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8 Nightscape Photography Tips for Amazing Astrophotography

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Nightscape photography involves capturing a landscape style image, at night. It can include the beautiful Milky Way, a starry sky, or your favorite constellation.

This is a type of astrophotography, where long exposure images are taken to reveal the beautiful light of a seemingly ‘dark’ sky. Star photography requires quality optics, and some camera lenses are better suited for it than others. 

To really make your nightscape image amazing, you’ll want to capture an interesting foreground, too. This can be snowy mountains, a waterfall, or in my case, just a dark, wooded forest.

In the video below, I capture the constellation Orion on a not-so-clear night, using my nightscape photography camera setup including a star tracker.

8 Nightscape Photography Tips for Beginners

Astrophotography has one of the steepest learning curves of any type of photography, but it’s also one of the most exciting. It may seem easier to take a great nightscape image than a high magnification deep-sky image of a galaxy or nebula, but I consider it to be much harder.

If you have a background in landscape photography, you’ll have a huge head start going in. All of the daytime photography best practices including composition and the rule of thirds can help your nightscape image stand out. 

The Milky Way

The Milky Way stretches across the night sky. Several nebulae in Cygnus are visible.

If you want to take beautiful nightscape photography images, there are a few best practices to keep in mind. I have captured many astro-landscapes using a regular DSLR camera and kit lens that absolutely blew me away, and there are a few things all of those photos had in common.

  1. Get to a dark sky location (Bortle scale class 4 or better)
  2. Use a star tracker for long exposure images (Separate images of sky and foreground)
  3. Shoot during the new moon phase (Use crescent phases to illuminate the scene)
  4. Visit your location during the day first (Plan a safe route back to your location)
  5. Choose a subject that compliments your location and time (Seasonal constellations)
  6. Frame your subject in a creative way (composition, rule of thirds, light painting)
  7. Live-view focus on a bright star (stop down your lens for better stars)
  8. Use the right settings for a clean shot (keep ISO low, and shoot long)

As simple as these tips may seem, in a real-world setting, everything must come together at once for a truly amazing nightscape image. I will now explain each of these steps in detail. 

Milky Way Photography

Get Dark

Unlike deep-sky astrophotography through a telescope, it is very difficult to calibrate wide-angle nightscape shots to remove light-pollution and gradients. 

To capture vivid star colors, defined constellations, and even faint deep-sky nebulae and galaxies within the starfield, you must get away from the city lights.

Fortunately, this lends itself well to nightscape photography. Locations that are free of light-pollution are often natural areas that include beautiful landscapes of trees, water, mountains, and more natural wonders. 

Plan your nightscape photography session using an app such as Photopills, or simply a light pollution map that reveals the darkest spots in your area. 

light pollution map

Plan your next photography trip using a light pollution map.

Even a dark sky site will usually have a glow coming from a certain direction. You can either avoid this area of the sky, or play off of the glow to add to the overall composition of the image.

In the image of the Milky Way core shown below, you’ll notice a warm glow at the bottom right of the image frame. This is light pollution from the city of Erie, Pennsylvania across Lake Erie. 

Milky Way astrophotography

Track the Motion of the Sky

A star tracker is a convenient way to capture long-exposure night sky images free of star trailing. Once polar aligned with the celestial pole, you can capture incredibly deep images of space that include areas of nebulae, galaxies, and star clusters.

It is possible to capture amazing nightscape images without a star tracker, but you’re camera settings and approach to the shot will be more limited.

For example, when your camera is tracking the motion of the night sky, you can scale back ISO and aperture settings, and let the exposure time compensate for any lack of signal. This can help collect a cleaner, sharper shot.

Because the exposures of the night sky are moving independently from the ground below, you will need to capture a separate (still) image of the foreground and merge the two together (more on this below).

star tracker for astrophotography

My Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer 2i (star tracker). 

A star tracker must be accurately polar aligned to track the stars effectively. I use an app on my mobile phone called ‘Polar Finder’ to give me a real-time reference for the position of Polaris (the North Star).

Related: Ultimate List of Astronomy and Stargazing Apps for Your Mobile Phone

New Moon Phase

Unless you are planning to photograph a moonlit landscape (there are benefits to the moon’s light for the foreground landscape), you’ll want to plan your session during the new moon phase. 

I regularly see new astrophotographers planning trips to a dark sky location during a full moon. This defeats the purpose of finding a dark sky because the moon washes out everything except the brightest stars in the night sky.

Use a moon phase calendar to plan your trip around the week surrounding the new moon. This will give you the best chance of capturing the most amount of stars in your image as possible.

A waxing crescent moon that sets later on in the night (or waning crescent that rises late) is okay, too. The closer your trip lands to the new moon phase, the better.

Over-exposed moon

The moon is beautiful in its own right, but it is not ideal when capturing starry nightscape images. Moon photography is another type of astrophotography all together. 

A Journey in the Dark

Depending on where you are located, it may be difficult to find areas with a good mix of land and sky. Looking over a large, open body of water is great, but the foreground lacks interest because it is flat.

An area with high elevation has advantages in terms of sky transparency, and can also help you line up fascinating landscape features below the sky. A location that looks down over a valley or rocky water’s edge is a great start.

Make a trip out to your location during the day, and pay attention to features that may add interest to the shot. Like any great landscape photo location, you’ll need to make sure you can safely set up your camera equipment.

Taking photos in the dark adds another challenge to the mix. Take note of the area during the day, and any spots that will be difficult to navigate with only a headlamp to guide your way. 

The Milky Way Galaxy

The Milky Way photographed from a dark sky site away from city light pollution.

The Perfect Subject

The constellations and stars in the night sky appear to move throughout the year. This means that you can’t just choose the area of the sky you want to shoot and find it when the sky clears.

Use a planetarium app on your phone like Stellarium to get a preview of the night sky on the day of your photography trip. Not only are you limited to the constellations and stars of the season, but the ones that lie in the direction of your intended landscape. 

I like to photograph constellations as they rise in the east, so I typically look for landscape locations that include a clear open view in this direction. Capturing constellations setting in the west feels like a race against the clock, as they slowly fall deeper into the ground. 

Some of the best nightscapes are photos that tell a story about the location and time of year. An example is the constellation Orion in the winter sky, with a cold, snowy landscape below. 

star map

The Stellarium Online Star Map is a free tool to plan your night sky scene.

Framing the Scene

A wide-angle lens is a landscape photographer’s best friend, and the same is often true for nightscape photography as well. This will allow you to collect the widest possible scene that includes land and sky.

How wide is too wide? Unless a ‘fisheye’ view is the look you are going for, a lens with a focal length of about 14-18mm is great. The type of camera you’re using will change your overall field of view.

I find that my Sigma 24mm F/1.4 Art lens is great for wide-angle nightscape shots on my full-frame camera. On a crop sensor camera, this would be a little tight. If you’re using a crop-sensor (APS-C) camera, stick to a wider focal length of at least 18mm. 

A wide-angle landscape lens is ideal because you can capture a wide area of the night sky that includes multiple constellations and stars. Then, you can crop the image in post to isolate a particular area of interest. 

Achieving a Sharp Focus

Focusing a camera lens for astrophotography can be challenging. The trick is to allow as much light to reach the sensor as possible, and then use the camera’s live view setting to adjust focus in real-time.

You can then zoom in on an area of the image at the focal plane of the stars, and manually focus the lens. On Canon DSLR and mirrorless cameras, you’ll be able to magnify your image by 5X and 10X (30X with the Canon EOS Ra).

Once you have focused the lens, you can dial back the settings and take your shot. Some people like to mark the focus point on the lens with a white piece of tape. 

how to focus camera lens for nightscapes

I recommend the following camera settings to use when focusing your camera lens: 

Camera Lens Settings for Focus (Adjust After)

  • Mode: Manual/Bulb
  • Focus Mode: Manual
  • ISO: 6400 
  • F-Stop: F/2.8 (or below)
  • Exposure: 30-seconds

These settings should allow enough light in so that you can focus on a bright star. If you can find some medium-sized stars in the frame (or better yet, a cluster of varying star sizes), you can really dial in the focus.

Remember to scale back the settings like ISO, exposure, and f-stop for your long exposure images. Next, I’ll explain the camera settings I use to take nightscape photography images like the one below.

nightscape photography example

Nightscape Photography Camera Settings

For nightscape photography (and astrophotography in general), you want to maximize light transmission through the optics to the camera sensor. There is an exception to this of course when you begin to lose the quality of the stars in your image.

Photography at night requires exposures that are much longer than they would typically be during the day. This could be anywhere from 5-seconds to 3-minutes. 

If your camera lens has a maximum aperture of F/2.8, that’s a great place to start. Lenses that are even faster than that, in the F/1.8-F/2 range have an edge over the competition when it comes to astrophotography.

Milky Way Photography

The lens aperture is a critical specification to consider when choosing a camera lens for astrophotography. For nightscape photography, you will find the maximum aperture of your lens (or close to it) the most effective for your projects.

Your exposure time on each individual image will depend on the focal length of your lens, and whether you are using a star tracker or not. You can use the 500 Rule as a general rule of thumb when capturing images of the night sky on a stationary tripod.

The best ISO settings for night photography is a conversation that has been debated to death. Generally, a high ISO setting will introduce more camera noise in the image than a low one. Some cameras are ISO invariant for much of their ISO range.

The answer to this question depends on the camera you are using. For my Canon EOS Ra, ISO 1600, or ISO 3200 work well. I recommend shooting your nightscapes at ISO 800 to start. If the images appear clean, you can try bumping the ISO setting to 1600 for a brighter image.

The file type must be RAW for you to tap into the powerful features of software like Adobe Camera Raw after the image has been taken. This will allow you to change the white balance, adjust clarity and saturation, and much more. 

Here is a breakdown of the settings I use for a typical nightscape image:

Camera Settings for Nightscape Images

  • Mode: Manual/Bulb
  • Focus Mode: Manual
  • ISO: 1600 
  • White Balance: Auto/Daylight
  • F-Stop: F/3.2
  • Exposure: 90-seconds

As you can see, I have adjusted the settings from the ones used to focus the camera lens. The reason I like to lower the f-stop from F/2.8 to F/3.2 (despite losing light-gathering ability), is because this will sharpen up the image, particularly the stars at the edges of the frame.

The exposure time is also much longer (90-seconds), and this is only possible when a star tracker is used to compensate for the apparent rotation of the night sky. A separate, shorter exposure should be captured for the foreground to avoid blurring the landscape. 

To automate a sequence of exposures to fire off, I use a simple remote shutter release cable to control the camera. This allows me to choose the duration of the image, the number of images, and any delay between shots.

I typically shoot between 25-50 image exposures for a single project. Aim for at least an hour of overall exposure time to create an image with a healthy signal-to-noise ratio. I do not normally take dark calibration frames for my nightscape images as I would for a deep-sky project. 

As for choosing the right exposure, use the histogram to guide you. A well-exposed image will show the bulk of the data in the center, or just to the right of the histogram without clipping in either side. 

If you notice the highlights are clipped on the right-hand side of the histogram, you can reduce the exposure time, lower the f-stop, or dial back your ISO. I recommend lowering your ISO setting if possible. 

Below, is a typical looking histogram for one of my nightscape images. The second (left) peak of data is the shadows in the foreground portion of the image. 

histogram

A typical foreground image exposure could be 30-seconds long, enough to expose the dark landscape beneath the sky. This is where a setting or rising crescent moon can help illuminate the scene.

If you do not have a star tracker, stick to 30-second exposures. If the stars begin to trail in a 30-second exposure, scale the exposure time back until they are recorded at an acceptable level of sharpness. 

Light Painting

The concept of light painting refers to the act of shining light on a dark area to brighten it through a long exposure image. Even a subtle shine of a red headlamp can add color and light to selective areas of your image.

You simply need to take a long exposure image (eg. 10-seconds), and shine a light on the area you wish to highlight. It is very experimental, and the right settings will depend on the lighting effect you are going for. 

White light can help illuminate an otherwise dark area of the foreground, whether it is a rock, a handsome tree, or a path on the ground. Light painting allows you to add interest to the image by highlighting specific areas of the landscape.

In the image below, I used my red headlamp to draw the viewer’s eye to the crunchy snow and footprints on the ground. Painting with light can help add to a pleasing composition.

light painting

Post Processing

Processing a nightscape photography image takes time and patience. A great shot starts in the field behind the camera, but your processing skills will take it to the next level.

Adobe Photoshop is the tool of choice for most nightscape photographers. It offers the advanced processing tools needed to correct gradients, boost saturation, adjust levels, and much more. 

Some of the basic post-processing techniques applied to a nightscape image include color balancing, curves adjustments, noise reduction, saturation boost, and sharpening. 

Image Stacking

Before processing the final image, I recommend creating an intermediate file by stacking a series of exposures together. The stacking can be done manually in Photoshop, or with the help of an image stacking tool like Sequator

Seqautor is extremely easy to use and gives you some simple tools to enhance the image. This includes auto-brightness, high dynamic range, and enhance starlight. I use this tool in its simplest form, and leave all of the additional settings ‘off’ except for ‘remove dynamic noises’.

The main purpose of the tool is to build a clean image with less noise than a single exposure, and even a stack of 10 light frames will accomplish this. Make sure you use the irregular mask to select the night sky in the image without including the foreground landscape. (Here is a great tutorial by Alyn Wallace).

sequator tutorial

Sequator is a free astrophotography stacking program. 

Stacking a set of 10 image exposures or more will improve the signal-to-noise ratio, providing you with a cleaner image with plenty of depth and detail. You can still create a great image with a single exposure, but noise will creep up as you adjust levels and perform other enhancements to the image. 

To complete the image, you must merge the stationary foreground landscape with a ‘moving’ sky. The foreground will appear blurry in a tracked shot, so separating the two elements of the image using a layer mask is recommended (see below).

how to create nightscape image

Adobe Photoshop’s Select and Mask tool is a great way to carefully make your selection, and refine the edges of your landscape. Keep the foreground element of your image separate, and carefully remove the sky from the horizon upwards. 

Then, apply the foreground to the stacked image (of the night sky and blurry ground below) as a new layer on top. This way, you’ll have the benefits of a stacked sky image, with a sharp landscape below. You can move the background sky layer independently from the foreground, an experiment with different compositions.

Enhance Stars and Constellations 

If you’ve ever noticed how certain constellations, asterisms, and bright stars seem to stand out in a nightscape image, there is some magic behind this. You can carefully select these elements of the image and brighten them. You can also boost saturation. and add a subtle glow.

The easiest way to achieve this effect is during the image acquisition stage. A thin layer of high clouds in the sky (poor transparency), will naturally add a beautiful glow to the brightest stars in the sky. You never know when these conditions will occur, but it’s something to look out for.

Starglow Filter

You can also use a filter (such as the Alyn Wallace Starglow Filter), to create this effect when the skies are completely clear. A starglow filter threads externally to your camera lens and can be combined with other nightscape filters if desired. 

There are a few techniques you can try in Adobe Camera Raw to add interest to specific stars (and bright nebulae) in the night sky. The clarity and dehaze sliders can make a dramatic difference to your night sky image. You will need to experiment with these settings and adjust this enhancement to your liking.

Creating a star mask on the brightest stars of the image lets you adjust aspects such as saturation, and brightness independently from the rest of the image. This is a great way to help isolate a specific constellation or star pattern in the image.

clarity and dehaze

Use the Clarity and Dehaze sliders in Adobe Camera Raw to enhance a starry landscape. 

Top Processing Tools

The process of enhancing a nightscape image mirrors many of the techniques used for deep-sky astrophotography. If you are interested in learning the specifics of this process, consider buying my premium astrophotography image processing guide.

image processing guide

My image processing guide includes topics such as image stacking, and create a composite nightscape image in Photoshop.

Recommended Camera Equipment

It may surprise you to know that the camera equipment needed for nightscape photography is much more affordable than a deep-sky imaging rig. You do not need a robust equatorial tracking telescope mount to take great, wide-angle images of the night sky. 

Many of the same camera settings and tips that work well for deep-sky astrophotography apply to nightscapes, on a smaller scale. A large telescope with plenty of magnification is of no use for wide-field nightscape images.

For nightscapes, being portable and lightweight is of the utmost importance.

Tripod

Whenever you are taking long-exposure images (tracked or not), your tripod becomes very important. This is the stable platform that anchors your entire camera setup.

Do not skimp on your tripod, invest in a high-quality base that will reliably carry your expensive camera and lens in all sorts of outdoor situations. Choose a tripod that is strong, but also light enough to travel with for long distances.

An aluminum tripod is strong, but some are too heavy for travel. I suggest a high-quality carbon fiber tripod with a weight capacity of at least 25-30 pounds. I use a Radian Carbon Fiber tripod that is very lightweight, and very strong (50-pound payload capacity).

The best part about this tripod is its ability to unlock at the base, and rotate freely. This comes in handy when the equatorial head of the star tracker needs to be rotated during polar alignment. 

best tripod for nightscapes

Star Tracker

A star tracker will not only allow you to take long-exposure images that have sharp, round stars but will reveal deep-sky nebulae and galaxies as well. Under dark skies, a 90-second exposure will reveal faint dust, glowing nebulae, and rich star fields. 

A star tracker is essentially a simplified, portable version of a large GoTo computerized telescope mount. It does not include a computer database of deep-space targets for you to slew to, you’ll have to find objects on your own.

The iOptron SkyGuider Pro and Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer are my top choices. You can see the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer camera tracker attached to the base of the tripod in the image below. 

astrophotography equipment

Camera

Any modern DLSR or Mirrorless camera with an interchangeable lens is capable of amazing nightscapes. My first astrophotography camera was a Canon EOS Rebel XSi (450D), and I took some amazing images of constellations, aurora, and starscapes. 

A full-frame sensor has a big advantage when it comes to nightscapes. The large sensor will utilize the native focal length of a wide-angle camera lens without cropping the image. 

A DSLR/Mirrorless camera allows you to take RAW images (that can be adjusted on your computer later) and gives you complete manual control of the settings. I currently use a Canon EOS Ra mirrorless camera for nightscape photography. 

best camera

I use a Canon EOS Ra Mirrorless camera for nightscape photography. 

It features an astro-modified camera sensor that is sensitive to the h-alpha wavelength of the visible spectrum. This is handy when photographing areas that include many of the most popular nebulae in the night sky. 

You do not need a modified astrophotography camera to take stunning nightscapes. A stock camera will simply limit the amount of ‘red’ that is recorded in certain areas of nebulosity. Reflection nebulae, star clusters, and most galaxies are totally unaffected.

In my experience, light-pollution filters are not nearly as effective when used with a camera lens in a wide-angle photo. Shoot unfiltered, and get away from city lights for a natural-looking sky. 

Camera Lens

A standard kit lens will do just fine, but a camera lens with a faster f-stop is even better. My personal favorite nightscape photography lens at the moment is the Sigma 24mm F/1.4 Art series lens. 

A 24mm focal length is just wide enough to capture a large area of the night sky when used with a full-frame camera. If you are using a crop-sensor camera, you’ll want something wider for capturing nightscapes. 

Sigma 24mm F/1.4

When it comes to camera lenses for astrophotography, the most important features are a fast f-ratio, a sharp/flat field, and a chromatic aberration-free image. Some lenses cause color-fringing around the bright stars, which can be difficult to correct in post.

The Canon EF 17-40mm F/4L is a solid choice, although faster optics would help collect more light in a single shot.

Another great lens for landscape astrophotography is the Rokinon 14mm F/2.8. This lens is extremely affordable and performs exceptionally well considering the price. 

A wide-angle lens allows you to capture longer exposures without star trailing when mounted to a stationary tripod. A longer focal length lens of 50mm or more will limit your exposure times (untracked) and will make framing a landscape scene a challenge. 

There are many great camera lens options available for nightscape photography, but here are a few of my personal favorites. All of these lenses were mounted to Canon cameras.

If you use a Canon camera with the new RF mount (such as the Canon EOS Ra), you will need to buy a Canon EF – EOS R adapter to use these EF mount lenses.

The Bottom Line

A great nightscape image can include a constellation, the Milky Way, auroras, or even the moon and planets. I believe the key to a memorable nightscape image is to tell a story of the location and time of where it was taken.

Try to replicate the feeling you had in the moment, and how magical the sky appeared above your head that night.

Space is impossibly beautiful and captivating. Once you learn the basics of nightscape photography and begin to apply some of the tips outlined on this page, I think you’ll find it a lot easier to tell your story.

star photography

Helpful Resources

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What’s new in 2016?

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I usually like to wait until I’ve got a new astrophotography image to share before I make a post, but today I just felt like sharing some thoughts about where I am at with this blog. Astrobackyard.com is still in it’s early stages, but I have had quite a few vistors as of late and I am truly honored that you have decided to take a moment out of your busy day to view my astronomy images.

Cold winter night with stars

The Winter Blues

The skies have been painfully clouded over for what seems like the last 3 months, and I really haven’t got any decent imaging done since photographing the Horsehead Nebula in December.  There have been 1 or two frigid clear nights, but they have been flooded out by a bright full moon, or close to it.  On the bright side, these cloudy nights have given me the perfect opportunity to work on astrobackyard.com, and re-process some of my old astrophotography images.

Staying Social

I have been spending a fair amount of time connecting with fellow astrophotographers on social media.  There are so many amazing astronomy photos being shared on a daily basis all over the world.  I especially like the connections I have made on twitter and instagram as of late.  I have finally figured out how to comfortably use Google+, it was a long time coming.  There are some fantastic astrophotography communities over there that I would highly recommend joining.  My favourite communities would have to be Astrophotography and Night Photography.

Here are some of the night sky photos I have shared recently on Google+

Astrophotography Communities on Google Plus

Astrophotographers Everywhere

It’s funny, once you spread your “brand” across all of the available platforms, you notice a lot of the same names involved in your hobby.  I have had an unbelievable response to my new YouTube Channel, earning over 20 subscribers in just a few months.  I can’t wait to shoot and edit my next video for that channel, I already have some ideas, I just need the weather to cooperate.  My lonely Facebook page could use some love, so if you are a Facebook user, you may like to keep up to date with me by liking that page.

Office by Day, Backyard by Night

I really respect every night sky photo I see shared online, because I know first-hand how much work is put into each one.  It means staying up late during the week, overcoming technical difficulties and battling weather conditions, all for your passion for photography.  Having a clear vision for your end result is a powerful mindset that can carry you through the toughest of setbacks.  Astrophotography can also keep you away from your family and friends, as you can’t expect them to sit and wait outside with you for the perfect image. (I’ve tried)

If you work a 9-5 job like I do, you have to sacrifice a lot of sleep to keep both your hobby and career healthy. A dream of mine is to one day support my family by pursuing my photography passion.

 

Wide field image of the Pinwheel Galaxy

Recently Re-Processed – M101 – The Pinwheel Galaxy in Ursa Major

iOptron Sky Tracker

Plans for landscape astrophography in the spring

iOptron Sky Tracker MountOne aspect of my photography that I will be focusing on this year is landscape astrophotography.  I hope to capture some interesting and dynamic landscape images that include the night sky, weather it be the milky way, the constellations or the moon.  A true landscape image includes elements like foreground interest, composition and lead-in lines.  These touches are more difficult to execute when shooting at night!  I hope to purchase a small travel mount this year, such as an iOptron Sky Tracker Camera mount.  A lightweight, portable camera mount like this will open up new options including being able to shoot from multiple locations on a single night.  I hope to add this piece of equipment to my arsenal by spring.

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