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How To Take Pictures of Stars & Night Sky

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If you are wondering how to take pictures of stars and the alluring wonders of the night sky, look no further. In this article, I’ll share an absolute, bare-bones approach for capturing a spectacular photograph of the stars above the one below. 

This includes covering which camera to use, the exact camera settings I recommend, and the right conditions for a successful photo. I’ll also cover some of the next steps to consider for night sky photography, including recommended light pollution filters, and an introduction to star trackers

how to take pictures of the night sky

Anyone with access to a DSLR camera and a tripod (or a steady surface) can take stunning photos of the night sky with all of its glorious stars. You will even start to see some Nebulae, Galaxies, Globular Clusters, the Milky Way, Meteorites, Auroras and more.

If you own a point-and-shoot camera, or are just using your smartphone, you will need to tap into the manual settings that allow you to shoot long-exposure images.

Smartphones like the Google Pixel 4 (with astrophotography mode), and newer iPhone, Samsung, and Huawei models are getting better at low-light photography, but the small sensors will limit your success. You may be able to get some decent pictures of stars in the night sky with these devices, but for the best results, you need to get your hands on a DSLR or mirrorless camera. 

Canon EOS Ra

Canon’s mirrorless astrophotography camera, the Canon EOS Ra.

The good news is, you don’t need an astrophotography camera like the Canon EOS Ra to photograph the night sky successfully. Even an entry-level DSLR camera (such as the Canon EOS Rebel T7i) can produce spectacular results. 

Take Stunning Pictures of the Night Sky

Taking pictures of a starry sky (nightscape photography) is a wonderful experience that may help you learn some of the constellations as well. A camera sensor, like the one in your DSLR, is capable of recording much more light than our eyes can see. This is why we are able to enjoy much more detail in a photograph than with our naked eye alone.

Whether you are just getting started with a new camera, or have just never attempted night photography before, the simple steps below should give you a strong foundation to put into action the next time you are under a clear night sky.

camera settings

Related Post: 7 Astrophotography tips to put into action, tonight

The process of collecting long exposure images at night is very different from regular daytime photography. Focusing the lens, keeping the camera steady, and choosing the right subject for your setup are critical steps of the process. 

The Basics: Camera Equipment

As I mentioned, there are plenty of suitable cameras for night sky photography, but some will give you more control (and better results) than others. For example, those of you that have access to a DSLR or mirrorless camera with detachable lenses have a huge advantage.

For this type of photography, remember to keep things lightweight and portable. For a great shot of the stars, you may find yourself traveling to a distant location.

Here is a promising, entry-level night sky photography setup:

Essential:

  • DSLR Camera (Or mirrorless body)
  • Wide-Angle Lens (24mm or wider is best)
  • Sturdy Tripod (Lightweight)
  • Red Headlamp (To see at night without ruining your “night vision”)
  • Memory Card (Easy to forget)
  • Spare Camera Battery (Especially in cold weather)

Extras:

  • Planetarium Smartphone App (to help you locate objects in the night sky)
  • Remote Shutter Release Cable (To avoid camera shake and set sequence)
  • Heated band and controller (To prevent moisture on the lens)
  • Light pollution filter (Depending on location)
  • Star Tracker (To take exposures longer than 30-seconds without star trailing)

Getting Started

Have you ever tried to take a picture of the moon at night? Chances are (if you are new to astrophotography), the results were less impressive than you had hoped. Well, taking a successful image of the stars in the night sky can be even trickier.

This is because night photography is unlike daytime photography, and creates many new challenges. Low light situations require a completely different approach to photography than you may be accustomed to. It is not possible to take pictures of stars using the “auto” mode on your DSLR camera, because it was not designed to record a nightscape image.

Instead, you’ll need to use a specific set of camera settings that allow you to capture long exposure images of the night sky and all of the wonderful treasures found within it. The cameras used for the images in this guide were all Canon EOS Rebel-series DSLR’s. 

Step 1: Camera Settings

Camera Settings for Astrophotography

The first thing you will need to understand is that in order to capture enough light for your camera’s sensor to pick up lots of stars in the photo, you need to take a long exposure photograph. This can range from 5-30+ seconds depending on your equipment and conditions. To do this, you will want to make sure your DSLR is in Manual Mode.

Manual mode gives you complete control over each internal camera setting, and it can be a bit daunting to shoot in this mode for the first time. Manual mode is indicated by an M on your camera’s dial (Canon or Nikon).

The camera settings available to customize in this mode include:

  • Aperture (F-Ratio) of the camera lens
  • ISO (Sensitivity to Light)
  • Exposure Length (How long the shutter stays open)
  • White Balance (Daylight, Auto etc.)night sky photography settings

These variable camera settings will change depending on the camera lens you are using. For example, if you are shooting with a lens that has a focal length of 18mm or lower, you shouldn’t see any star trails (due to the rotation of the earth) until you shoot an exposure of 20 seconds or longer.

Some photographers like to refer to the 500 Rule to determine the perfect exposure length for them to shoot using a particular camera and lens combination. 

Wide-angle lenses (such as the Rokinon 14mm F/2.8) have an extremely large field of view, which not only capture more of the sky in a single shot, but are also more forgiving in terms of star trailing. A lens with longer focal length (such as the Canon 50mm F/1.8) will capture a higher magnification image, but stars will begin to trail much sooner.

For the guide below, I used a Canon 18-200mm F3.5 lens, at the widest focal length of 18mm.

Exposure

The maximum exposure length you can shoot is generally limited to the focal length of your camera lens. Unless you are intentionally trying to capture a star trail image, this exposure will likely be under 30-seconds. If you want to shoot longer than that, a tracking camera mount is needed.

If your exposure time is limited to under 30-seconds on a stationary tripod, you’ll need to experiment with the other camera settings that affect the amount of light captured in a single shot. The focal ratio of your lens (eg. F/2.8) can make a big impact when it comes to collecting light in a short period of time.

This is called aperture, and it’s one of the most important camera settings to consider when taking pictures of stars.

Camera Settings for Night Sky Photography

Aperture

On my camera lens, that is a setting of F3.5. The lower the F-number, the more light the camera brings in.

ISO

The next setting you will want to adjust is ISO. This is the camera’s sensitivity to light, which is very important for our purposes! Generally, you will want to use the highest ISO your camera has, this may by 1600, or even 6400 or higher.

Increasing your ISO will introduce more noise to your photo, but the trade-off is more stars and more light-gathering ability. You may want to use a lower ISO if you are finding your photo to be too noisy. Modern photo-editing software tools like Topaz DeNoise AI do a great job of reducing noise in post-processing.

White Balance

For our purposes, Auto White Balance or Daylight White Balance works just fine. You also want to make sure that you are shooting your photos in RAW format. This gives you the opportunity to really bring out the images full potential in post-processing. You will need Adobe Photoshop to make these adjustments, so if you don’t have it, a .JPG photo will have to do!

Step 2: Setting up your camera on the tripod

Now that you have the proper settings for night-time photography, you are ready to point your DSLR to the heavens and capture more stars than you have ever seen with your naked eye alone!  Securely fasten your camera to your tripod via the removable mounting plate. Make sure that all of your adjustment knobs are tight before leaving your camera on the tripod.  DSLR’s can be heavy, and you will be angling the head straight-up in some cases.

Focus

To achieve a proper focus on the stars, do not use autofocus. Manually focus your lens to infinity, then focus back a hair. Take some test shots and try to get the stars to look as tight as possible. Another way to achieve focus is to use the live-view mode of your camera, and focus on something far away (like a street lamp). Zoom-in while in live-view to really get it right.

Star Trails

In a 30 second exposure, you will notice small star trails because of Earth’s rotation. (Yes, even in 30 seconds!) The star-trailing is subtle, and will not affect the overall look you are trying to achieve. If the stars are trailing too much for your liking, knock your exposure down to 20 seconds if you wish.

Step 3: Take the shot!

Drive Mode for Astrophotography

Activating the Shutter

Set your drive mode to a 2 or 10-second delay to avoid shaking the camera slightly when activating the shutter. You can find this option in the Even the slightest movement (like pressing the shutter button) can be enough to create a shaky shot! The drive mode option screen should look something like this:

Things to keep in mind

Make sure that your lens has not fogged up, or your shots will look blurry. A blow dryer will remove dew if necessary. Light pollution is your biggest enemy when it comes to astrophotography. Get as far away from city lights as possible for your star shots. If there is a city glow near you, point away from it. You may find that a shot in the city using a high ISO and long exposure produces a very bright, washed-out photo. If this is the case, bump your ISO down, and shoot a shorter exposure. eg. (ISO 800, 15 seconds)

Milky Way astrophotography image by Ashley Northcotte

Next Steps: Stacking Exposures in Photoshop

One of the most effective ways to produce an attractive image of the night sky is to take advantage of a technique known as image stacking. This involves placing multiple images on top of each other as layers in Adobe Photoshop. 

There are also a number of dedicated tools to accomplish this task including DeepSkyStacker, and Sequator. I recommend trying the manual method of image stacking first, to see the power of signal-to-noise ratio in action first-hand. 

To create the image below, I manually stacked 5 x 30-second exposures shot at ISO 3200 in Photoshop. The key is to step down the opacity of each layer gradually.

This picture was created by stacking 5 x 30-second exposures in Photoshop.

The next time you are out taking pictures of the night sky or the Milky Way, be sure to take a series of 30-second images rather than just one or two. Aim to capture about 10-20 pictures to realize the benefits of image stacking. 

Next Steps: Use a Star Tracker

A portable astrophotography setup like the one pictured below is capable of capturing incredible deep-sky objects in the night sky. The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro is capable of tracking the night sky with a DSLR camera and a telephoto lens for long-exposure images.

budget astrophotography setup

A portable deep-sky astrophotography setup.

A star tracker opens up the door to more ambitious astrophotography projects such as faint,  deep-sky nebulae and galaxies. The setup shown above was featured in one of my videos where I photographed the Horsehead Nebula from my backyard. 

The same basic principals of long-exposure night sky photography apply to this configuration. The only difference is that the star tracker allows me to shoot exposures of up to 3-minutes in length without worrying about star trailing. To see of the best photos I’ve taken using a simple setup like this, see: The Gear Behind my Best Astrophotography Images

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