Photo Tips for Night Sky Photography

Photo Tips for Night Sky Photography

by Jim Richardson

Something wonderful has happened in photography: ordinary people can now photograph the universe, something that was once the exclusive province of astronomers with gigantic telescopes. Standing beneath the Milky Way has always been a beautiful sight, if you were lucky enough to find yourself under dark skies on a dark night. But the revelation of recent advances in digital photography is that the dim ribbon of silvery light we see with our naked eyes is actually a glorious, stupendous galaxy that can be captured by anyone willing to learn a few basic techniques. For me the revelation came the first time I took a photograph of the Milky Way and realized that I didn’t need a big telescope. (I had thought anything interesting in the visible universe would be far, far away.) Not so; the Milky Way fills the night sky from horizon to horizon. So what I actually needed was a very wide angle lens because our galaxy is so huge — and we live in the middle of it. When I show young people my first published picture of the Milky Way I like to point out that this galaxy is their home. Earth lies about a third of the way out on one of those vast spiral arms of stars and dust clouds radiating outward from the galactic core. And for regular folk (like me) to be able to take a snapshot of that universe is something new under Sun. And it’s great fun, too.

Arizona Sky Village

Tip 1: Shoot for the Stars

Go for great images of the night sky. We’re living in a Golden Age of photographic technology. Twenty years ago this simple picture would have been impossible. Fifteen years ago it was cutting edge. Now it is within the reach of any amateur photographer willing to go after it.

But don’t stop at just capturing the moon or a few stars. Put our world squarely in the middle of the Milky Way that we can see with our naked eyes. (It’s out there every night.) And include the landscape. For instance, Arizona Sky Village in Portal is a dark sky housing development. Every house has a telescope built in and one of the streets really is named “Milky Way,” which I wanted to show. A little pop of flash did the trick, lighting up the street sign. I don’t know where else in the world you can get this picture. 

Moai on Râpă Nui (Easter Island)

Tip 2: Dial up the ISO

The single greatest photographic advance for shooting the night sky has been the breathtaking advance in camera low light sensitivity. Twenty years ago ISO 1600 was cutting edge. Today ISO 6400 (and above) is routine. And higher ISO sensitivities are quite useable. 

My standard exposure (the one I keep in the back of my head) for the Milky Way is 30 second, f2.8 and ISO 6400 — with a 14mm lens on a full frame sensor. It makes the Southern Milky Way shine like a brilliant cloud. You can’t go much longer than 30 seconds with a 14mm lens before the stars start streaking visibly. And if you shoot with a shorter lens, like with with a 24mm, the acceptable exposure time goes down. 

Now I hear photographers cringing over the noise you’ll get at ISO 6400. My advice: use some noise reduction software — and get over it. We publish pictures shot at ISO 6400 in National Geographic routinely and nobody complains. Besides recent advances in noise reduction software have been stunning.

Grand Teton National Park

Tip 3: Gear Up: Lenses and Tripods

Gear won’t solve every problem but there is a practical threshold for doing night sky photography. (A point and shoot camera just won’t get it.) But most modern DSLR and mirrorless cameras can pull it off. Best advice is to get an f2.8 or faster lens — the wider the better. I consider a 24mm f2.8 fixed focal length lens pretty much the entry level option.

Of course you need a tripod, the solid kind that doesn’t wobble if you touch it. (I’d venture to say there are no tripods costing less than $100 that will do the job.) A cable release is good to fire the camera without introducing shakes, especially, the kind with a built in timer which is pretty much essential if you want to go beyond 30 second exposures. 

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

Tip 4: Plan Ahead: Recommended Astronomy Software

A glorious moon rising over the Golden Gate Bridge with moonlight on the bay was what I wanted. And thanks to an app on my iPhone I knew it was going to be there. You can hope for that lucky night when the moon rises unexpectedly, or you can plan for it. Planning works better.

There are plenty of computer apps that will tell you but there are two that are Head and shoulders above the crowd in my experience. First is the oddly named The Photographer’s Ephemeris. Available for all major platforms, it gives you the time for moonrise and moonset, for any date (even years in the future), from any position on earth. Besides that it will also lay it out graphically for you on a satellite photo. This way you’ll know exactly where to stand when the moon comes up.  

PhotoPills is the other app I always carry. This clever bit of software magic will show you where the Milky Way is (or will be later on) by projecting a virtual image onto the scene in front of you. It’s quite amazing. You can just move around to find your camera position knowing where the Milky Way will show up when it gets dark. 

Moonrise over Denver International Airport

Tip 5: Learn Your Moon and Star Lore

“The full foon rises at sunset.” Imprint that fact on your brain. It’s the first (and simplest) rule you need to learn. 

Fortunately the Moon is just about the most predictable thing in life (after the sun and taxes.) Those few minutes of dusk just after it rises are the golden moments for shooting the moon because there is still some light on the landscape, nicely balanced with the glow of the orange moon. If you wait till it gets dark the moon will be too bright relative to the dark landscape; your camera won’t be able to cope with the extreme brightness range.

Note, too, that the full moon rises very quickly. You need to be in position when it pops up. (See my previous tip about handy astronomy apps.) For this picture at Denver International Airport I was after the moon right behind the terminal. I had my 600mm lens set up, waiting, but for all my planning when it peeped over the horizon I was still 100 yards out of position. It was all Keystone Kops for a few seconds there, me running down the road frantically to get the shot. You only get 13 full moons a year. Make the best of them.

Kansas Wind Farm

Tip 6: Moonlight Looks like Daylight — Sort Of

Moonlight photography — like romance — can be both fun and frustrating. A landscape lit by a full moon is actually quite bright and many photographers have the same first reaction: my moonlight pictures looks like daylight pictures!  To counter this effect dial back the exposure a little bit and include some stars or night lights (like I did here, photographing a wind farm in Kansas) to give some visual clues of nighttime. One word of caution on the exposure front. Be careful when evaluating your pictures out there in the dark: the LCD screen on the camera looks super bright at night. It will fool you into taking pictures that are much too dark. Learn how to use the histogram on your camera. Believe the histogram, not your eyes. 

Arizona Sky Village

Tip 7: Adjusting the White Balance for Good Sky Color

Color balance can be a problem. For one, our eyes can’t see color in the night sky. The Milky Way is just a dreamy gray mass to our eyes. So we have no real perception of what color the night sky actually is. Very often on long exposures the color comes out to be something you just don’t expect, ofter much too warm and brownish. Something bluer will look more real. To correct this you might try setting your camera for tungsten white balance instead of daylight. (If you are more advanced you should try setting your camera white balance to 4000 degrees Kelvin. That’s kind of a standard for most Milky Way photographers these days.) Absolutely, shoot in RAW mode (not JPG) so that you have maximum control to adjust later. 

I was lucky on this morning when Jack Newton came out in the early morning after a night of astro-photography; the sky was already turning a faint blue. And he wore a red light and I had an assistant light the adobe wall with a flashlight. 

Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah

Tip 8: Carry a Flashlight

If anybody had been there to see me out on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah that night, I might still be locked up today. I looked like a man who had lost his keys — or his mind. But sweeping these salt ridges with the little flashlight (I always carry it in my bag) was just enough to make the foreground pop out. I was shooting two minute exposures. For just the first 10 to 15 seconds I’d glance the light across the salt from very low, the flashlight just inches off the lakebed. Then I’d review the image on the LCD screen, make needed adjustments and give it another go. By the way, with a little practice you can light quite a bit with a very small flashlight.  

Gateway Arch, St. Louis

Tip 9: Adapting to Adversity

Photographing the night sky demands adaptability — and a bit of humility. You’ll have to solve problems constantly, but you’ll feel triumphant when you it all works. Sometimes clouds get in the way. That’s when you should go into lemonade mode, making what you can out of what you are given. 

For instance, the St. Louis Arch was socked that night when I got there. It turned out to be a blessing. Low clouds were being lit by the city lights, making them this salmon color (which I did nothing to “correct” with white balance adjustment) and spotlights shining on the arch were casting strange shadows and patterns on the cloud base. The ability to turn on your heals and go in another creative direction can rescue many situations. 

Night in Burkina Faso

Tip 10: Save the Night

The single best way to get better night sky pictures is to find some place with really dark skies. Increasingly in our world awash in urban lighting that is getting to be difficult. For tens of thousands of years humanity sat under the stars at night (much as I did with this family in Burkina Faso in Sub-Saharan Africa) and marveled at the wonders of the universe. 

We shouldn’t let that wonder go out of our lives; this is a problem we can do something about. Many groups (probably some in your area) are working to preserve the beauty of the night by urging cities and municipalities to control night lighting. The International Dark-sky Association has a wide range of programs and resources to offer. 

We can save wide stretches of our night sky.  It’s not only good for us, it’s also good for all those critters that depend on darkness to survive.


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