Want to learn how to take gorgeous photos of the night sky? This simple informative guide will show you how!
In this guide we’ll cover the gear you should use, the proper camera settings, and give you a step by step checklist to insure you capture the beauty of the Milky Way Galaxy, Auroras, and night sky!
What you need:
Camera: Although you can technically shoot the night sky with any camera that has manual mode, you will see the best results with a full frame DSLR or mirrorless camera. These have the best sensors and will capture crisp and vibrant night sky images. I shoot with a Nikon D750, however have seen incredible results from Canon, Fuji and Sony cameras as well. I recommend you search for tips on shooting with your specific camera as every model has it’s quarks.
Lens: To get the best results shooting the Milky Way or night sky you will want a wide angle lens (less than 25mm) with an F-stop (aperture) rating of 4.0 or lower. Preferably 1.8 for the best results. The lower the F stop, the more light your lens can take in and the lower you can keep your ISO which equals a cleaner photo. I shoot with a Nikkor 14mm F 1.8.
Tripod: A sturdy tripod is very important. You want to make sure your camera is stable in wind and does not move when taking long exposures.
Shutter Release: Though not required, this is certainly great to have. A shutter release is a wired (some wireless) controller that you use to manually open and close the shutter of your camera for any desired length of time. Most cameras have predetermined increments for shutter speeds, for example, if you can keep your shutter open for 28 seconds without star trails, you will need a manual shutter release to do so or you may be limited to the 25 seconds setting on your camera. There are all types of models and brands that make shutter releases and honestly you don’t need anything fancy to get the job done.
Headlamp: It is so important to have a headlamp when operating in the dark! I recommend one that has a red light mode which will allow you to see without blinding everyone around you. Also, make sure it swivels up and down so you can point it at the ground when walking near groups of people. It’s important to always be respectful of other photographers in the area as to not ruin their long exposures.
Night Sky App: This is important because it can show you where and when the Milky Way will rise above the horizon. I use an iPhone app called “Sky Guide” which allows you to place yourself anywhere in the world and select any time and date. This lets you do scouting research from your couch! If you combine this with Google Street view you can often plan out a shoot from thousands of miles away! Below you can see one of my shooting locations in Rocky Mountain National Park. Once I knew where the Milky Way was rising, I went onto google maps and did some research. You can see the actual picture I took below in this exact spot!
I like to plan out where and when I will be shooting the night sky, and preparing and doing your homework will certainly produce better results.
On my recent trip to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) I knew I wanted to shoot the milky way at least one of the nights I was there. I knew it was the right time of year and that the elevation I was at and the remoteness of the park would deliver incredible results with little light pollution.
Before my trip I first researched photos of the Milky Way taken at RMNP on Instagram and 500PX. This would give me some good ideas on places to checkout when I arrived. Like any photographer, I like to discover my own unique compositions, however this being my first trip to RMNP, I wanted to have at least one go to location that I could count on for a solid photo. If there was time after I captured that, I could go explore and find my own, but I didn’t want to leave with nothing!
I decided on shooting at Bear Lake. It was a short walk from a parking lot and relatively easy to get to. (I had surgery just a month before so long hikes at 1am were out of the question!)
Practice changing your camera’s shutter speed, ISO and aperture with your eyes closed. You don’t want to be fumbling with them in the dark!
Scouting: It’s always important to be as prepared as possible when shooting the night sky. You don’t want to be fumbling around in the dark! On my first day at RMNP I went straight to Bear Lake to check it out. Once I got there I opened up my iPhone app “Sky Guide” and by fast forwarding time I could see exactly where and when the Milky Way would rise above the horizon. Using this I found 2-3 different vantage points around the lake that would frame the Milky Way nicely above the mountains and give some interesting foreground elements to work with. I figured out where I would set my tripod, where I could safely lay my bag etc. All these little details allow you to focus on taking great pictures and not worry if the log you’re stepping on is safe and sturdy.
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To start, you will be operating your camera in manual mode. This will give you the most control over your settings and the best results. I recommend having a copy of your camera’s manual on your phone to reference if you aren’t intimately familiar of its settings. There’s nothing worse than being in the field, knowing what you need to do, but not being able to figure out how to do it on your camera.
Aperture (F-Stop): Your aperture setting determines how much light your lens lets in when you press the shutter release. The lower this number is, the more light you are letting in. In astrophotography this is one of the most important factors of capturing a clear, vibrant night sky. If your lens can go as low as 2.8, then that is what you want! The lower the aperture number the better your results!
Shutter Speed: This requires a little math to get just right. You want to be able to keep your shutter open for as long as you can to allow as much light as possible into your sensor. However, if you leave it open for too long, the stars in the sky will move a little and appear blurry or with a trail behind them. To make sure this doesn’t happen, I follow the rule of 500. (500 /FL = X seconds) The equation is quite simple. First take the focal length you are shooting at. (I shoot with a Nikkor 14mm which would be “14”) Then divide 500 by that number. (500 / 14 = 35.7) Then round your answer down to the nearest second, (35) and that is how long you can safely keep your shutter open before stars start to “trail”.
When shooting Auroras, you might want them to have a crisp edge, instead of appearing blurry. In this case you will want to have a faster shutter speed, perhaps 6-8 seconds.
ISO: This is the third and final camera setting and the one you will have to tweak as you go. ISO, which is the sensitivity of your sensor, is different from camera to camera, so dialing this in will be personal to your camera and the night sky you are shooting. I typically start at 3200 and work my way up until the image is bright enough for my taste. You do not want to shoot at an ISO higher than you need to because the higher your ISO the more noise your image will have. This is typically the setting I am tweaking all the time when shooting the night sky. Sometimes if the sky is bright enough 3200 may be too high for you.
Taking the Photo
Step 1: Make sure your tripod is locked in and sturdy. Do not have the legs or neck any more extended than they need to be.
Step 2: Attach your cable release and secure it to the tripod so it doesn’t dangle and shake your camera.
Step 3: Set your camera to Manual Mode.
Step 4: Set your ISO to 3200-6400 to start.
Step 5: Set your white balance to AUTO.
Step 6: Focus your camera to infinity. You do this by turning off autofocus (AF) and using live view on your screen. Zoom in as much as possible to a star and manually focus on that star. Once you have it focused, be very careful to not accidentally move the focus ring.
Step 7: Make sure you’re shooting in RAW!
Step 8: Push and hold your manual release for the maximum amount of time (using the 500 rule)
Step 9: Review your results and adjust your ISO as needed. If the image is too dark, increase the ISO, if it is too bright, lower it.
Step 10:(optional) If you will be blending images in Photoshop, you can shoot the landscape at a lower ISO with a longer shutter speed to get better foreground clarity with less noise.
I hope this simple guide helps you prepare to capture some amazing night sky images!
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Until next time
Brian Fabiano is a travel photographer and co-founder of Discovery Photo Tours. When he’s not leading photography tours to exotic destinations he enjoys expanding his post processing knowledge and developing new styles and techniques. You can learn more about Brian’s photography work on his official bio page and contact him here