Are you tired of taking nighttime photos that come out dark, empty, and boring? Getting good results from your camera is difficult and requires more discipline than simply aiming at the sky and hoping it turns out okay.
But once you learn the basics, your night sky photographs will drastically improve. Best of all, anyone can pick up the basics in no time.
The Equipment You’ll Need
Equipment is an essential component of photography, but more so when dealing with night sky shots. Beginners will find low-light conditions to be less forgiving than when shooting during the day. Fortunately, you can mitigate this frustration with a few key pieces of equipment.
To take good photographs of the night sky, you will need a camera with manual exposure mode. Many new smartphones are capable of this, so you can also use your phone to take night sky photos.
However, your best bet will be to get your hands on a digital SLR or mirrorless camera. These dedicated cameras have high ISO capability, so your night sky images will not have noise. Plus, you have more control over things like white balance, shooting in RAW, and so on.
For the most part, any lens will work fine. But if your goal is to snag a beautiful landscape-type shot that prominently displays as much of the sky as possible, you’ll want to go with a wide-angle lens, ideally 24 mm or wider. To learn more about lenses, check out our guide to common photography lenses.
Choose a fast lens for night-sky photography. A fast lens has a very wide aperture like f/2.8 or f/1.8, which is great for shooting in low-light conditions.
Don’t have a wide-angle lens but still want to capture the sweeping night sky vistas? You can use your regular or zoom lenses to take multiple shots and stitch them together in photo editing software.
This is non-negotiable! In low-light situations, such as when you’re outside during the dark of night, you’ll most likely be using a long exposure. As such, the camera needs to stay absolutely still during the entire exposure, or you’ll end up with a “smeared” photo.
You have two options: buy a camera tripod or build your own camera tripod. Either way, you need one. Seriously, this cannot be stressed enough—resting your camera against some moss and stones simply isn’t going to cut it.
A tripod is crucial, but it isn’t enough. When you press the button to snap a photo, the camera is going to shake a bit—and this is true no matter how lightly you think you can press it. You can solve this issue with a remote shutter (wireless) or shutter release cable (wired).
You can usually purchase a cheap one for less than 20 dollars. Alternatively, you can just use your camera’s in-built timer to take your shots, which delays exposure long enough for the camera to stabilize before taking the picture.
Techniques for Shooting the Night Sky
Photography is complex. There are a lot of nuances that differentiate portrait photography from food photography or landscape photography. Here are some fundamentals that you should know when shooting at night.
You should use the manual mode to have full control of the settings. The actual settings for your camera will differ depending on your equipment specifics and lighting conditions, but here’s a good baseline:
- Shutter speed: 15 seconds
- Aperture: f/2.8
- ISO: 800
However, don’t be afraid to experiment. It doesn’t take much effort to change those settings on the fly. Just remember that changing one setting usually calls for changes to the other two settings according to the rules of exposure.
Still a complete newbie? Here are the key photography tips every beginner should know.
Super Long Exposure
By using an exposure of several seconds (rather than the instantaneous “click” of everyday photography), the camera picks up more light from the stars, the sky, and the horizon. That’s why most of the night sky photographs seem brighter than they actually are.
But once you start moving into exposure lengths of several minutes, a new phenomenon appears—the star trail.
The earth is always rotating, which means the stars above are always moving—it’s just so slow that we can’t see it with the naked eye. The camera sees it, however. And given a long enough exposure, the resulting shot can “track” the movement of stars across the sky.
If you like your stars to be sharp without trails, then you should use rules like NPF or 500 to calculate your shutter speed.
After you’ve taken your shots, you should open them up in Lightroom or Photoshop (or some other choice of photo editing software). First, adjust the exposure and noise to your liking. Then, edit the curves and levels to increase contrast, brighten specific colors, and ultimately make the photo more interesting.
Other Handy Tips
Now that you know the technical settings let’s look at the other things you should pay attention to.
Location is critical for proper astrophotography. You want it to be as dark as possible so that your camera’s sensor detects all the subtle details in the night sky. For this reason, you should avoid light pollution at all costs lest it ruins your photos’ potential.
Light pollution is an excess of artificial light, and it’s most prominent in heavily-populated urban environments like cities. The general rule of thumb is that you should be at least an hour away from a large city to minimize the impact.
Check Dark Site Finder to find dark sky spots near you.
Composing the Shot
Most of the time, you’ll want to plan your shot in a way that incorporates the night sky into a bigger picture. Is it okay to take a picture of just the sky? Sure, but chances are it’ll turn out boring unless you’re shooting a specific subject (e.g., constellation, aurora, nebula, or some other space phenomenon).
Proper composition, which is the visual arrangement of the photograph, is one way to inject a lot of depth and interest into your shot. Unfortunately, composition is too deep a topic to cover in just a few paragraphs, but you can learn more about it on these beginner photography YouTube channels.
Take Amazing Night Sky Photos
Try approaching night sky photography as you would any landscape photography. Rather than treating the night sky as its own subject, consider how the night sky can enhance the landscape below it.
Eventually, you’ll develop your own style for how you like to photograph the night sky. It can be tricky at first, so don’t give up! The night sky can produce some of the most visually stunning photographs ever, and the effort is well worth it.
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