We’ve all seen those inspirational night-scape photos of the Milky Way, star-trails and even the Northern Lights, but have you ever wondered if you can take them yourself?
Armed with any kind of manual camera – such as a DSLR or a mirrorless camera – and even some smartphones, you can take your own mesmerising photos of the night sky.
Here are some of our top tips to get you started…
1.) Prepare your camera
By far the best way to take pictures of the night sky is to use a DSLR or mirrorless camera, both of which have large sensors and full manual modes. Astrophotography means taking long exposures of up to 25 seconds so you do need a tripod.
Also helpful will be a wide-angle lens to fit in as much of the night sky as possible, though don’t go out and buy a new lens just yet – for now, use what you have.
The very latest smartphones from the likes of Samsung, Huawei and Apple have excellent cameras with low-light modes that can achieve decent results in the dark. Usually this means a long exposure of about 10 seconds, so to use a smartphone for astrophotography you will need to buy in a small tripod and smartphone mount. Keep your expectations low!
2.) Find a dark place
Astrophotography is the art of catching starlight, but when you open the shutter, you’ll capture any other ambient light, too.
All towns and cities suffer from light pollution, which makes urban astrophotography challenging. For best results visit a dark sky destination such as Dark Sky Park or Dark Sky Reserve, or check a Light Pollution Map.
You want to get away from artificial light, though you certainly can take photos of the night sky from your back garden. It’s a great place to practice getting to know your camera and the different settings. Just make sure you point your camera away from any streetlights!
As well as where to go, when to go is just as important. The full Moon is far more light polluting than any city lights, so avoid the week either side. The best time for astrophotography is the week before New Moon when there’s no moonlight to interfere with your work.
You’ll also need a clear sky, so check the weather forecast before you set out; even small amounts of cloud can make wide-field astrophotography difficult.
3.) Dial-in the basic settings
Shoot in RAW format (not JPEG) and switch to manual mode. You need your camera to let as much light in as possible, but only for 20-25 seconds since that’s when stars begin to smear (after all, the Earth is rotating at 1,000 mph!).
Here’s where to start:
- - Turn the focus dial of your lens to infinity (look for the ∞ symbol). Frequently check the focus and adjust if necessary.
- - Set the aperture number as low as you can to let in as much light as possible (f/2.8 to f/4.5).
- - Set to ISO 800 (you can experiment up to ISO 6400 if you’re in a really dark place). Learn more about the funamentals of ISO with our dedicated guide.
- - Use a shutter speed of 20 seconds (though 25 seconds may be possible).
Now it’s time to experiment!
As well as where to go, when to go is just as important.
The full Moon is far more light polluting than any city lights, so avoid the week either side. The best time for astrophotography is the week before New Moon when there’s no moonlight to interfere with your work. You’ll also need a clear sky, so check the weather forecast before you set out; even small amounts of cloud can make wide-field astrophotography difficult.
4.) Compose your shot
Photos of stars alone are dull. Once you’ve mastered the technical side of getting sharp stars in your photos, all you’ve really done is figured out the background. Now go find something interesting to put in the foreground. It could be a mountain, a landscape, an old barn, a tree … anything to give your photograph context and a point of interest. Lakes can be great for reflections, too.
How well do you know your camera? When taking photos in the dark it really helps if you know how to change settings by touch alone.
To practice indoors either close your eyes or sit in a room with the lights off and set yourself tasks such as changing the ISO, shutter speed and aperture without looking at your camera.
5.) Try a star-trail
Have you ever seen those star-trail images? They’re easy if you know where to point your camera. The technique is simple; point your camera north (from the northern hemisphere) and compose a great 30-second exposure image of the night sky. Perfect your settings, check the results, and once you’re happy, fire-off 100, 200, even 300 of that same identical image.
Then use Photoshop or the free software StarStaX to stack those images on top of each other to produce one mesmerising photo where the night sky appears to revolve around a single star. That’s Polaris, the North Star, which Earth’s northern axis points at.
If you attempt a star-trail image you need a few hours. You also need a shutter release cable that can be locked; you can then put your camera into burst mode so it takes all the images automatically. Whatever you do, do not touch the tripod between shots. If you do, everything is ruined! Although they look better from a dark place, you can create a perfectly good star-trail from urban areas, too.
6.) Plan a trip
Now you’ve started on your journey into astrophotography you’re going to notice that the world’s best astrophotographers always tend to shoot the Milky Way from under the inky-black night skies of the world’s deserts, mountains and wilderness areas.
That makes ‘astro-travel’ tempting and hugely rewarding if the weather cooperates, but don’t forget to check with the Moon!
If you want to shoot the Milky Way then know that it’s most easily visible – as an arc across the southern night sky – in the moon-free weeks of July, August and September.
Any dark, rural sky will do, but the really bright core is only visible from the southern hemisphere. That’s why you will see a lot of astrophotography from Namibia, Chile, Australia and New Zealand.
Cover image from malcbawn.