Many people photograph during the golden hours around sunrise and sunset, but after the sun goes down a whole new world of photography opens up and the possibilities are endless…
Have you seen amazing photos of night skies full of stars and wondered how the photo was taken? Would you like to capture the beauty of the stars and the galaxy yourself? Would you like to photograph the night sky?
It’s actually surprisingly simple.
This free tutorial will focus on Night Sky Star Photography and will help you to take these shots by explaining the techniques, tips and tricks used for amazing night sky photos. I will explain the equipment you need and the best way to choose a location to photograph from.
When photographing the stars you can choose either to show motion (star trails), or capture the stars as pinpoints of light. This tutorial is designed to help you with the latter.
What do you need?
- Camera with manual mode (ideally a DSLR)
- A dark night
- A dark location
Not essential but useful
- Wide angle, fast lens (a lens with a large maximum aperture)
- Timer/ remote release
- Lens hood
The 500 rule
- Some people call this the 600 rule, but I find using 500 is more conservative and will get you great sharp results.
- How does it work? Divide 500 by the focal length of your lens. That will give you the time in seconds that you can use as your slowest shutter speed before you start noticing star trails forming.
- For example, using a full frame camera and 16mm lens (500 ÷ 16= 31 seconds). This means that exposure times up to 31 seconds will have minimal star trail. For crop sensors you will need to correct for the sensor size first (ie. multiply the focal length by 1.5 for Nikon, or 1.6 for Canon). So a 16mm focal length on a Canon crop sensor 16 x 1.6= 25.6, then 500 ÷ 25.6= 19 sec maximum exposure time.
- If you go beyond these maximum exposure times you will start to notice star trails due to movement caused by the rotation of the earth.
Camera Settings for Night Sky Photography
Now there is no one size fits all solution, but for a good start try:
- Camera Mode– Manual
- Aperture– choose the widest possible eg f/2.8 or f/4
- Shutter speed– slowest possible calculated by the 500 rule- often 30 seconds is a good place to start
- ISO– Minimum possible although this will still have to be quite high (often ISO 2500-5000). Experiment with your camera, increasing ISO will increase digital noise. See what your camera can handle before the image starts to lose too much quality.
- Image format– RAW is best (see my tutorial RAW vs JPEG for more information on this).
- White Balance– if you are shooting RAW you can correct the White Balance in post processing. Otherwise you can set a white balance using the Kelvin or “K” setting to get a natural looking white balance in the field. You will need to experiment using trial and error with this.
- Focal length– Usually wide angles work best (eg 14-20mm) but why not experiment and see what you like!
- Focus– usually manually focusing to infinity works well, but make sure you take a test shot, refocus slightly if necessary and repeat until your photo is sharp.
- Ideally you should use a remote release, although the 2 second timer also works well to minimise camera vibration caused by pressing the shutter.
- Take a trial shot at maximum aperture and the slowest possible shutter speed then vary the ISO until the photo is correctly exposed.
What I use
- Nikon D800E
- Nikkor 16-35mm f/4
- Gitzo Tripod
- Really Right Stuff BH 55 Ball Head
- Really Right Stuff L plate for Nikon D800/800E
- Remote release
Choosing a location
- For the best night sky photos you need to find dark places that are away from light pollution, smog and cloud
- For a map of light pollution try this site- Blue Marble Dark Skies Map
The darkest part of the night
- Your camera will pick up the most detail in the night sky during the darkest part of the night.
- The darkest part of the night is after Astronomical Twilight ends in the evening and before it begins again the next morning.
- To work out when this time is, you can use The Photographers Ephemeris. This free app will do all the hard work for you. Just pinpoint your location on the map and read off the time between the end and beginning of Astronomical Twilight (more on this later).
- The darker the sky, the brighter the stars shine.
- Also remember to factor in light from the moon- for the best photos of the Milky Way the moon should be at least 1 hour below the horizon.
Finding the Milky Way
- You can see the Milky Way at night just by looking. If you cannot see the Milky Way with your eyes (after they have adjusted to the dark) you will have trouble capturing it with your camera.
- Our planet actually sits near the middle of the Milky Way, so in effect the Milky Way surrounds us!
- It’s easy to be excited by the night sky and forget all about good composition! Including some ground in your photo will help to orientate the scene, while reflective surfaces such as still water will help by reflecting the starlight.
And something more- for those who like extra detail…
- Once the sun goes down we enter twilight, but there are actually 3 categories of twilight:
- Civil twilight (brightest)- When terrestrial objects can still be clearly distinguished
- Nautical twilight– When the horizon can be distinguished (and hence used to measure elevation of the stars for night sky navigation)
- Astronomical twilight (darkest)- From the end of astronomical twilight at night until the beginning of it the next morning, the night sky is as dark as it gets- a good time to take photos to see the most stars!