of coffee.leather dog leash for large dogs

The image above shows a leash meant for medium and large dogs. leather dog leash for small dogs

Every leash is made from thick leather, I do not stitch several thin layers together as do other companies out there. Thick leather like this resists stretching and will hold on strong.leather dog leash for large dogs

To see the entire collection of leather dog collars and leashes click here.

Salton Sea

the salton sea dead fish
Oh the desert, always revealing another surprise around every corner. You can walk through it for days, out in the middle of nowhere, and suddenly come upon some strange artifact from a hundred and fifty years ago. These past few months I have been taking some time on the weekends to explore a bit in this harsh southwestern landscape.

I wrote about it in a previous post in 2012 here. This past weekend was a trip with my lady out to the Salton Sea. Hardly the middle of nowhere, but strange nonetheless. Its most recent form having been created in 1905 by mistake. The Colorado river broke through a farming levee and flooded the basin for 16 months straight.




For an incredibly quirky history – checkout the netflix documentary Plagues and PLeasures on the Salton Sea. There’s ghost towns, abandoned railways, dead decaying mounds of fish, beaches made entirely of barnacles, and a stench that comes and goes. Definitely worth a look.

Work Bag for a Thursday Afternoon

leather work bag for men
Just messing around this afternoon on some construction techniques. I used a very heavy duty industrial sewing machine and several rivets to put this piece together. The idea came from me carrying my water, coffee thermos, paperwork and other odds and ends in a small cardboard box to work every day.

leather work bag for men

One day (today actually) I decided that a leatherworker shouldn’t have to carry his goods in a cardboard box. This bag is actually based on the dimensions of my favorite cardboard box.

leather work bag for men

The challenge came in trying to keep this small leather bag looking manly enough for me to use every day. You know, less like a purse and more like a functional work bag. I think it’s just about good enough for me. I think this hints at a lot of new things to come for the shop. Stay tuned!

leather work bag for men

Stamping a Leather Belt (Part 2)

So it’s been a few weeks and I decided to go ahead and finish this stamped leather belt project. You can read the first part of this follow-along here: Part 1. Typically with leather tooling and stamping you want to try to finish your project up in one or two sessions in the same day or two. Well, I started on the first section of belt, then had to put it off for a bit – so I placed the damp belt in a plastic bag, and to prevent mold…I put it in the fridge next to the salsa.

Continue reading

What is the best leather for a wallet?

full grain vegetable tanned leather for wallets

When looking for a quality leather product such as a wallet, it’s important to have a little bit of understanding about the types of leather and what to look for. The question I get a lot in emails each week goes something like this:

Hey Mr. Lentz, What is the best leather for a wallet, there seem to be so many makers and just as many leather types?

Well, this question happens to be plain and simple: Full Grain Vegetable Tanned Leather from U.S. cows happens to be the best leather your money can buy…and hold, in a wallet. Of course an important thing to note: I use only Full-Grain Vegetable Tanned Leather in all my leather goods in my shop.

Here’s a breakdown of why that is:

Full Grain is a term used to describe the layer of hide used. Full Grain is the outermost layer comprised of the tightest-packed layers of fibers. This extreme density of fibers is what helped that cow weather storms, bump against a barbed wire fence, scratch itself on a rock and get bitten by a mosquito or two. It’s tough and the beauty of it is that this type of leather will show these markings as subtle scars and variations in color. The Full Grain hide will not have a perfect uniform look since it was sculpted by a lifetime out on the range.

full grain leather illustration
Here’s a handy little illustration of where Full Grain Leather comes from.

full grain leather
This is a cross-section photo of my belt leather. It’s as close as I could get, but you can see the different layers in action. That nice thin line at the top is the most tightly packed layers of fibers and it’s what gives Full Grain Leather its strength.

full grain leather flesh side
The image above is the back side of my belt leather. I tried to get in close so you can get a glimpse of the billions of fibers of leather that are naturally interwoven.

Most people have not ever experienced Full-Grain leather, as it is harder to work with and work around. Most mass-produced consumer goods use either Top Grain (which is leather that has the outermost layers sanded off, thus removing any blemishes and scars – but it also takes off the durable outer layer), or they use ‘Genuine’ (the flimsy inner part of the hide) or ‘Bonded’ leather (which is basically just leather scraps finely ground into a dust, then re-glued into large thin sheets, a very cheap way to make leather products but they tend not to last long).

Vegetable Tanned simply means that the cowhide was put through a tanning process to preserve it using vegetable matter – typically oak and other tree bark. It’s a fairly natural form of tanning that has been around for hundreds of years. A wallet, bag, belt, or shoe made with vegetable tanned leather will need to be broken in over time to help the leather stretch and relax into shape. This is much different than other types of leathers that cheat the process with chemical solutions that actually break the leather fibers, causing them to feel soft. A typical culprit is ‘chrome tanned leather’ (using toxic chromium salts the fibers are broken and thus feel soft, but at the expense of the item being much less durable). The great part about Vegetable Tanned leather is that it ages like no other. It will react to its surroundings while you use it, darkening in color and polishing up nicely. Vegetable Tanned leather is known for that beautiful aged patina you see in heavily used leather goods. Just take a look at the one of my customer photos below:

leather wallet vegetable tanned patina

Cowhide happens to be the strongest type of leather for use in wallets, bags, belts and shoes due to the uniquely and extremely tight-packed fibers in the skin of the cow. The reason U.S. cowhide is the best is simply due to the care standards and nutritional regimen we have here in the U.S. Plainly put – we feed cows well and they live a simple life in relatively safe and managed areas as compared to other countries. As a side note – U.S. cowhide is only a byproduct of the U.S. meat industry and no cows are raised just for their hides, they are raised for their meat – plain and simple. Ranchers would lose a ton of money if they raised cows for leather. The hides would generally be thrown out if not for the demand in the leather industry.


So how does this all come together for being the best type for a wallet? Well,  when buying a wallet from my workshop – you are getting consistent quality with U.S. cowhide, the highest level of strength and durability with Full Grain, and the absolute beauty of a well used and nicely aged Vegetable Tanned leather. As the ol’ saying goes – buy nice or buy twice!

If you enjoyed learning a bit more about this unique leather type, you may also be interested in checking out all of the goods in my shop. Head on over to have a look!

Featured Seller Interview

Etsy Featured Seller - Mr. Lentz

Big news for this week – I am now an Etsy Featured Seller. It took me a good 5 years and a lot of hard work, and now they consider me one of the best of the best shops due to quality and service! There is a full interview for the posting located here. Go on and check it out, it’ll give a bit more insight into how I started this whole thing. I can tell you from hindsight – it ain’t as easy as it might seem in the interview! For all those aspiring makers out there, keep on keepin on and keep creating. We are now living in a world where we can easily distract ourselves every second of every day. It’s too easy to take the lazy route and watch a movie, cruise through social media, text friends…but at the end of the day what do you really have to show for it? Etsy Featured Seller - Mr. Lentz
Making things is fulfilling in its own right. Just taking on the process of getting good at something you never thought you could do – that’s an accomplishment that feels great for a long time. For me it all started with my first blog post, you can read that here. If you have days of nothing to do – my entire journey has been laid out to follow through this blog for your reading pleasure…or boredom – ha!

Have you started making things recently? Comment below on your adventures:

Stamping a Leather Belt (Part 1)

cowboy gun

It all started two weeks ago when I bought a (fake) gun. A heavy .45 caliber Cavalry Revolver by Colt. It ain’t real, but it sure looks it. It came out in 1873 in the American west and many a hardened cowboy carried one. I got mine because I want to make a period holster and gunbelt. Every year around this time I get the itch to learn something new and make anything beyond my typical skill level.


Last year that was the cattle whip. Which – by the way cowboys never actually used it on the cow, it was created more as a noise-maker to drive cattle in a specific direction. When you flick your wrist, the energy rolls down the whip and speeds up until it reaches the end. The end loop snaps around faster than the speed of sound and you get a mini sonic boom. Unfortunately – there’s only a part one to that whip-making post because quite honestly, I may have jumped in a bit too deep on that one. There are a lot of refined skills you need to build up to get a whip looking nice. The complexity slowly wore me down and I just moved on to other things.

cowboy gun holster

Well, this season I am going to aim a bit lower! Making a holster is actually a fairly simple process that involves several different skills. The better I hone them, the better my holster will look in the end. To get it looking right I need to perfect casing the leather, stamping patterns and designs into it, dyeing, edge finishing, stitching, and ageing it to look nice and old and well-used. The photo above shows my first attempt at a Mexican Loop Holster. I threw together the design just so I could practice using the stamping tools and dyeing it/ treating it to look real old.

cowboy gun holster
aged cowboy gun holster

I think I may have overdone it a bit with the ageing process. I dried the leather up too much and to me it looks like there is too much cracking. On my next one I am going to see if I can refine it a bit more and get the leather to crack/distress more subtly and only in specific spots. I literally kicked this thing around in the dirt, walked on it over rocky concrete, blasted it with a heat gun, and dipped it in boiling water. In my next post on the holster I will go into a bit more detail on what seems to work the best.

stamped belt design

The art of stamping leather is a lifelong learning process in itself. As such I decided to make myself a regular old belt first and carve/stamp my own landscape pattern into it using a series of stamps and modeling tools. In my haste in making the belt above I nicked the edge a bit. Well, since it’s for me that’s ok – it’s got some character! That may disappear too after I bevel the edges later on.

stamped leather belt
I decided to give it a test shot on a scrap piece before I commit to the actual belt. Here’s the design about half way through.

Now, I’ve never really been a fan of stamped leather, or carved patterns in leather…but for some reason I feel that changing fast, especially when it’s my own creation. I am sure that getting the design I want to look right is fairly unlikely at this point, but at least I am going in with low expectations!

So, this is less of a tutorial and more of a ‘follow along’. Read on to Part 2 here.

Are you making something new this winter?

Share your story in the comments below

How To Make A Leather Keychain

Every holiday season I like to put together a little DIY leather tutorial. This year i’m going to teach you how to make a leather keychain. I put together this step by step guide with photos of everything below, as well as an easy to follow video. Last year I posted how to make a wallet or belt. You’ll be workin’ that leather into a keychain in no time! Every major section has a little link to jump to that part in the video, so if you need a better idea of how I did it in motion, click the link and go up top to the video – it should start playing right at the point you need. Well, let’s get on to it!


If you use these links below, you can jump to that specific part of the video. This way you can watch any step below if my written explanation needs more visuals.
Cutting Leather @ 0:23
Marking Stitch Stop Points @ 1:41
Stitching Grooves @ 1:56
Edge Beveling @ 2:37
Edge Sanding @ 3:27
Burnishing @ 4:08
Hole Punching @ 5:20
Personalizing @ 12:18
Oiling and Waxing @ 13:12
Stitching @ 14:06
Reverse Stitches @ 20:09

how-to-make-a-leather-keychain-tutorial-diy-01-00001First off there’s the tools you will need as the bare minimum, and the tools you might prefer to use if you want to make this an easier task. The tools to the right of the ruler above are about the bare minimum you’ll need. The tools on the left help to make things easier. The tools that help make it prettier are shown in use later on.

Tools Needed

  • Ruler
  • Pencil
  • Scissors or razor
  • Stitching awl
  • 2 leather needles
  • Waxed thread
  • Stitching Pony (or table vise if unavailable)


Tools To Make Things Easier

  • Leather Scissors with micro serrated lower edge (easily grips and cuts)
  • Rolling Blade (quick work cutting a straight edge next to a ruler)
  • Strap Cutter (perfectly sized straps every time)
  • Belt Tip Punch (for nice rounded ends)
  • Craftool Diamond Punch with 6 punch head (much easier than stitch awl)
  • Mallet
  • Stitching Pony


Tools to Make it Prettier

  • Edge Beveler (Size 2)
  • Stitching Groover
  • Fine and Extra Fine Sandpaper
  • Cocobolo burnisher for Drill Press (burnishing those edges)
  • Leather Letter Stamps (personalize it?)


how-to-make-a-leather-keychain-tutorial-diy-01-00003You will need some hardware for this. The easiest option it to find an old key fob and take it apart to recycle the hardware. Just keep in mind your keychain width may change depending on your hardware. I had the above available in the shop, on the left my edge beveler seems to have made it into the shot.

how-to-make-a-leather-keychain-tutorial-diy-01-00004Find a good piece of leather to use. I had a scrap piece of Full-Grain Vegetable Tanned leather laying around, it’s a 6/7 ounce and makes just the right thickness for this keychain. You can find scrap leather on ebay or even a local Tandy Leather store without having to buy a whole hide. We don’t need much for this as you can see. The first step in making this leather keychain is to start with a straight edge. I am going to teach the way I would do it with my tools, but you can certainly improvise if you don’t have all of the tools seen. I took my ruler and rolling blade and cut a nice straight edge on this scrap piece. To jump to that point in the video, click this link and scroll back up to the video: Cutting Leather @ 0:23
Continue reading

Free Card Wallet With orders $100+

thin-leather-card-wallet-minimal-slim_0039Looking to load up on some last minute holiday gifts? Well, if you get your order over $100, I am making and shipping one of these wallets for free. The sale ends this Sunday at midnight (12/11/16). Good luck to y’all during the holidays, and thank you for your support of my shop! I gotta make this short and sweet…back to the workshop for holiday orders!

A Good Mens Wallet


If you are looking for a good Mens Wallet this Holiday season, look no further. This design is a great choice for pretty much any guy needing a rugged wallet built to last through the test of time. It’s got enough card slots and pockets to hold all of your credit cards, receipts, notes and whatever. Plus it has a completely divided cash section all while staying pretty thin. This style took me several months to perfect and it’s my personal favorite. The above video was shot while out camping in the Deserts of the Southwest. I love it out there, peaceful, warm and dry days followed by a night full of stars. Anyhow – if y’all are interested in this one, currently I am able to make it and drop it inn the mail within 3 days of your order being placed. Head on over to the shop and take a look!

Holiday Sale and a Workshop Video

First things first – check out my shop video above! It’s been a while in the making…taking several days to shoot and many many more to edit and put together. Over 120,000 photos were used for this compilation, it’s basically my camera taking pictures at the speed of video. Kinda crazy right? Anyhow – just wanted y’all to see a little behind the scenes work at the Mr. Lentz workshop. A lot, and I do mean a lot goes into making each and every leather wallet, bag, and accessory. I like to do things the old fashioned way too – working with my hands, dyeing hides from my own in-house made natural dye, oiling and waxing from a recipe I created myself. It’s great, no gloves are needed, a completely natural way to work with leather and not too many people are doing it this way anymore.

Next up – you should know that I have my holiday sale going on right now and for the next week or two. It’s $10 off an order of $90 or more ( use code: WESTERN ). Or $25 off an order of $150 or more ( use code: HIGHNOON ). Shop Here

On that note, I’d better get back to the workshop and keep making those leather wallets and bags! Have a safe and happy Holidays to y’all!

Leather Wallet Holiday Sale

A Branded Hide

branded leather hide for wallet

Every once in a while I come across a hide in my shop with a unique old-school brand. It’s becoming rarer and rarer these days, as ranchers opt for digital tagging techniques as well as the electric brander – which places a very small signature in the hide with dotted lines. The new techniques are better for the cows and produce more area for leatherworkers like me to make wallets and bags out of. This brand shown above was done rather deep and shows damage to the hide. I avoid the leather close by as it has in fact been damaged. Some brandings, it is obvious, have been done by experienced cowboys. They change the look of the hide without damaging the leather, in which case I may choose to use it in a wallet. Many a customer loves and even requests these unique features, but it is very difficult to match the timing up. For now I am collecting these branding marks, maybe I’ll make a leather couch out of all of them!

How to Photograph Stars in the Night Sky

astro photography of stars in the milky way

Every few months or so I walk out into the desert with nothing but a backpack and the bare essentials for camping it alone. It’s an essential part of balancing out my days as a leatherworker. The desert is a great place to find solitude, the kind you need when you are looking to recharge a little. There are many many places you can go in the Southwestern U.S. where you will not see another soul for your entire pack trip. I usually head off-trail after a few miles to get to more interesting features in the landscape and find a nice quiet setting to make camp.

desert silouette night shot
This trip out into the desert I decided to bring along my better camera and some simple gear to help take decent night shots. If you want to learn how to take some great star shots, you can follow my simple advice by reading on below. There really ain’t much to it, 75% of the work is just finding a good spot with low light pollution. I found this handy light pollution map so you can get a good idea of where you need to head: Dark Sky Map. From my use it seems fairly accurate.

star photography camera gear
Above is the camera gear I packed into my backpack for this trip. It’s an attempt at sticking with a minimal amount of gear without sacrificing my options when shooting. From left to right starting at the top: Canon 5D Mark iii with a Canon 50mm 1.4 prime lens attached, a Rokinon 14mm 2.8 prime lens (a great hobbyist lens for wide night shots), a Lowepro case that’s just big enough to fit the 5D with 50mm lens attached, two 64GB compact flash cards, two Canon batteries, a mini tripod from Cowboy Studio, a neoprene padded lens sack to carry whichever lens was off the camera, a small cuben fiber stuff sack to hold rocks if I wanted to weigh down the tripod against the wind, a plastic bag in case a sand storm or rain whipped up and I needed to protect the camera. It’s a simple setup and really, it’s all you need to get started.

Quick Tips

  • Find a comfy spot as far from cities and towns as possible
  • Use a decent tripod that can lock firmly in position
  • Weigh your tripod down with weights or rocks
  • Keep out of the wind
  • Use the feature on your camera called ‘Mirror Lockup’
  • Use a camera trigger, or set the timer on your camera for a 2 second delay
  • Try a lens with a nice wide aperture allowing for lower ISO shots
  • Try to keep ISO at or below 3200
  • Pick a cloudless night
  • Pick a moonless night (or not, depending on your shot)
  • Experiment with all types of exposure settings
  • Take a few shots in each exposure/position – then pick the best later on
  • Use manual focus and take a few shots adjusting around the infinity setting.
  • You’d better be a patient person

desert night sky photograph

How To Photograph Stars… or How I Shoot:

Here’s how I typically set up a star shot while out in the desert. First I usually forget to check whether there is a full moon or not and by the time I get out there I realize there’s still a half moon in the sky until 11pm. That means the best time for a good dark sky is a few hours past 11pm on that day. As I am hiking out in the day time I also realize I forgot to check the weather…and there’s a haze of thin clouds above me. Basically the first night of shooting didn’t go so well, so I had to scrap most of the shots, except the one at the end of this post.

On night 2 I waited until about an hour after sunset and placed my camera on the mini tripod (see all camera gear below). I set it in the sand, but a solid platform would be better, like a rock! Luckily for me there was no wind, but this is a big factor to consider when taking longer exposures as the slightest bit can shake the camera/tripod and result in blurry shots. If there’s a breeze, try to put the tripod in a spot out of the wind.

If you look close at the shot above you can see another galaxy 2/3 the way down on the left hand side. I am no astronomer so I can’t tell you what it is, but if you happen to have your iPhone with you while shooting – you can download all kinds of star map apps that make it easy to figure out the night sky. Of course if you are camping you should definitely leave the phone at home!

night shots in the desert

Certain things are only noticed after you bring the images home and process them. Above I captured a glimpse of a meteor. Don’t be confused by every line in your shots though – a lot of the night sky has planes passing through. You can identify those easily as the flashing lights will leave a trail with dots across it.

I used the Rokinon 14mm lens first as it is a very wide angle and I wanted to experiment with a bit of the ground in the shot. The moon was still fairly high, so I started taking shots of it in the frame as well. I set my aperture to 2.0 – which is a decent aperture to avoid lens blur I have found. I set the ISO to about 3200 or one stop below, and the exposure length to about 13 seconds. On my camera there is an option in the menu to use Mirror Lockup, in layman’s terms – you need to use this to get a sharper image. Google it if you want to know why!

I then set my camera to use the timer, and set the timer to 2 seconds. This helps if you don’t have a trigger, it allows for 2 seconds after you push the button for the camera shake to settle down, resulting in a sharper image. On the Canon 5D Mark iii, you can use the live view screen and zoom in 10x to help with manual focusing. This is a huge help since the Rokinon lens will not autofocus (and you wouldn’t want to use autofocus anyways for stars). I found that a hair back from infinity worked the best for a sharp photo of the stars.

star and planet photography at night

In my case I had the camera set up right next to my camp chair and cooking gear. This way I could keep setting up the shot and retaking the photos while I was waiting for my dinner to cook. Of course this also meant I could not use my headlamp as it would ruin the shot, but with a half moon – things were pretty visible and I narrowly avoided several burns. The shots were looking ok, but I knew I could get better if I waited for that moon to set. So at some point I gave up and went to sleep, waking at 3 am to use nature’s toilet and set up another hour’s worth of shooting.

One benefit of being up at 3 am to photograph the stars… there’s a lot fewer red-eye flights in the sky to ruin your shot! Of course shooting at 3 am will cause the user themselves to get red-eye. At some point I switched lenses to the 50mm just to see the difference. What you get is a bit more detail in the shot and you may be able to spot a galaxy or other phenomena. Try out different lenses to get the feel of what works for ya.

Different parts of the sky tend to have different densities of stars. It’s not always easy to identify with the naked eye, so just point your camera in different directions and see what you can get as a first pass. I do know that if you are shooting the Milky Way, that cloudy mass of stars in a lot of these shots, your best bet for brightness and density occurs early spring to early summer. This is because the Earth at night is facing what they call the galactic core, or center of the galaxy. Astronomy sites will have more detailed info on that subject though.stars in the desert night sky

For me when I am taking a star shot, I tend to like to include some of the ground for scale. The shot above had to be taken around 3 am, several hours after the moon had set, so I could get a nice silhouette. You’ll notice that if you try and shoot with a moon in the sky – it can tend to light up the ground almost as if it were daylight, depending on how long your exposure is.

Time-lapse night star photography can make for some very interesting pieces to watch. I only made a few this trip as they can take quite a while to capture. The way I did it with the Canon 5D Mark iii is to load a program called Magic Lantern on to an SD card and insert it into the camera. The program allows for all kinds of extra camera shooting features, and automated time lapse shooting is one of the benefits. Here’s a (very) short clip I made from some time-lapse photography, above.

The first star time-lapse shot was taken with Rokinon 14mm lens at f2.0, 3.2 second exposures, 12 seconds apart, ISO 3200, and there are 120 shots there – meaning it took about 30 minutes to capture. The second star time-lapse shot was also taken with the Rokinon 14mm lens at f2.0, 15 second exposures, 2 seconds apart, ISO 3200, and there are about 53 shots to make that part – so it took around 15 minutes to make.

One trick I learned to help with the monotony of time-lapse shooting, is to wait until you are ready to start your shot before beginning to cook dinner. Seriously. I set up the first star shot, then went about 10 yards away and heated up my meal in the dark. Careful not to use your headlamp unless you know it wont make it into the shot!

photographing stars in the night sky

Light pollution is pretty much everywhere these days. Above you can see it on the horizon, as the small orange area. Below it lights up the backdrop of the rocky hill.desert night sky with stars

Even after waiting for the moon to fully set (I went to sleep until 3 am) the night sky was still partially aglow in certain directions. This is due to towns and cities on the horizon.milky way photography example

To really see the Milky Way in your photos, you will need to do a bit of processing after the fact. I use Adobe Lightroom and will say that that is by far the best choice. I wont go into detail about the processing part, but I will point you in the right direction. You just need to know that the camera is not a perfect instrument, so it will not necessarily be able to get an image looking just like how your eye may have seen it. You will need to adjust the contrast, black levels, and give the right spectrum of light a little help in popping out a bit. Here’s one perspective on the editing side (and believe me there are many more).

star photography example

The shot above was taken with the moon still in the sky, thus lighting up the ground. I was lucky enough not to capture any planes in this photo – are rare occurrence in today’s world! Rokinon lens, ISO 3200, 15 seconds.moon setting in the desert night sky

This is the moon setting, right next to the Milky Way. I had to overexpose the moon in order to get more detail in the sky. This shot did need a bit of processing before the right look came to. Some photographers will take this shot as two exposures, one to get detail in the moon, and one to get the stars to show up. Then they edit the two shots together in photoshop. For me at this point I feel that’s going a bit too much into creating a ‘fabricated’ shot, though in their defense – that is typically how the eye would see it, so it’s not that far from what it naturally looks like.

star photography in the desert

Make sure to get out into the night for some of your own shots, it certainly is a peaceful way to spend the evening! Feel free to share your star shooting experience in the comments below.