13 Night Sky Photography Tips

There isn’t something more fascinating than the combination of seeing the world at night and capturing the stars at a particular moment in time. Astrophotography gives you a strong sense of meaningful existence within the Universe.

Photographing the stars in the night sky can be a challenge though. It requires a lot of planning and patience, as well as the use of resources that you wouldn’t normally utilize for daytime photography. To help you get starting, I’ve put together 13 tips for shooting stars, which will help to take the guesswork out of creating unique and inspiring images at night.

Images by @Kamilsalameh

1.  Choose a Good Location

When shooting the stars, you should make sure to pick an area with little light pollution. Head out away from the city and search for a location that offers interesting compositional elements which will help to give the stars some context. 

A strong foreground subject will allow you to tell a story and can even demonstrate the scale of the scene. So rather than just pointing your camera up at the sky, look for something to frame it with instead.

Nothing is more boring than a shot of the stars without any composition.

2.  Check the Moon Phases & Star Movements

To make sure that you’ll end up with stunning photos of the starry night sky, do your research before you head out. There’s nothing worse than going out to shoot the Milky Way, only to realize that you’ve missed the timeframe when it formed the perfect arch that you were after. 

Apps like Photo Pills, Star Walk (for iOS), and Google Sky Map (Android) are great to help you plan your shoot ahead of time so that you’ll be perfectly prepared to capture the shot.

The amount of moonlight in the sky can have a dramatic effect on both the landscape and the stars.

A new moon is great for capturing the Milky Way and fainter stars that are more distant from Earth. On the other hand, a full moon can illuminate the foreground nicely, though you’ll often find that the stars may be drowned out by the light.

3.  Use a Wide-Angle Lens

A wide-angle is the best type of lens for photographing stars at night. You need to get a large field of view. It is essential to get as much of the sky as you can into the frame, meaning that you’ll be able to see more stars. A wide-angle lens will allow you to capture more of the night sky. 

Recommended: Best NikonLens For Astrophotography

When choosing a wide-angle lens, look for one that is not too heavy, so you won’t ever regret taking it with you on longer hikes and trips. Prime lenses with wide apertures, such as the Sigma 14mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art, are great for star photography as they often produce sharper images and work well at capturing details in the night.

It is not mandatory to invest in a prime wide-angle lens. Most of the DSLRs come with a kit lens starting at 18mm with an aperture around f/3. They work just fine.

In addition, low levels of chromatic aberration also make a lens ideal for star photography, so make sure to do your research before you invest in a dedicated lens for photographing at night.

4.  Bring a Tripod

The last thing you’ll want when photographing stars is a blurry image, which is exactly what you’ll get if you don’t bring a tripod. A solid tripod is vital for star photography and will make a huge difference to the images that you’ll be able to capture at night, especially you are capturing your imaging with a long exposure time.

By mounting your camera to a tripod, you’ll be creating a stable workspace that will keep your camera still during longer exposures. You will also be able to ensure that the composition remains consistent, particularly if you’re planning to take a series of shots with the same foreground elements. 

Just be sure that the tripod you choose to bring can adequately support the weight of your gear.

5.  Wear a Headlamp

Unless you fancy falling over in the dark of night, then it’s a good idea to bring along a source of light when you’re out and about photographing the stars. Rather than lugging around a hand-torch, try wearing a headlamp instead.

Headlamps are great for night photography as they follow your line of vision, meaning that your hands will be free to handle your camera gear. Choose a headlamp that has a red LED function, which will allow you to operate your camera in the dark whilst maintaining your night vision.

5.  Take a Spare Battery or Two

Shooting the stars puts you in a situation facing many factors that can have an enormous impact on your battery power and drain your camera’s battery at a much faster rate than during the daytime. 

It’s colder at night, you’ll likely be using the Live View function a lot more so that you can review your images, as well as making longer exposures to capture the stars. All these.

To ensure that you’ll be able to keep shooting throughout the night, bring along a spare battery or two. Keeping them in a warm pocket on the inside of your clothing can also help to prolong the battery life.

6.  Release the Shutter Remotely

Whenever you press the shutter release button on your camera, you’ll end up introducing a degree of movement which can affect the sharpness of your images. This becomes more apparent at night when shooting with a slower shutter speed.

To prevent the risk of camera shake when photographing stars, use a remote or external shutter release. This way, you’ll be able to trigger the shutter without having to touch your camera.

Some cameras have an in-built function that will allow you to set the shutter to be released automatically after a 2-second delay. While you’ll still have to press the shutter release button manually, a couple of seconds is often enough for the movement to pass through your gear so that it won’t influence the final image.

You can also connect the camera to your smartphone via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. Most camera makers have their own apps to connect the DSLR to a smartphone.

You can also invest in an intervalometer. It is like a remote shutter release, though it includes a timer that will allow you to take multiple long exposures, one after the other, within a specific period of time. By using an intervalometer, you’ll be able to control how long you’ll take images for and how many shots will be taken. This is essential for some forms of star photography, such as capturing star trails.

7.  Use Filters

There are a couple of very useful filters on the market that can assist you greatly when photographing stars.

The first is the SharpStar2 Precision Focusing Tool by Lonely Speck. This is a focusing aid that will help you to consistently achieve sharp and focused stars, particularly when shooting at night.

The second is a light pollution reduction filter, which does exactly what it purports to do – reducing the effect of light pollution to deliver color neutrality in your images. Not to confuse with neutral density filters.

8.  Shoot in RAW

Shooting in RAW format is particularly important for star photography, particularly if you’re planning to edit your photos later with software such as StarStax or Adobe Photoshop. 

RAW files contain all the data recorded in the scene, as opposed to a JPEG, which is processed and compressed within your camera. By shooting in RAW, you’ll have more information to work with later on when you want to change the white balance in post-production or if you need to combine your star trail images into a single photograph.

It’s good to mention that RAW files are much bigger than JPGs so make sure you have free space on your memory card and bring some extra ones.

9.  Turn Off In-Camera Noise Reduction and image Stabilization 

The reason that you should turn off the in-camera noise reduction is that it increases your camera’s processing time between images. After it takes an image, it will take a second image with the same exposure time, which ultimately burns through your batteries. 

This is also not very useful when you are trying to capture star trails, as the length of time between each exposure will result in noticeable gaps within the trails.

As you’ll be shooting in RAW, turn off your camera’s automatic noise reduction function. If you really need to, then you can always apply noise reduction using post-processing software later on.

Switch off any in-built image stabilization functions within your camera or lens. Since you’ll be shooting on a tripod, you won’t need to have this option turned on. The internal mechanics of image stabilization can introduce small vibrations into your camera and tripod, which will affect the sharpness of your images.

10.  Manually Focus

The autofocus function of most cameras will often fail in the dark, so the trick to achieving sharp focus at night is to do it manually.

You can do this simply by adjusting the focal length of your lens to infinity and taking a test shot to verify that the stars are in focus. If they aren’t, then make small adjustments until they’re sharp.

A better way to manually focus at night is to switch on the Live View function and zoom in on the brightest star that appears on the LCD. If you can’t see any stars at all, then your lens is likely completely out of focus so just adjust the focus until you can see some stars – it doesn’t matter if they’re blurry at this stage.

Next, adjust the focus manually until the star appears as small and sharp as possible.

11.  Shoot in Manual or Bulb Mode

It’s easier to shoot the stars in Manual mode than any other shooting mode. You’ll have full control over the settings, including shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, meaning that you’ll be able to capture incredible details even at night.

The only limitation of shooting in Manual mode is that a lot of cameras will only allow you to take an exposure of under 30 seconds.

If you want to take longer exposures, then switch to Bulb mode, which will override this limit. You’ll then be able to shoot at a shutter speed of any length that you choose, be that 35 seconds, a minute, 20 minutes, or a few hours.

The camera shutter will stay open for as long as you hold down the shutter release button. This is ideal for creating star trails and deep-sky astrophotography.

I would like to mention that choosing the perfect shutter speed is the most critical decision you take during astrophotography. The rule of 500 remains my ultimate choice.

12.  Use a Wide Aperture

Shooting in the dark can be challenging. When photographing stars, the aim is to collect as much light as possible on your camera’s sensor. The wider the aperture of your lens, the more light it will let in during the exposure, so pick an aperture anywhere between f/1.4 to f/2.8.

While you don’t need to use the maximum aperture of your lens, a larger aperture will mean that you can achieve a faster exposure time. This is important for achieving sharp, pinpoint stars.

Usually, anything above a 25-30 second exposure is enough time for the stars to noticeably move within the frame, meaning that you’ll end up with star trails instead.

13.  Shoot with a High ISO

Night photography requires the use of high ISO values, which amplifies the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor to light. Over the past few years, camera technology has improved at a rapid rate.

These days, you can photograph at higher ISO ranges, such as ISO 1600, 3200, and 6400, with very little noise.

The ISO value that you choose to use will depend a lot upon your aperture and desired shutter speed. In general, start with an ISO of around 1600 or 3200, depending on your lens. You can then adjust the ISO higher or lower to produce an optimum exposure.

Now Give It A Try…

Learning how to photograph stars at night can be challenging but once you get the basics, you’ll find that star photography can be a very rewarding experience.

Follow these tips and tricks but don’t be afraid to experiment; with a little practice, you may find yourself taking stunning images of the stars in no time.

Mastering all these steps is not enough, finding the perfect combination of manual settings on your camera is very critical. I will explain that in the following articles.

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