Photographing stars and the night sky requires a completely different approach and mindset than when photographing during the daytime, blue hour, or the Golden Hour.
Most of the techniques and guidelines you’ve learned to follow for daytime landscape photography don’t apply at night. That’s exactly what makes it a hard genre to enter for beginning photographers; even the more experienced photographers can feel out of place during the night.
That being said, it’s hard not to get addicted after capturing your first images of the stars.
After reading this article, you’ll have a greater understanding of how to capture beautiful images of the night sky. You’ll be introduced to the ideal camera settings, recommended camera gear, compositional guidelines, and the secrets of how to photograph stars like a pro.
Best Camera Settings to Photograph Stars
If you’re familiar with the fundamentals of landscape photography you might already know that the ideal settings typically involve a low ISO and an aperture between f/5.6 and f/11.
For night photography, these settings will result in a severely under-exposed image or require a shutter speed of hours (we will come back to why the shutter speed matters in a bit)
Photographing at night means that you’re photographing in pitch-black surroundings. This means it takes a longer time for the necessary amount of light to reach the sensor and create a correctly exposed image.
So instead of using the “classic” camera settings you’re used to from daytime photography, you need to make some adjustments. More specifically, you need to use an open aperture, a high ISO, and a slow shutter speed.
Let’s dive a little deeper into these:
#1 Use an Open Aperture for Night Photography
When photographing stars we need to make certain adjustments to our camera settings in order to let more light enter the camera. The first step to doing so is opening up the aperture as much as possible.
The exact value depends on your lens but most night photographers prefer being in the range of f/1.4 to f/2.8. An aperture of f/4 is also acceptable for photographing stars but it requires you to increase the ISO slightly more.
Note: Photographers who are serious about their night photography should invest in a wide-angle lens with a wide maximum aperture, such as the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, Sigma 14-24mm f/2.8, Sigma 20mm f/1.4, or similar camera-specific-models.
Using an open aperture means that more light reaches the sensor and, ultimately, it allows you to see a lot more details in the night sky. In fact, the number of stars you’re able to photograph with an aperture such as f/2.8 is incredible.
The downside of using an open aperture is that you sacrifice depth of field.
This means that the foreground will be soft or even out of focus. Most of the time, this is not an issue for night photographers but techniques such as focus stacking are beneficial when you include a foreground. Especially when the composition involves foreground elements that are close to the lens (i.e., extending the distance between the nearest foreground and the sky)
You can use apertures such as f/8 when photographing the stars but this requires a much longer shutter speed, which results in what’s known as star trails. More about this in a bit.
#2 Use a High ISO Value
Use the lowest ISO possible is something we’re taught over and over again as landscape photographers. We know that a high ISO introduces a significant amount of noise and, in some cases, this is enough to ruin an otherwise good photo.
Even with the amazing AI noise reduction software that exists now, we don’t want to increase the ISO more than necessary.
Yet again, we have to step out of our comfort zone when photographing the stars.
Night photography requires you to increase the ISO more than you otherwise would. The exact value depends on factors such as light pollution and the moon phase but typically you’ll find yourself somewhere between ISO1600 and ISO3200.
During the new moon, you might even find yourself using an ISO of 6400 or more.
I know this will be difficult for some (I’ve been an ISO100 warrior too!) but this is what we have to do in order to get good images of the night sky.
#3 Use a Slow (But Not Too Slow!) Shutter Speed
The shutter speed is a little more flexible than the aperture and ISO but you need to be aware of the consequences when using a too-short or too-long exposure time.
- A too-quick shutter speed (quicker than 5 seconds) means that you need to further increase the ISO in order to get a well-exposed image. The stars remain sharp but entry-level cameras will have a hard time handling the high ISO values.
- A too-slow shutter speed (slower than 30 seconds) leads to blurry stars. Due to the rotation of the earth, it doesn’t take much more than 30 seconds before you start noticing motion in the stars. For most lenses, 20 to 30 seconds is ok but even this is pushing the limit if you want razor-sharp images.
Ideally, the shutter speed should be somewhere around 15-25 seconds to get the best results. That being said, it does depend on the lens you’re using. The longer the focal length, the quicker the shutter speed needs to be.
The 500 rule is a simple method of calculating the maximal shutter speed you can use before introducing star trails: Divide 500 by the focal length of your lens. I.e. the maximum shutter speed for a 14mm lens is 500/14=35,7 and for a 20mm lens it’s 500/20=25.
Note: The 500 rule is slightly dated and should only be used as a rule of thumb. A more accurate calculation is the NPF rule.
A Recap of the Best Settings for Photographing Stars
As you now understand, the ideal settings for night photography are slightly different than what we are used to from the daytime. The good news is that you’re most likely going to operate with approximately the same settings each time.
Let’s do a quick recap of what the best settings for photographing stars are:
- Aperture f/1.4 to f/2.8 (with f/4 being the very limit)
- ISO 1600-3200 (though the darkest nights might require up to ISO6400)
- Shutter speed of 15 seconds
Keep in mind that you need to adjust the ISO depending on your aperture. An aperture of f/1.4 needs a considerably lower ISO than an aperture of f/4.
Follow these guidelines and you’re one step closer to creating beautiful images of the night sky. Now, let’s move on to the equipment you need for star photography.
Essential Camera Equipment for Photographing Stars
I’m not a photographer who believes that camera gear matters all that much. Yes, quality gear is important for the outcome but you are able to create incredible work with any camera.
For night photography this isn’t quite true. While you can capture the night sky with mostly any camera, the equipment does have a big effect on the final outcome. Let’s dive a little deeper:
#1 A Camera with Good ISO Capabilities
The camera model plays an important role in night photography. Perhaps more so in this genre than any other.
Since we are dealing with extreme ISO values it’s important to have a camera that is able to create good images even when pushing the limits. The truth is that most entry-level cameras aren’t capable of handling an ISO of 3200. The amount of noise and grain becomes so bad that the images are lacking quality.
This is simply an obstacle we have to deal with if we want to create great images in the dark. Therefore, it’s important that you have a camera that’s able to handle high ISO values.
Unfortunately, this means you will have to look at some more expensive camera models. The cheapest cameras aren’t suitable for this purpose. Keep in mind that there are great deals on purchasing used gear. Cameras such as the Nikon D750 aren’t that expensive anymore and are more than capable of dealing with these high ISO values.
#2 A Wide-Angle Lens with an Open Aperture
The second essential piece of equipment for night photography is a wide-angle lens with an open aperture. We’ve already talked a little about this already so you probably have an idea of why it’s important.
First off, why a wide-angle?
The technical reason is that it allows you to use a slower shutter speed than you could when using a longer focal length (remember the 500 and NPF rules?)
From a landscape photographer’s perspective, a wide-angle lens also allows you to create more compelling compositions that feature both the landscape and the night sky. This opens up a new world of creative possibilities.
Without getting too much into specific manufacturers and models, I suggest that you look for a lens that in the 14-24mm range with the widest aperture of f/1.4 to f/2.8. This will be ideal for night photography.
#3 A Sturdy Tripod
A tripod is an essential piece of equipment for photographing stars. Remember, we are operating with shutter speeds of 15 seconds or slower, which means it’s nearly impossible to capture a sharp image handheld.
The tripod makes it possible to use these slow shutter speeds without having to worry about camera vibration and blurry images.
Now, note that I said a sturdy tripod. That word is important. The truth is that all tripods aren’t good for dealing with these slow shutter speeds.
Cheap tripods found at your electronics dealer tend to be, for a lack of better words, wobbly. It takes next to nothing for them to vibrate. This leads to camera vibration and blurry images, which is exactly what we want to avoid with a tripod.
Hence, look for a model that’s strong enough to carry the full weight of your camera equipment, and withstand some wind. I strongly suggest a carbon fiber tripod and avoiding using the center column.
Note: Not sure what tripod to get? Then have a look at our article How to Choose Your Next Tripod.
#4 A Remote Shutter
A remote shutter might not be essential for photographing stars but it might come in handy. It can help reduce the risk of camera vibration and it makes it easy to use Bulb Mode if you’re going beyond a 30-second shutter speed.
This doesn’t have to be anything expensive; a simple $10 remote shutter will do the job.
How to Focus on the Stars
Finding a sharp focus is what most photographers struggle with for night photography. If this sounds familiar, then know that you’re not alone.
The main problem is that the autofocus system isn’t able to properly focus in the dark. Most likely, it’s going to result in a blurry or slightly out-of-focus image. This is frustrating enough for many photographers to give up.
Luckily, it’s not as hard to focus in the dark as you might fear. It actually just requires a few extra steps:
- Start by switching into manual focus and rotate the focus ring to infinity (the exact sweet-spot changes from lens to lens)
- Take a test shot and, if needed, fine-tune the focus until it’s correct.
- Mark this spot by using a piece of tape or a marker, making it easy for you to find the sharpest focus again at any time.
Another option is to take advantage of any distant light sources within your frame. This could be a bright star or a distant street light. Next, use Live View to zoom in on this spot and rotate the focus ring until the light is at its smallest. This is where it’s the sharpest. Take a test shot to see if you need further refining.
That’s it! Not so difficult, right?
How to Deal With Light Pollution When Photographing Stars
Those of you living in large cities are probably not used to looking up at the sky and seeing millions of stars. In areas with dense populations, light pollution is significant which reduces our visibility of the crisp night sky. Instead, there’s an orange haze, which is far less photogenic.
To get the best photos of the night sky you have to get as far away from the light pollution as possible. Even just getting to an open field outside of town is better than staying in the middle of the city center.
Tip: Use a light pollution map to find dark places near you.
There are two techniques to work around light pollution. Combining the two can result in impressive images even close to cities:
- Set the White Balance to Kelvin Mode and use a value of approximately 3500K. Take a test shot to see if it’s too blue, still too orange or acceptable – and adjust accordingly.
- Use a light pollution filter such as the NiSi Natural Night Filter. Place the filter in front of the lens and you see that it effectively reduces the dominant light pollution and brings back details in the sky.
Light pollution can be difficult to deal with but making just a few small adjustments in your workflow can make a big difference. That being said, a general suggestion for landscape photographers is to get away from big cities when wanting to photograph the stars.
Compositional Tips for Night Photography
A typical mistake I see among beginning photographers who go out to photograph the night sky is that they become so fascinated by the stars that they forget about the composition. That is understandable as a sky full of stars is mesmerizing but a compelling image needs more than just the sky above a random subject.
My best advice is to treat the image similarly as you would if you were out photographing the sunset. Be considerate of what you include in the frame. Find a composition that adds to the image, and use the night sky to emphasize the story you’re trying to tell.
Let’s try a little exercise
Find a handful of night photos captured by your favorite photographer and ask yourself these questions: Do they have other elements than the sky? How much of the frame does the night sky fill? Would the image be nice even without the stars?
Great images have one thing in common: a good composition. That’s true for any genre, and night photography is no exception.
Personally, I make a habit of always exploring an area during the daytime. That gives me the opportunity to take test shots of compositions and make notes of where I can set up when the night approaches. Finding a good composition is a lot more difficult in the dark. Especially if you’ve never seen the place during daytime.
Tips for Intentionally Photographing Star Trails
When talking about the shutter speed, I briefly mentioned something called star trails. This is an effect where you photograph the movement of the stars (due to the earth’s rotation). The stars are no longer sharp spots but instead lines stretched across the sky.
Star trails can be distracting and harm the image when done unintentionally but when they are created with intention, they can be rather fascinating.
To create this effect you need to use a very slow shutter speed. Exactly how slow depends on how strong you want the effect to be (i.e., how long the star trails go) Typically, you need at least a 5-10 minute shutter speed to begin making the star trails interesting. In fact, you can use a shutter speed of one or two hours to capture even more of the trails!
Note: An alternative is to capture multiple images and stack them together in Photoshop. For example, you can shoot 50 images with a 1-minute shutter speed each to create a 50-minute star trail.
In order to achieve a multiple-minute shutter speed, you can use a lower ISO and narrower aperture than you typically would for night photography. For example, you can try an ISO of 400 and an aperture of f/8.
Night Photography Post-Processing Tips
Another tricky part of photographing stars is that the foreground is often much darker than the sky. Normally, a Graduated Neutral Density Filter would be the solution but, yet again, this is not ideal for night photography.
My preferred workaround for this requires some knowledge of Photoshop but the idea is quite simple: capture one image where you expose for the sky and another expose for the foreground (by lengthening the shutter speed)
Keep in mind that, unlike the sky, a static landscape won’t look different in a 15-second image than in a 1-minute image. This technique leaves you with two images that each are optimized for their specific part of the frame. The stars are nice and sharp in one and the landscape is better exposed in the second.
Back home you need to open the two images in Photoshop. With a little knowledge of Layers and Masks, you can easily blend them together, leaving you with an image that has both a well-exposed foreground and sky. It might sound a little tricky but after trying this a couple of times you’ll have the hang of it.
Certain top-level cameras have a very good Dynamic Range which means that instead of blending the two images, you can capture only one and increase the shadows/darks in Lightroom or a RAW editor. Still, for optimal quality, it’s better to capture two separate shots.
I think it’s fair to say that night photography is amongst the more difficult genres of photography. It’s a genre that requires you to forget about everything you know about camera settings and instead do the exact opposite.
While photographing the stars appears quite difficult in the beginning you now know that it really isn’t as tricky as one might think. It does require some more effort from you but by making just a few simple changes in your workflow, you’re able to capture incredible photos of the night sky.
So. Are you ready to go outside and explore the world at night?
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