Night Sky Photography Guide
This is going to be a quick and fast guide for how to get out and photograph the night sky. The details are tailored towards beginner to intermediate photographers with some explanation into the "why" of the concepts you will learn. Post processing will be covered more in depth in a future guide, this is how to create the images first.
Step 1:) Gear
You will need a dslr or mirrorless camera, a fast wide angle lens (think f/2.8 or faster) and a sturdy tripod. Optional extras are a cable release or remote (or use the self timer), lights for light painting the foreground and blending. Advanced tech like star trackers, motorized tripod heads, etc are not covered in this guide.
Step 2:) Planning
Astrophotography is a very dependant on nature and what is going on above you. Planning in advance will make a world of difference in your images. Here are some conditions to take into consideration when planning your night sky photos:
Light Pollution - Find a dark sky location near you: Dark Site Finder - maps
Moon phase - Again dark skies are best so avoid full moon: Almanac - calendar
Clouds - THE TRUE ENEMY: NOAA Weather Service (Select your state and mouse over the Sky Cover to see clouds)
Meteor Showers: American Meteor Society - list
Find Milky Way: Stellarium - AR view
***Best Phone App: PhotoPills - Has most of the above build into one application
Step 3:) Settings and focusing
You will want to photograph in Manual Mode to have full control over the settings. Use RAW or RAW + JPG mode to capture the most data, you will want this for post processing.
Aperture: f/2.8 - f/4
For astrophotography you will want the light that shooting wide open gives you. If you need more in focus you will want to focus stack multiple images.
ISO: ISO 300-800 is the ideal but often times because of your gear and the darkness you will need to go higher.
This is the setting that can make or break the image quality of your photos. The higher the ISO the more noise. Find a balance based on the ambient light of your location and the capabilities of your specific gear.
Shutter Speed: For star trails use 30s or longer. The longer you go the longer the trail. Take many photos and stack them later for the best star trail images.
For single images where you want the stars as pin points and not trails there is the 500 rule and the more up to date NPF rule which takes into account the megapixels of your camera. Use a calculator like PhotoPills for an exact shutter speed on your specific camera body and lens combo. For my gear it is 11s. I recommend 10-15s for newer model cameras.
Focusing: This can be the bane of your astrophotography existence. At night the camera will struggle with autofocus and you will most likely need to use manual focus. The easiest way is to use live view and magnify in on an area with a bright star then manually adjust focus until it is sharp. There are several other methods but all fall back on the basics of having to look and check your focus. There are also tools you can purchase to help focus at night like this filter called a Sharp Star. Lastly when on a tripod turn off any lens stabilization. Your lens likely has a flip switch on it to turn this on/off. Otherwise your IS may shift or float and ruin your long exposures.
Pro Tip: If you are out for a long time doing single exposures (not a star stack) just double check your manual focus periodically in case you bumped it accidentally, lens creep, etc. Better to check it then realize later half your photos are out of focus.
Star Trails - To Trail or Not to Trail
There are three ways that I use to create star trail photos. Each has advantages and disadvantages. For you it will likely come down to the level of skill that you are at with post processing. I will list them from least to most post processing required.
Star Trail - Single Image: This is taking a very long exposure to allow the movement of the stars through the sky to create a star trail. This can be a trial and error situation, start with an exposure for 4 minutes then increase until you like the trail effect.
Star Trail - Image Stack: Take many captures of the night sky over a long period of time from one location without changing the settings or moving the camera. This is best with an intervalometer or a camera with this function built in so you just set the camera and leave it capture the images for you. The most popular method is to take 30-60s exposures over several hours with a 1 second interval between photos. This 1s interval allows the sensor time to cool between photos.
Then later on you blend these photos in post processing to create the star trails. There are several programs that completely automate this the most popular are PC: Sequator and MAC: Starry Landscape Stacker
Star Trail - Photoshop: This technique is not for purists. You take one photo of the night sky. In Photoshop you select just the sky in your image and duplicate it onto a separate later. You paste another copy of the sky in, change blend mode to Lighten, and rotate it 0.1. Do this over and over 50+ times as needed to taste or create a PS action to automate. Merge the 50+ sky layers onto one and adjust it using the Transform tool to fit.
For single image milky way photos you will want f/2.8, 10-30s exposure (based on NPF rule as mentioned above) and an ISO as low as possible for the ambient light at your location. Start with ISO 1600 and go up or down based on your needs.
Night Sky Workshops
I also teach classes on night sky photography in the field. These are all small group workshops with care taken so that each participant learns, has a great time and creates beautiful photographs. If you would like to join a workshop or learn more about the current classes on multiple photography topics check out the Workshop Page.
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