5 Keys to Photographing the Night Sky

Posted on 20 December 2018


Our species has marveled at the night sky for as long as we’ve been around. Every ancient civilization, no matter where they were located or what they believed, looked to the stars, the constellations, the moon, and meteor showers to make sense of the world.

And it makes sense. Almost nothing is more spectacular than the night sky. So how do you do it justice in your pictures? Here are five keys to photographing the night sky like a pro.

Get the right gear

Unfortunately, there’s a limit to what point-and-shoot cameras can achieve when photographing the night sky. And they can’t achieve much.

You’ll need a DSLR, ideally one with a f/2.8 or faster lens. With regard to the lens, the wider the better. A tripod is also an essential piece of gear. And don’t skimp. It shouldn’t wobble if you touch it. If you want to go beyond 30-second exposures (which is the limit most cameras will allow you to do with their built-in timer), a tripod with a cable release will be essential. As you become more experienced, you may want to consider a tripod with a cable release and a built-in timer.

Get the timing right

The cosmos are how we keep time, so it should be no surprise that one of the keys to photographing the night sky is knowing how it changes with the seasons.

One great tool, which will tell you everything from when the moon will rise and set, when the next full moon is, and when and where you can catch a “supermoon,” is an app called the Photographer’s Ephemeris, which is available on all major platforms. Other good apps include, PhotoPills and Go Sky Watch.

Other astronomy software can tell you where any celestial object will be in the sky from any point on earth. Want to capture a shooting star? That’s all about timing too.

(You can check out a schedule of meteor showers in our star photography blog.)

Short-term timing, like time of day, is also important. Early evening and dusk are great times to photograph the moon because there’s still some light in the landscape to balance with the moon’s glow.

Escape light pollution

What else is important for photographing the night sky? Darkness of course! With ever-increasing amounts of light pollution, true darkness is in short supply.

The International Dark-Sky Association (IDSA) is the recognized authority on light pollution and is the leading organization combating light pollution worldwide.

To find great places to shoot the night sky, check out the IDSA’s 100 “dark sky places.” Find out if one is near you in their Dark Sky Interactive Map or get the Dark Sky Finder app.

Dial up the ISO

Milky Way – Mara River, Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya

In-camera low-light sensitivity has made photographing the night sky easier than ever before as cameras’ capabilities just keep getting better and better. Only ten years ago, ISO 1600 was considered state of the art. Now ISO 6400 and above is considered the norm in high-end cameras.

To have the Milky Way appear like a rich cloud of milk dumped into coffee, you need to push the limits of your ISO. Try a 20-second exposure with a f/4 stop at ISO 4000.

Milky Way – Rub al Khali, The Empty Quarter, Oman

You need to remember that the stars are constantly moving, though it does not seem so to the naked eye. As a result, shorter exposures will give you sharper stars. Experiment with different exposure times to determine which effect you like most.

Much more than a 40 second exposure and the stars will appear to have moved, which they have. At more than 60 seconds they will start to streak across your composition. And the shorter your lens, the shorter your exposure time will need to be.

When using high ISO, you’re going to get a good amount of noise. Use a noise reduction software in your camera, if available, as well as in post-production.

Do it justice with white balance

What color is the night sky? Your instinct may be to say it’s black or a deep purple, but you may be surprised to find that its actually reddish or pinkish, especially if you’re using a longer exposure. To get a color that more closely resembles what we associate with the night sky, use white balance setting to enhance the blue end of the light spectrum.

Using the tungsten white balance setting instead of daylight mode will reduce the Kelvin temperature recorded and give you a cooler image from the start. Shoot in raw so you have maximum control to adjust the warmth of your pictures in post-production.

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