Few things are as meditative as getting out into the quiet of nature, and one great way to do that is astrophotography. Photographing the night sky requires patience and planning, but it offers a chance to be in the moment while creating some amazing images you can look back on for years to come. Here, we break down some tips for photographing the night sky, from the equipment you’ll need to the process itself.
What You Need to Shoot the Night Sky
While snapping photos at night may seem complicated, you don’t need a high-end camera to get the shot. Instead, make sure you have a few pieces of equipment:
- A camera that lets you manually control aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, and shoot RAW files.
- A tripod, preferably one that can stand up to wind.
- A wide-angle, wide-aperture lens (f/2.8 or wider).
- A shutter release cable or remote camera trigger.
All of these items will help you keep the camera still enough to let the maximum amount of light into the lens, at the lowest ISO setting, for the amount of time needed to get a good night sky exposure. For true astrophotography, we recommend the Sony FE 14mm F1.8 GM or Sigma 14mm F1.8 DG HSM Art ultrawide lenses, but the Sony FE 12-24mm F2.8 GM and Sigma 14-24mm F2.8 DG DN Art can also get the job done.
Choose Your Location
Since you’ll need to use a longer exposure time to capture the faint light of the stars in your image, you’ll want to get away from sources of bright, artificial light. Less populated areas like the desert, mountains, or just a fairly secluded park are all good places to try. Some resources you can use to find dark areas near you include:
- International Dark-Sky Association
- Online Light Pollution Map
- Dark Site Finder
You can also take extra measures to preserve your night vision while out in the dark, like using a flashlight with a red light mode and lowering the brightness on your camera LCD. If you have a night-mode app on your phone, use that too.
Plan For the Weather and the Moon
In addition to light pollution levels, you’ll want to check the weather for your planned shoot location and date. A clear, cloudless night will allow you to capture the most light and make the best images. Don’t forget to check the moon, too. It’s recommended that you shoot in the week before or a few days after the new moon to avoid it being too bright (unless you’re trying to get a shot of the moon itself).
If you’re photographing the Milky Way, apps like GoSkyWatch and The Photographer’s Ephemeris can help you determine where the galactic center will be so you can capture your best shot. It can also help you plan your shoot for before the moon rises if you can’t shoot around the time of the new moon.
Get Set Up
Once you’ve picked your location, time, and date, you’re ready to get out and shoot. Make sure you have enough time to get to the site, set up your gear, and dial in your settings before you start shooting.
When setting up your camera, consider the composition of the shot. What do you want to be the subject of your image? Purely the night sky, or do you want to include some interesting objects in the foreground? Putting some thought into the composition of your photograph can make all the difference, so experiment with a few different ideas until you find one you like.
Make sure all the legs of your tripod are settled into the ground (or water) and are as steady as you can make them. You’ll want to get as much of the sky in your shot as possible, so if you can get your hands on a wide lens with a wide aperture, use it. Anywhere from 10-35mm is a good range for focal length, but the wider the better. A lowest aperture of f/2.8 will get the job done, but use a lens that can open to f/1.8 or wider if you can.
Put your camera in manual mode so you can control all three of your most important settings: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
- Aperture is the opening through which light enters your lens. The wider the opening, the more light you get.
- Shutter speed is how long the shutter stays open to let light hit your sensor. Lower shutter speed equals more light, but more chance for motion blur, which is why you need a tripod.
- ISO determines how sensitive your camera sensor will be to the light that hits it. Higher ISO equals higher light sensitivity. Boosting this too high, however, can cause static-like noise in your shot.
Auto white balance is fine to start with, but you can also use tungsten or daylight white balance settings for astrophotography. You can adjust the color in post processing, but it’s best to get things as close to correct in-camera as you can.
If your camera allows it, set it to write one RAW file and one JPEG file for each shot you take, so you’ll have a backup. You can also go the pro route and take two memory cards, then set your camera to record a RAW file to both cards for each shot you take. RAW files capture the most data, and will give you the most room to edit them later without the image breaking down.
You’ll need to use a remote trigger or shutter release cable, so either connect it to your camera or set your camera to remote trigger mode. If you’re not sure how to do that, it will be in your camera’s user manual.
Turn autofocus off and adjust the focus ring on your lens to infinity, then focus from there. It will likely be too dark for the autofocus on your camera to work, but you can still use a DSLR’s live view function or a mirrorless camera’s electronic viewfinder to experiment and nail your focus.
Take the Shot
Now that you’ve set up your gear and composed your shot, you’re ready to do what you came here to do: shoot. An ISO of around 800 is usually good to start with. With your lens aperture as wide open as it will go, use your remote trigger to take your first shot.
You’ll want to keep the shutter open for about 22-25 seconds, and you can do that by adjusting your camera’s shutter speed until you see “bulb.” Bulb mode will keep the shutter open for as long as your finger is on the shutter release button or, in this case, the remote trigger.
If you don’t have a remote trigger or cable release, use your camera’s self-timer. You’ll usually get the option to adjust between a few time increments, like two-, five-, or 10-second timers. Set the shutter speed for a 30-second or one-minute exposure, then choose the longest timer increment—10 seconds between you pressing the shutter and your camera taking the shot will allow any tiny wobbles in the tripod to settle before the shutter fires.
After the shot, zoom in on your camera’s LCD to check your focus. Are the stars sharp? Is the shot too dark? Adjust your settings accordingly and try again.
Depending on what camera you’re using, you might be able to push the ISO pretty high without noise, making it much easier to get the exposure you want. But even if your images start looking grainy at 1000 ISO, be patient. Use longer exposure times, and you’ll still get a shot you love. The important thing is to get out there and try it. After all, you can’t get better at something if you never practice!
Beyond the Basics
Once you’ve got the basics down, you may want to invest more in your night sky hobby—it’s one where specialized tools are pretty common. Swap your camera out for an astro-specific model, such as the Canon EOS Ra ($2,499) and Nikon D810A ($3,799.95). These are the most recent entries from the big brands, but there are also boutique options like the Atik Apx60 ($4,933), which are models for the most dedicated night sky work.
Beyond that, consider adding something like an iOptron SkyTracker to ($399) to your kit. Its motors move your camera during long exposures to compensate for the Earth’s rotation, a plus for long exposures without the star trail effect. Pentax includes the feature (it calls it AstroTracer) in some of its SLRs, but it’s not as effective as a motorized mount for multi-minute exposures.