Have you wondered how to photograph the milky way and night sky? Do you enjoy star photography, but wish you could get better results? In this night photography guide, you will learn all you need to know about photographing the night sky with the landscape. By the end of this article you will understand the fundamentals of night photography, the camera settings required, and, six bonus tips for night photography.
If you’re the kind of person who learns better via video tutorial, I’ve condensed this guide into a short 8-minute video guide to night photography that you can find right here. If you’re not into video, then just scroll right past to the written guide.
The first thing we need to touch on is the gear required. Gear is generally unimportant to successful photography, but in night photography, some gear is necessary. This tutorial is specific to DSLR and Mirrorless camera users, however, you can do night photography with other gear (even cell phone cameras have come a long way). The most common questions I get are around this type of setup though, so that’s what I’ll cover. You won’t hear me say that you need the most expensive camera to do night photography, far from it. Digital camera technology has come a long way in the past few years. For example, I have successfully photographed the night sky with the affordable, entry-level DSLR Nikon D3300. All you need is something that you are comfortable using in the dark, and that has a relatively good low-light performance.
A more important investment you can make is in your lens selection. Look for a fairly wide-angle lens (35mm or lower) with an f-stop or aperture of 2.8 or lower. If you have a kit lens with a variable aperture starting around f3.5 or f4, feel free to use it to start. Just know that your f-stop dictates how wide your lens opens up, which means more light is hitting your sensor. The lower the number, the wider the lens opens up. You will let more light in with an f2.8 lens than you will with an f3.5 kit lens.
Another important investment is a tripod. When we set our shutter speed to capture the night sky, you will notice that shutter speeds are multiple seconds long. This means you will want a sturdy tripod. One that will not shake or fall over with the slightest breeze. There is nothing worse than looking at your pictures the next day just to find out that all of the stars were bloated because of camera shake.
Lastly, and it almost goes without saying, don’t forget to bring along a flashlight or a headlamp. Something that has a red-light mode is best for night photography as red light is less disruptive to human night vision than other types of light.
Even though camera technology has come a long way, we have yet to see cameras that function in automatic mode during the night. Your camera will struggle to see in the dark, meaning that auto modes (even shutter and aperture priority mode), including your focus system, will become unreliable. You must go manual. I know this might be a big step, but I promise that once we get to the settings you need, you will feel right at ease!
Planning will make or break your night photography experience. I’ve covered a whole plethora of free planning tools for night photography here. But, there are a few important things to mention now. First, you will need to get away from the city lights by checking a light pollution map (the one I frequently use is available here). Head for a green, blue, or clear area, if possible. Also, plan to head out around a new moon. A full moon reflects sunlight into our atmosphere, which washes out the stars and detail in our night sky, so heading out to photograph the stars when there is little or no moon is best. You will also want to go out during darkness. Darkness is when the sun is 18 degrees below the horizon, and lower. Normally, there are a couple of hours between sunset and darkness, but that varies depending on location. Use the Sun Calculator here for your specific location, so you can plan a good time to head out for night photography. Lastly, if you want to photograph different objects in the night sky (such as the milky way), you need to know where they are and what time of year they are visible. Using programs like Stellarium or a phone app like SkyView will help you find different night sky objects and when you can photograph them.
The benefit of being in Manual mode is that you can quickly and easily adjust your settings. Every scene is unique and has different considerations so the ability to be flexible is important. That said, there are a few guidelines below that can help you get started.
This one is the easiest because it’s the one that will generally stay the same throughout the night. Remember earlier when I chatted about your lens requirements? Well, the first thing I do when photographing the night sky, is open up my aperture as wide as it goes. If I have an f2.8 lens, my aperture will be at f2.8. If I have a kit lens that goes to f3.5 on the wide-angle end, I’ll be at f3.5. Set your aperture as wide as you can to let as much light to hit your camera’s sensor as possible. If you want to include the landscape with the night sky, I would not use an aperture wider (smaller f-number) than f2.8. You’ll find that even though you get more light to your camera’s sensor, you sacrifice depth of field so your foreground might not be very sharp, even if your stars are in perfect focus.
The next thing I’ll adjust is my shutter speed. Shutter speed dictates how long your sensor is exposed to light. Because we are photographing at night, there is generally very little light to work with. The longer we can leave our shutter open, the better. So why not just expose for several minutes and let a lot of light hit the sensor? Remember that our planet is rotating and that the night sky is constantly “moving”. If you were to expose for 2 or 3 minutes, you would introduce star motion (or star trails) into your photograph. So the longer we leave our shutter open, the more star motion we will introduce in our photograph. Star trails are a popular photographic technique, and you are welcome to experiment with your shutter speed, but if you want pin-point stars, there are a few rules you can follow.
The first is the 500 rule. The 500 rule is a simple mathematical equation that gives us a shutter speed at which there should be no, or minimal, star trailing. The formula is simple. Take 500 divided by your focal length. If, for example, you are photographing at 20mm with a full-frame camera, you would take 500/20mm and that would give you a shutter speed of 25 seconds on a full-frame sensor:
500/20mm = 25 seconds
If you have a crop sensor camera, you need to add your crop factor to the equation (either 1.5 or 1.6, depending on your camera system) so the formula here would look like this:
20mm*1.5 = 30mm , 500/30mm = 16.67 seconds
The 500 rule isn’t perfect, especially as higher megapixel sensors hit the market, but it will get you close. If you are looking for a more precise approach, check out point number three below.
ISO is generally the last thing I’ll set but that doesn’t make it unimportant. Generally, the lower the ISO, the better. In night photography, however, it is almost pitch-black, so we need to increase the ISO. I will start with an ISO of 800 and make adjustments from there. Sometimes my ISO will go up to ISO 3200, but that’s generally as high as I’ll go. The problem with higher ISO’s is increased noise, which is very unnattractive. I’ve chatted more about ISO below in my 6 tips if you’re looking for more information.
I know you’re tired of hearing the word manual, but this is the last time! As I’ve said, your camera’s automatic systems will struggle to see in the dark. This includes your autofocus system. With a lack of reference points, your camera will miss focusing more than it will hit focus. And, at wide-open apertures, you have a shallow depth of field, so finding perfect focus is best done manually. So, if you haven’t already, switch your lens to manual focus, turn on live view and work on finding perfect infinity focus by zooming in on a star and, turning the focus ring, make that star as small as you possibly can. If you need to see a demonstration, I’ve covered it in the night photography video tutorial above. Just skip to about the 5:50 mark.
If you’re looking for an alternative approach, you can set up your camera during the day with the lens you will be photographing the night sky and autofocus on something in the far distance. Change your settings so your f-stop is the same as it will be at night (f2.8 for example) and take an image. Confirm on the image playback that you’re in focus in the far distance. If the distant horizon is not in focus, adjust your focus point until you can see on your playback that you’ve achieved “infinity focus” or good focus on the furthest physical point. Once you do, put some tape on the focus ring and mark your focus point for later that night. This approach has a couple of limitations that I’ll cover more in a point below.
First, an intervalometer will make your night photography much less stressful. This tool gives you the ability to open the shutter without touching your camera, almost eliminating the possibility of camera shake. If an intervalometer isn’t an option for you, then use your camera’s built-in self-timer option.
Second, it’s hard to predict what automatic white balance will do, so I prefer to set it manually. I advocate for a daylight white balance because (for many reasons too complex for this article) it is closest to the true colour of the night sky. Rest assured, if those colours don’t suit your personal preference, it is easily remedied in post-processing.
Speaking of post-processing, you’re best to photograph the night sky in RAW format and not JPEG. This is because in RAW format you will have more colours to work and greater dynamic range than if you photograph in JPEG only. The downside (or upside, depending on how you look at it!) is that you are required to edit RAW files before they can become JPEGs.
As you can see, night photography is VERY different than daytime photography. It takes a different mindset to successfully photograph the milky way and night sky. I hope this beginner’s guide to night photography was helpful for you, and I encourage you to keep reading for more advanced night photography tips that will help you become even more successful!
So you’ve read the guide above and you’re ready for more? After getting out and practicing using the tools in the night photography guide above a few times, I got hooked and have since gone out, again and again, to experience and photograph the night sky and milky way. I’m self-taught and, if you’re like me you know, that means mistake-prone. I spent too much time shooting with the wrong settings, missing focus, and getting stuck photographing the same old composition. In hopes of saving you from the same frustrations, I have put together these 6 tips that will help you get better, faster.
A common approach with new night photographers (including me when I started!) is to drive away from the city, pull over somewhere, and take a photo of the milky way with the tripod at eye-level. I spent far too much time driving around the countryside, looking in the dark for something interesting to include with the milky way. The best it ever got for me was a grain bin, or a sign, or even, if I was lucky, an abandoned house! If composition matters in day-time photography, a compelling composition should matter in night photography. A combination of two approaches helped me overcome this frustration: First, planning your night photography shoot so you can pre-visualize what your photo will look like (I’ll refer you again to my planning for milky way and night photography article that covers a lot of the free tools available and my planning workflow. You can find here). Second, while I’m on location at night, I will open my aperture up as wide as it will go, set a shutter speed of 5 or 6 seconds, and take test photos at max ISO so I can see how the milky way or other night sky object lines up with my composition and tweak things on site. BONUS tip number 3: If you’re shooting wide, get low and include some foreground that works well with your subject. This will make a greater impact in your photo than photographing at eye-level.
The big shiny summer galactic core affectionately called the “milky way” is not the only thing in the night sky. After spending nearly two years photographing different foregrounds with the same milky way, again and again, I got tired of going out under the stars. I lost the connection I had with the land and the night sky. It wasn’t until I pointed my camera towards Orion that I realized that there was so much more to photograph at night than just the milky way. There are astronomical objects and constellations to photograph everywhere. I didn’t HAVE to take photos of the same section of the night sky. This opened up a brand new world to me, and I started getting excited about getting out under the stars again. I began looking for compositions that included other parts of the milky way (north part of the milky way in summer, winter milky way, and constellations). Once I moved in that direction the sky was the literal limit. I began exploring other “deep space” compositions that showed the night sky in a telephoto format against the landscape (I’ve written more about how to approach these here). In conclusion, space is huge, it’s so much bigger than a streak of bright stars and nebula, and dark space dust. There is so much more and I encourage you to get out and experience all of it!
The rule of 500 works fine if you are going to be sharing your photos strictly in a digital medium, such as social media. It doesn’t work if you own a modern high megapixel digital camera and print your work, or ever hope to print your work. The rule of 500 was created years ago by film users to help figure out the correct exposure. It simply doesn’t work with today’s large modern sensors. I see trailing in my photos WAY before my shutter speed gets even remotely close to what the rule of 500 states would be safe. So instead, I subscribe to the NPF rule which calculates the shutter speed you need by factoring in your camera’s sensor, the aperture of your lens and the focal length you are using. I’ve found that TYPICALLY (though this is not a rule, and everyone’s setup is different) that it will decrease your shutter speed in comparison with the rule of 500. This is ultimately what pushed me towards a tracking device; which allowed me to increase my shutter speed once again. If that isn’t an option for you, then there is an app that can make the NPF calculation for you, it’s free and is called “Shutter Speed Calculator” (I’m an android user), this calculation is also available on the PhotoPills app (more info on that here).
If you’re like me, you heard early on that you needed to use a high ISO in night photography. ISO’s at 6400 or above would be what I consider high ISO’s. I want to offer two counters to the “high ISO argument” that might save you from making the same mistakes I did. First, higher ISO shots typically result in a loss of star colour. When you max out your exposure by cranking your ISO, you will blow out your highlights. The same happens in daytime photography with exposures set too high. In the case of night photography though, the highlights in your scene are the stars. Blowing out your stars turns them white. Stars aren’t white, they are quite colourful, and if your ISO is set too high you will likely start to lose star colour. It is best to bring as much light to your sensor as possible utilizing shutter speed and aperture before moving ISO too high. So keep an eye on the star colour in your photos by taking test shots at different ISO’s. Then stop moving your ISO upwards before you start seeing big white stars with very little colour.
Second, you need to know at what point your camera is ISO Invariant. As basic as I can put it, it is the point where it makes no logical sense to push your ISO past. By going past your ISO Invariant point, you sacrifice image quality and dynamic range. Let’s say, for example, I find out that the ISO invariant point of my camera is ISO 1600. This means that I will get a cleaner result, with more dynamic range, by photographing at ISO 1600 and moving my exposure up a stop or two in post-processing to compensate than to move my ISO past that point in the field to compensate for my exposure. So find your ISO invariant point and don’t go past it. If you want a more technical article on ISO in night photography, I can recommend reading this article by Roger Clark.
In A-LOT of online forums and even earlier in this guide, I’ve read that a way to focus at night is to focus to infinity during the day and then either mark the spot on the lens or tape it there. I tried this for quite a while and was never happy with the level of sharpness in my skies. The reason for this is that perfect infinity focus shifts over time. Our lenses are built from elements that expand and contract, these changes are at a micro level but they do happen. And this is enough to shift our focus points in the lens. If I were to focus during the day when it is 25C with 45% humidity, then go out at midnight when it is 10C with 90% humidity (as is typical where I live!), expecting things to remain the same, I’m going to find that that will rarely be the case. Things are expanding and contracting in your lens and that is going to shift the focus point you found during the day. Between that and the risk of bumping your lens if you’re relying on tape, it’s no wonder I kept missing focus! The recommendation I make to everyone is to use live-view focusing (a tutorial can be found in the video above at 14:21).
I was guilty of using a lot of the de-haze, clarity, and contrast sliders in my early work. This resulted in crushed blacks, blown-out highlights and no mid-tones. My final histogram would have two peaks, one on the far left and one on the right with very little information in the middle. This is far from ideal. I’m an advocate of Photoshop because I can stack adjustments using different layers. But if you want to use Lightroom just be careful that your adjustments don’t go too far. Less is more, especially with the de-haze and clarity tools. Always try to maintain mid-tones and work on having good mid-tone contrast in your final images, keep your blacks off the left edge, and don’t blow out those highlights. If you’re interested in learning more, I’ve covered the 4 most common mistakes in both milky way and night sky post-processing and how to correct them in this video. If you’re interested in something a little more in-depth that covers my entire night photography post-processing workflow, you can find my exhaustive tutorials here.
There is more information in the two videos included in this guide to night photography. If you want a more immersive experience, or you’re at the stage where you want to know more, feel free to check out my Workshop page for current listings! If you want to share these tips with your friends, then feel free to use the share links right here. I wish you clear skies the next time you go out to photograph the night sky.