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Tired of taking night-time 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 important component of photography, but more so when we’re dealing with night sky shots. Beginners will find low-light conditions to be less forgiving than when shooting during the day. Fortunately, with a few key pieces of equipment, some of those frustrations can be mitigated.
Camera: To take good photographs of the night sky, you’re going to need a camera with manual exposure mode. Most smartphones aren’t capable of this, though that may change in the coming years. For now, however, your best bet will be to get your hands on a digital SLR.
Lenses: 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. To learn more, check out our guide to common photography lenses.
Tripod: 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, otherwise 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.
Shutter trigger: 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. This issue can be solved with a remote shutter (wireless) or shutter release cable (wired).
If you’re feeling adventurous, consider making your own remote shutter. Otherwise, you can usually purchase a cheap one for less than $20 USD. Alternatively you can just use your camera’s in-built timer to take your shots, which delays exposure long enough for the camera to stabilise before exposing.
Techniques For Shooting The Night Sky
Photography is complex. There are a lot of nuances that differentiate portrait photography from food photography from landscape photography. Here are some fundamentals that you should know when shooting at night.
Camera setup: The actual settings for your camera will differ depending on your equipment specifics, 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 a change to another setting according to the rules of exposure.
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 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.
Post-processing: 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
Picking locations: Location is critical for proper astrophotography. You want it to be as dark as possible so that all of the nuanced details in the night sky are detectable by your camera sensor. For this reason, light pollution should be avoided at all cost lest it ruin the potential of your photos.
Light pollution is an excess of artificial light and it’s most prominent in heavily-populated urban environments, namely cities. The general rule of thumb is that you should be at least an hour away from a large city to minimize the impact.
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. 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.
But for starters, try approaching night sky photography as you would 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.
Do you have any other tips? How do you go about photographing the night sky? Share your wisdom and advice with us in the comments!