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How to Photograph the Night Sky

Marianne Stenger
13th December 2018

Although most people are content with spending more time indoors during the cold winter months, for photographers there’s still plenty to see and document, from urban nightlife to long shadows, early morning frost, and frozen wintry landscapes.

The night sky is another subject that’s great to photograph during colder weather, because colder air supports less moisture, which results in clearer skies, and brighter, sharper photos. So if you’d like to experiment with night sky photography this winter, here are some tips for getting it right.

Find a location with minimal light pollution

In order to properly photograph the night sky, there needs to be as little light pollution as possible. What this means is that there shouldn’t be any ambient light from houses, street lights or cars. In the UK, there aren’t many places like this left, unfortunately, and you may need to travel some distance from town to find a location without light pollution. There are also online tools such as the light pollution map and dark site finder that can help you select a suitable location in your area.

Keep in mind that the light from the moon can also interfere with your night sky photography. With this in mind, it’s best to plan your photo shoot for a moonless night, or at least a time of the month when you know the moon will be smaller and therefore not as bright.

Get your camera set up

In order to get clear, sharp images of the night sky, you will need to shoot at longer exposures, which means a sturdy tripod is a must. A remote shutter release can also be useful, as it will prevent any vibrations when you press the shutter button, although most cameras these days also have a feature that allows you to shoot with a couple seconds delay.

You will also need a camera that allows you to shoot in RAW and manual mode, as this will give you more control over your photos, both while shooting and later on during post processing.

When focusing, turn off the autofocus and focus the lens manually into infinity so the stars will be sharp. Since shutter speeds of more than 30 seconds will blur the stars, you’ll need to shoot at ISOs of 800, 1600, 3500, or even higher. Of course, these are just general guidelines, and you’ll probably need to play around with the settings until you find the effect you’re happy with.

Use a wide angle lens

Since the sky is your main subject, using a wide angle lens will help you fit more of it into your images. Shooting with short focal length, wide angle lenses will also enable you shoot long exposure images while avoiding star trails. Star trails are caused by the Earth’s natural rotation while using slower shutter speeds, and although they can look cool, you won’t always want them in your images.

Some examples of wide angle lenses that are suitable to use for night sky photography include 35mm, 24mm, and 14mm lenses.

Think about what you want to include in the foreground

Although the night sky is your main subject, a photo of just the sky is not going to be very interesting to look at. So in order to compose a more interesting photograph, think about what you want to include in the foreground too and then scout out some locations that match your vision.

An interesting foreground could be anything from a lake to a house or barn, an impressive tree or even your own tent if you’re camping. If you’re not sure what a strong foreground might look like, start by looking at some examples of night sky photography online.

Looking for more ideas for keeping your photography going throughout these cold winter months? Be sure to check out our top tips for winter photography or this short guide to capturing picture perfect photographs of snow.