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How To Photograph The Night Sky and Stars

by Steph Doran (follow)
Blog (395)      Tutorials (61)     
We have all seen jaw-dropping images of the night sky, boasting a galaxy full of glimmering stars, or a bold and dramatic looking Milky Way. This kind of photography can evoke a sense of power, mystery, and awe in the viewer.

But photographing the night sky can seem like a daunting task, and many photographers have no idea where to begin. Let’s have a look at some of the steps needed to capture those twinkling lights.

Never underestimate the importance of pre-production! Planning is of key importance if you want your night sky shoot to run smoothly. Don’t just run out into the dark all willy-nilly, follow these tips to optimise your chances of nailing the shot.

1. Be a location scout!

Finding the perfect location to photograph the sky is almost as important as taking the photographs themselves. Not only do you need to find somewhere with an unobstructed view of the galaxy, but you also need to consider light pollution. Ideally, you want to be as far away from the city as possible, as the lights of the city will make it near impossible to get your exposure correct. The tiny pinpricks of light from the stars can’t compete with the layers of city light. So give yourself the best chance possible and get as far away from the lights of civilisation as possible.

Don’t forget, in order to capture the stars, you have to be able to see them with the naked eye The camera is not going to make something out of nothing.

2. Read the weather report
Clear skies are best for night sky photography, as clouds can block the camera’s view of the stars. A small amount of cloud might add interest or drama to your image, but a completely overcast night isn’t what you are after. Consider what effect you are going for when deciding whether or not to commit to the shoot.

3. Timing is important!
The time of night, as well as the time of year can affect your results. Try to shoot during the darkest part of the night in order to get the clearest view of the stars. Different times of year can also heavily impact what you can capture. The Milky Way, for example, is more visible in different seasons, depending on the hemisphere. Do your research beforehand.

4. Be wary of the moon

You may not realise it living in the city, but the moon actually gives off a lot of light. This can throw your exposure right out, so many night sky photographers like to shoot during a new moon (rather than a full moon), to reduce the amount of light pollution. Start paying attention to moon phases when planning.

Tools of The Trade
So now you have your location chosen, have been pouring over moon phase charts, and nervously checked the weather report every 20 minutes. What equipment do you need to capture the glory of the night sky?

1. A camera
This one is obvious, but the type of camera you choose to use can majorly affect the ‘wow’ factor of your shots. As you will most likely be using a high ISO, a camera with a great sensor will be your best bet (even better if you have a full-frame camera.) It’s not 100% necessary to use a full frame, but the quality of these sensors is higher, which means that the camera can handle a higher ISO without introducing noise.

2. Sturdy tripod
As you will be using a very slow shutter speed, your tripod needs to be able to hold your camera steady. You may even need to weigh it down, particularly if the weather is a little windy.

3. Remote trigger or cable release
This one is somewhat optional. A remote trigger or a cable release will both allow you to fire the camera without touching it. This means that you won’t accidentally bump it and ruin the exposure by introducing camera shake, especially if you are locking your mirror up. You can use the self timer too, but that limits your exposure options to 30 seconds or less (which could be fine in many situations.)

Secret Settings
Under the stars, you sit rugged up and freezing. Your camera sits upon your tripod, and you have your cable release in hand, ready to go. But it’s really dark, and you have no idea which aperture to use, or how long your exposure should be. You could wing it, or read these tips to help find yourself a starting point.

1. Focusing Because the stars are really far away, lock your focus to manual and focus on ‘infinity’ (ie: the furthest away that you can.) This will get the stars in focus in most situations.

2. Open that aperture! Start with a wide open aperture, to help light from the stars enter the sensor. Bring the fastest (smallest f.number) lens that you own!

3. Use a long exposure
Keeping that shutter open for a long time gives the stars time to render in the image. 30 seconds is a good starting point. This is where the importance of cutting out light pollution from the city becomes apparent! If your shot is still too dark, you may need to use the BULB setting, which means manually starting and finishing the exposure. A remote trigger or shutter release cable is necessary if you want to use BULB mode.

4. Don’t be scared of ISO
You will need a high ISO to capture the sky, but you want to be careful not to push it too high, so as not to introduce too much noise. This is where a camera with a great sensor, or one that handles low light well will come in handy.

5. Shoot RAW
You will need that extra data and information later on- trust me! Find a quick guide to RAW here.

6. Still stuck? Try this!
Some handy go-to settings are: ISO 3200, 30 seconds at f/2.8. Use this as a starting point and make adjustments to suit your camera. Always, always experiment!

Get Creative!
Night sky photography is a very technically orientated exercise, but once you have mastered the skills, it’s time to get a bit more creative. Try some of these techniques to really spice up your photos.

1. Work with movement
Slower shutter speeds will start to introduce movement in the stars. This is called capturing ‘star trails.’ You might be surprised at how slow the shutter speed needs to be in order to capture this movement (we are talking minutes and hours here.) Including this movement can add interest, but it could also overwhelm a scene, if the location is already quite busy or full.

2. Add a foreground element
Work with the scenery, and include some depth or shape to your shot with foreground elements. Perhaps you are including a silhouetted pine tree against the sky, or shooting from a low angle to include some smaller details of the desert floor.

3. Try multiple exposures or bracketing
Exposing for the sky, then for the foreground (if you choose to include one) and then blending the images together can create some unique results in which all areas of the frame are correctly exposed.

4. BYO light
Add more light into the scene, either with a torch or a speedlight. You can use artificial lights to light up your foreground, adding drama or just lightening the areas up.

Firing your flash either once, or multiple times can make certain areas of the shot brighter. Keep it natural and subtle, or experiment and make it artistic.

Editing The Image
Now before you claim that you are a “straight out of camera” photographer, or a technophobe who can’t use a computer, be aware that every stunning photo you have seen of the night sky has had at least some processing done to it. With night sky photography, there is no escaping post production. You just have to. The camera was not designed to take such long exposures, and you are really pushing it to its limits. For this reason, we need to help the files along a little to really extract their full potential.

If you want your images to really shine, you have to at least do some basic RAW processing. Playing with the exposure, including the shadow and highlight detail, is necessary. You’ll also need to adjust the contrast, and potentially the colour and white balance of the shot. This is why shooting in RAW is very important, as you will be able to push and pull your tones around without ruining the image- it can withstand more because there is more information there! Whether or not you then take your image into Photoshop for further work is up to you.

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