Photography means painting with light, so it might seem a little tricky to take photos of the night sky when it’s dark. But, there’s a great deal of light to be captured from the stars and the moon and they can create beautiful images. Here’s how you can start with night sky photography!
Part 1: Night Sky Photography Tips & Settings
There are different aspects to night sky photography that you might wish to try, from capturing the stars to moon shots, to star trails. Each of them requires slightly different settings, but to get started with night sky photography with a DSLR camera, we would recommend trying these tips and techniques.
1. Download a Night Sky App
There are several apps that will help you to familiarize yourself with the night sky. Being able to identify different stars, planets, and nebulae and knowing when they will be at their most visible will allow you to capture the very best of the night sky. Take a look at apps such as Sky Map, Stellarium, and PhotoPills.
2. Know the Phases of the Moon
Depending on whether you want to photograph the moon itself, or try to capture a starry night, you will need to adjust when you shoot according to the phases of the moon. If you want to shoot the moon, aim to do it when it is at its highest point in the sky for the sharpest images.
For starry skies, you will achieve the best results around a new moon, give or take a few days. If the moon is too bright in the sky, it will overexpose your photos. If there is too much cloud cover, you will not be able to see or photograph the stars, but don’t be deterred by some clouds. It can enhance the atmosphere of your photos.
You might find that your long exposure images grow noisier as the night goes on and your sensor gets hotter with each exposure. If you shoot on slightly cooler nights, it will help to prevent this. Make sure that you are properly prepared, too, with appropriate clothes, drinks, and snacks.
3. Avoid Light Pollution
Ambient light will interfere with your night sky photography so try to set yourself up somewhere away from artificial light and at a higher elevation if that’s possible. To ensure that you have permission wherever you go to shoot and that you are safe.
4. Use Correct Camera Settings
Knowing which settings to use for night sky photography as a beginner might seem a little daunting, but these should give you some starting points.
For a moon shot, your night sky photography settings will depend on exactly how large and how bright the moon is. The fuller the moon, the faster your shutter speed will need to be. It’s best to use a telephoto lens with a focal length of at least 200mm to bring yourself as close to your subject as possible. Use a small aperture, somewhere between ƒ/11 and ƒ/16, ISO 100, and a shutter speed anywhere between 1/60 and 1/125 seconds. You will need to adjust this to get the best exposure depending on the conditions.
If you want to photograph a starry sky, it’s a bit different. Here, go for a wide-angle lens, perhaps 14-24mm, ideally with a wide aperture of ƒ/2.8. Set your ISO to 1,600 and try a shutter speed of 1/25. Don’t go slower than 1/30 second or you will find that you begin to capture the movement of the stars. Use a white balance of 2,500 to 4,000K. If you don’t have a lens with an aperture as fast as ƒ/2.8 and you are shooting with ƒ/4, then increase your ISO rather than slow your shutter speed.
5. Use a Remote Release
Your camera will be sensitive to the movement of you depressing the shutter release button and it can shift the focus and introduce camera shake. To avoid this, use a remote release.
6. Check for Sharpness
Whatever type of night sky photography you are going for, it will always involve using long exposure and focus. If necessary, you can adjust both your focus and long exposure. To capture sharp night photos, you will need to use a tripod as you will not be able to hold your camera steady for their duration. When you’ve taken a shot, play it back and zoom in to check for sharpness.
7. Light the Foreground
To bring more interest to your starry skies, you might want to introduce some light into the foreground of your shot. You can do this by light painting, for example with glow sticks, or by deliberately lighting a feature in your foregrounds, such as a tree or interesting rock formation.
8. Try a Star Trail Shot
While you can use a single long exposure image with a low ISO to capture the trails of starlight created by the rotation of the earth, it’s best to stack a sequence of images into a single composite. To capture a circular trail, aim your camera toward Polaris in the Northern hemisphere or the Southern Celestial Pole in the Southern hemisphere. Manually set your focus–an interesting feature in the foreground can really make these photos pop–and use a wide aperture, 30-second exposure, and an ISO around 800. Take a test shot. How does it look?
If things are okay, set your intervalometer to take photos with no more than one second between them and let your camera get to work. You’ll want in excess of 120 shots to compile. When you have them, you can use a program such as StarStaX to create a single, final image.
Part 2: Night Sky Photography iPhone Tips & Tricks
While you might have more control over doing night sky photography with a DSLR camera, the night photography mode in an iPhone 11 or higher will allow you to take great night sky photos. It works by capturing a series of images that it merges into one, giving you better color and detail. When it’s sufficiently dark, the night photography mode will come on automatically, so here’s how to use it to its best advantage.
- You should use an iPhone tripod for any long exposure work to avoid introducing camera shake into your shots.
- Ensure your iPhone has the 2× telephoto lens or 1× wide lens. The night mode will not work with the ultra-wide lens.
- Activate night mode – night mode should engage automatically in low light situations, but you can turn it on if necessary. A moon icon should appear in the top left of your screen. If it’s white, tap it. It should turn yellow, indicating that night mode is activated. The colors should be more vibrant and the image sharper now.
- Adjust your exposure time – use the slider to select an exposure time from 1 second to 30 seconds. Start with 1 or 2 seconds, but you can experiment.
- Use the self-timer function – by using the self-timer, you can reduce the camera shake and secure a sharper image.
If you want to try to photograph the moon specifically, it’s best to:
- Keep your tripod with you.
- Engage the Telephoto lens – do not use digital zoom.
- Lock focus on the moon by tapping and holding on it on the screen.
- Now swipe down to reduce the Exposure.
By using an app such as Slow Shutter Cam, you can capture star trail images with an iPhone. To do this you will need to:
- Open the Slow Shutter Cam app and set the Capture mode > Light Trail.
- Select Full light sensitivity.
- Choose a Shutter Speed of 60 seconds and leave the ISO on auto.
- Set your phone on a tripod and frame your shot.
- From the menu icon, select a Self-timer of 3 seconds, to prevent camera shake.
- Tap the Shutter button and let the app capture your star trail.
- Save it, and then edit it in the Lightroom app.
To edit a star trail in Lightroom.
- Choose the photo you want to edit and open it in Lightroom.
- Tap Light at the bottom of the screen.
- Nudge the Exposure slider to the right, which will increase the brightness of your star trails.
- Increase the contrast between the star trails and the dark night sky by moving the Contrast slider to the right.
- Adjust the highlights in your star trails by moving the Highlights slider to the right.
- Select Color.
- Move the Temp and Tint sliders to alter the colors in your image: you can be as subtle or as drastic as you want.
- When you’re happy, Save the finished image to your photo library.
Night sky photography does require preparation and patience but is highly rewarding if you choose to pursue it. It also relies on trial and error to get the right exposure, but that is a part of the fun of the process. The more that you do it, the more accomplished you will become and you will be creating beautiful night sky images to wow your audience.
For additional photography techniques and tips, check out our articles on motion blur photography and golden hour photography.