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Design & Style

How to Take Night Sky Photos: Guide to Night Sky Photography

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 6 min read

Nature photography can thrill and inspire, and few natural scenes evoke more awe than that of the night sky. Whether you’re capturing the North Star, a comet, star trails, a full moon (including moonrise and moonset), or a wide-angle shot of the Milky Way, night sky photography can be thrilling for novice and professional photographers alike. This brief photography tutorial introduces you to the concept of night photography and the low light techniques that come along with it.

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What Is Night Sky Photography?

As its name suggests, night sky photography is a style of photography that focuses on the hallmarks of the night sky—stars, the moon, comets, auroras, and even distant planets.

What Equipment Do You Need for Night Sky Photography?

Night sky photography requires comparatively little equipment compared to other photographic media. The essential tools are:

  • A camera (either SLR camera or DSLR camera—which is the digital camera version of an SLR).
  • One or more lenses that can handle low light and long exposures (ideally one of these will be a wide angle lens).
  • A tripod (or perhaps a monopod).
  • An LED headlamp that can serve as a light source.

Optional tools that will make night photography easier are:

  • A remote shutter release (sometimes called an external shutter release).
  • A lens hood.
  • Camera filters.
  • An intervalometer (which works with your camera to help control the frequency of shots).

How to Photograph the Night Sky

In some ways, photographing the night sky is just like any other form of landscape photography. In other ways, it is a challenge all its own. The first consideration is what the moon will be like when you shoot. Each of the moon phases calls for its own specific technique.

  • During a full moon, your subject will probably have to be the moon itself. This is because the strength of the moon’s luminescence will overwhelm that of distant stars. A particularly bright star like Alpha Centauri may still be visible during a full moon. On the other hand, the moonlight will also help overwhelm light pollution that is coming from the ground.
  • A new moon (essentially a moonless night) is the perfect condition for photographing faint stars like those in the distant reaches of the Milky Way. However Milky Way photography (as well as other dark sky photography) tends to feature long exposure times and high ISO settings, which may be difficult for beginning photographers to wrangle.
  • A quarter moon (often called a crescent moon) can be easiest to work with. The moon’s light will illuminate your foreground, but it won’t provide so much light as to drown out starry skies. You can use lower ISO settings, which in turn provide noise reduction in your images.

No matter what state the moon is in, seek out a clear night. That tends to be the starting point for most successful nighttime photography sessions.

Once you’ve considered the night’s moonscape, you’ll want to start planning your shots. Here’s what you’ll need to do.

  1. Select a location with as little light pollution as possible. If you have a car, drive to the most rural area in your immediate vicinity. The less manmade light, the better your night sky photography.
  2. Work from a sturdy tripod. Most astrophotography requires long exposure times, so you’ll need a steady camera. Don’t risk the inevitable camera shake that will come from holding the camera yourself. Use that tripod.
  3. Select a subject. This will depend on moon conditions and the amount of ambient light pollution in your location. Clear skies are also optimal, although sometimes clouds can provide an artistic garnish.
  4. Select the proper aperture, ISO, and exposure time for the subject you pick. Dimmer objects need a wide aperture, while brighter objects may thrive with tiny apertures.
  5. Frame your photograph. If you wish to make use of the well-known “rule of thirds,” select an image that is 1/3rd horizon and 2/3rds sky.
  6. If you’re using long exposures, make use of your LED headlamp to illuminate your “canvas.” You can even use the headlamp for light painting, which involves illuminating specific parts of the scene while a camera’s shutter remains open.
  7. Begin photographing, and don’t hesitate to play with manual mode settings on your camera as you experiment.
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What Camera Settings Do You Need for Night Sky Photography?

Your camera settings will vary depending on your subject. The exposure time, aperture, and ISO required for photographing stars is not the same as those required for photographing the moon. As a general rule of thumb, these are the best settings for the following conditions.

Stars

  • Exposure time (shutter speed): 8 seconds
  • Aperture (f-stop number): f/2.8
  • ISO (sensor speed): 1600+
  • Manual focus

Star Trails

  • Exposure time (shutter speed): 32 minutes
  • Aperture (f-stop number): f/16
  • ISO (sensor speed): 400
  • Manual focus

The Moon

  • Exposure time (shutter speed): 1/250th of a second
  • Aperture (f-stop number): f/11
  • ISO (sensor speed): 100
  • Manual focus

4 Tips for Taking Photos of the Night Sky

Night sky photography takes experience to master. Use these photography tips to get the best possible images of the night sky:

  1. Don’t shoot in urban areas. The light pollution simply isn’t worth it. The best star photography occurs at least 60 miles away from major urban areas.
  2. For star shots, select ISO 1600 or higher and pick a shutter speed conducive to capturing excess light (think 30 seconds at minimum).
  3. Experiment with deliberately overexposed photographs. The white balance may be off, but this can be aesthetically pleasing when your subjects are stars. By playing with a longer exposure time, you’re pushing the boundaries of the medium and hopefully discovering new techniques for long-term use. And remember if you go into your camera’s “bulb mode,” there is no such thing as a maximum exposure time. The shutter will remain open as long as you depress the shutter button.
  4. Play with time-lapse techniques. The longer your camera shutter stays open, the more light patterns may appear in your final image.

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Common Mistakes to Avoid When Shooting the Night Sky

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Photographers of all levels can sometimes make mistakes in their night sky photography. Here are some potential errors to be mindful of:

  • Using autofocus. When your subject is essentially an area of light—as the moon, stars, and comets effectively are to our eyes—autofocus doesn’t work very well. Put your camera in manual mode, and set the focal length to infinity. Use test shots to verify that your subjects are in fact in focus.
  • Using the viewfinder. Don’t be overly reliant on your DSLR camera’s LCD viewfinder. (This also applies to smartphone cameras.) The viewfinder screen won’t give you an accurate gauge of how much light is penetrating your moon and star photography. If you want to get precise, use a light meter.
  • Not checking the histogram. After you take the shot, your digital camera can display a histogram, which is a graphical representation of the tonal value of your shot. The histogram of a well-composed photograph will indicate that the majority of pixels are away from the shot’s most extreme blacks and extreme whites. If your shot mostly contains extremes, you will need to adjust your exposure, lest you lose tremendous amounts of detail in your final image.
  • Using other automatic settings. Don’t use your camera’s automatic noise reduction feature on every shot. On the one hand, this tool will improve image quality in low light. On the other hand, it’s processor intensive and you’ll be out of batteries in no time. Digital editing software offers noise filters to do a lot of this work once you’ve uploaded your raw files onto a computer.

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