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Beginners Guide to Night Sky & Star Photography

The night sky and star photography can lead to some of the most miraculous pictures. However, capturing the true beauty of a starry sky, the moon, and the Milky way may seem impossible.

If you have ever tried to capture a photo while stargazing, you may have been left with a blurry image that really didn’t look like anything. When you want to create dazzling nighttime pictures, it all comes down to technique.

While wide-angle lenses, high-end cameras, and photo-editing software can help bring some life to drab pictures, they’re not what you need for star photography. You need to understand how to use your camera correctly and have an understanding of technique and composition.
No matter the level of photographer you are, clear pictures of the night sky is within reach. You’ll need to know the basics of nighttime photography. We will set you up with the knowledge required to make after-dark shots of the stars, moon, and Milky Way easier than ever.

Essential Equipment for Star Photography

Galaxy stars.

When you’re off on an adventure to take pictures of the stars, there are a few items you need to make sure you bring along. Capturing images of the stars will require a few items that most photographers will have around. If not, you’ll want to make sure to pick them up. With the correct tools, taking stellar star photographs will be easily accomplished.

  • Tripod: If you have any hope of getting a great shot of the night sky, you will want a sturdy tripod. This piece of equipment is critical. Purchasing a top-rated tripod will ensure you do not have to worry about it shaking or shifting, which can be detrimental to your perfect shot.
  • Manual Camera: For the best star photographs, you’ll need a camera that can be put into manual mode. When a camera is in automatic mode, you will not have any control over the settings. In manual mode, you can adjust a variety of settings, including exposure time, ISO, and aperture, which leads to stunning shots.
  • Remote Shutter Release: When you use a remote shutter release, it will reduce any vibration to your camera. Using this item ensures you will have clear images rather than blurry ones. Any amount of shaking will throw your star photograph off. This item is not essential, but it is helpful.
  • Spare Batteries: There is nothing worse than being in the middle of a great photoshoot, to have your batteries die. Whether your camera uses a rechargeable battery or regular batteries, making sure to have extras saves you from disappointment.
  • Lens Hood: A lens hood will make sure no stray light creeps into your image, leaving “flares.” Any sort of view, be it from a car’s headlights, a headlamp, or a streetlight in the distance, can be a significant problem during star photography. A lens hood will eliminate all of these random streams of light and help protect your lens.
  • Intervalometer: An intervalometer is a fancy name for a camera timer. This is not an essential piece of equipment for star photography, but many photographers will not leave home without it. If you’re trying to take a long exposure picture, it will be necessary. The majority of cameras will allow for 30 seconds of exposure time. An intervalometer will grant you more than the standard 30 seconds.

Camera Settings

Depending on what you’re trying to capture, your camera settings will need to be changed. Taking star photographs will be different than taking pictures of the moon. Slight adjustments will make a vast difference in the quality of your shot.

Photographing Stars

Night photographer

When you’re taking pictures of the stars, you’ll want to use an exposure time of at least 8s. The aperture should be f/2.8, and your sensor speed should be greater than one thousand sixteen hundred. Using a sensor speed higher than sixteen hundred ensures your camera will register the low-light scenario even with short exposure time.

If you’re trying to take pictures of the Milky Way, you will want to orient yourself toward the south. It’s the brightest light and most easily seen in the southern sky. Putting yourself south of any major cities is also advantageous.

Photographing the Moon

Moon Photographer

If your goal is to get a fantastic shot of the moon, you will want to use an exposure setting of 1/250s. The aperture should be set at f/11, and the ISO should be set at 100. You need to remember that the moon moves reasonably quickly. This is why a fast shutter speed is essential. You will be able to see the details of the moon without concerning yourself with overexposure. Many people use their longest lens and zoom all the way in when taking photographs of the moon. This helps highlight its features.

Photographing Moonlit Landscapes

Landscapes after dark can be pretty tricky. You will need to use a 2m exposure time and set your aperture for f/16. Your sensor speed should be at sixteen hundred or above. The aperture setting is critical with this type of shot. It will give you greater depth, which allows your camera to focus on items that are close up and far away in your field of view. Many photographers like to take landscape shots during the quarter moon phase as it provides the perfect amount of light.

When taking moonlit landscape pictures, the shadows can differ vastly. When it’s cloudy, you may find that there are no shadows at all. Conversely, on clear nights, the signs of shadows may jump out of the picture and seem harsh.

Star Photography Tips for Beginners

Night photography

Deciding you want to take nighttime photographs is the first step in achieving some amazing photos. Having a few tricks up your sleeve before you head out on your picture taking excursion can ensure you capture those amazing photos.

Star Photography Tips to Remember:

  • Pick a Subject: Knowing whether you want to photograph the moon, stars, or a specific constellation will help prepare you for the objective at hand. You’ll know the settings you need to get that fantastic photograph before getting set up for the night.
  • Know the Moon Phases: While full-moon photography is probably the most popular, you can achieve some fantastic images during every moon phase. If you want to take pictures of specific constellations, doing so during the new moon is the most advantageous.
  • Check the Weather: If you want to take pictures of the moon and stars, doing so on a cloudy or rainy night will be impossible. Paying attention to the weather and cloud coverages will ensure you pick a great night to snap some photos. Air quality can also play a role in the clarity of your pictures, so paying attention to air quality alerts is also beneficial.
  • Choose a Location: If you live in a city, the lights will be detrimental to your pictures. You’ll want to find dark skies. Skilled photographers typically travel at least 60 miles outside of a city, so lights don’t muck up the shot. You may even need to go further, depending on the size of the town you’re in. Higher altitudes also tend to lead to better pictures. The atmosphere is thinner, and effects light refraction. This will equal out to brighter shots, that offer crisper quality and better contrast.
  • Set Your Tripod Up: You should practice setting your tripod up a few times before you head out for a night shoot. When you do set it up, you’ll want to point one of the legs in the direction of the scene you’re trying to capture. This will allow you to stand comfortably between the other two, with no fear of kicking it and disturbing the image. Many tripods have a bubble level that should be utilized. The central post of your tripod should be perpendicular and vertically straight. The bubble level will allow you to check this. You will also want to make sure the weight of your camera is centered on the tripod. An L-bracket works very well and is preferred by most over the standard mounting plate.
  • Frame the Scene: You will want to follow the rule of thirds when it comes to framing your scene. One-third of your frame should be the horizon, while the other two-thirds are composed of the sky. You should double-check yourself to ensure you have met this goal. This is a fundamental theory for photography composition. It helps unify your image. You will want to divide your picture both vertically and horizontally. This will section your photo into nine squares creating an imaginary grid. Putting points of interest where the intersections of the imaginary grid will be tends to lead to a more appealing picture.
  • Pay Attention to Your Night Vision: Your eyes will naturally adjust to the darkness once you’ve turned the lights off. You should give your eyes thirty to forty-five minutes to adjust to the dark before taking pictures. If you do need to turn on a headlamp to see what’s happening, it’s best to use a red or green light. These colors will not affect your night vision. If you don’t have a colored light option, cover one eye or keep it closed while you work. This will allow you to readjust to the dark more quickly.

Moon Phases and How They Effect After Dark Photography

Moon phases

The phase of the moon will play a role in how much light you’re dealing with. A new moon is ideal for some shoots, while a full moon will work better for others. When planning a night shoot, you’ll always need to consider the phase of the moon.

Best Shots During Each Moon Phase:

  • Full Moon: If you want a shot of the moon itself or get a great shot of the scenery, the full moon is the best time to do it. When it’s low in the sky, it will give light to the foreground of the shot. Additionally, light pollution will be diminished. Taking pictures of the stars during the full moon proves to be complicated. The brightness of the moon tends to obscure the look of stars.
  • New Moon: Stars, constellations, and the Milky Way will be best captured during the new moon. The low light enables you to pick up these faint lights easily. The downfall of photography during the new moon is excess aberrant pixels. These are common during nightscape shoots because you’re using long exposure times and high ISO settings. If you want to capture silhouettes of rock formations, mountains, and other geologic features, the new moon is the most well-suited time to do so. They will pop nicely against a star-filled sky.
  • Crescent and Quarter Moon Phases: Some people feel that these phases give you the best of both worlds. You can capture starry skies or detailed scenery pictures during these moon phases. If you place the moon behind you during your shoot, it will illuminate the scene nicely. You can also capture dramatic images of constellations and the Milky Way during these moon phases.

Light plays an obvious role in photography. Knowing how to work with the light that is around helps ensure excellent image quality. Don’t be afraid to try different angles and positions to find the perfect point for a photo. Trial and error are excellent learning tools when it comes to photography.

Common Star Photography Mistakes

Silhouette photographe

While many mistakes happen during a photoshoot, knowing the most popular missteps can help you achieve great pictures from your first nighttime photo adventure. Some of these mistakes may have already made and learned from. Others may be new to you. Either way, getting familiar with what you should avoid will make your picture-taking experience pleasurable instead of frustrating.

First, do not trust your own opinion about the weather and know there are other elements to consider. Heading outside and looking up is not going to give you the needed information required for great star photography. Sure, taking pictures in beautiful weather is easy, but you also need to know what the moon is doing. As noted, moon phases will affect your photographs on an extreme level. Additionally, stars will show up better when the air is cold. Additionally, you will have clearer air after heavy rain, making excellent conditions for night shots.

Second, you should educate yourself not only on moon phases but also on the Milky Way and the constellations. Some awesome and easy-to-use apps, such as SkyView, will help you pinpoint the location of constellations, planets, the moon, and satellites. These apps will make it easy to capture the scene you have been striving for.

Next, you’ll want to avoid locations with a lot of ambient light. While it’s true that there are stars everywhere, that does not mean that they can be easily seen from all locations. If you live in a city, regardless of size, there will be light pollution from billboards, shops, streetlights, and traffic. Moving away from the city will increase the number of stars you can see and reduce the amount of ambient light that affects your photograph. A successful night shoot will require space between you and civilization.

Another major mistake is taking star photographs while using the autofocus feature on your camera. This setting is going to make your starry night look like small white dots on a dark background. You need to be able to change the settings so that you have the right exposure time, aperture, and sensor speed. Manually setting these will ensure you end up with stellar pictures.

The last beginner mistake we want to warn you of is taking photos of the sky only. While the stars can be seriously impressive, a shot including only the night sky can be dull. The rule of thirds will help you avoid this common mistake. Adding elements like trees, buildings, or rock formations can make your photograph stand out among the crowd and keep even the harshest critics interested.

Conclusion

Taking great pictures of the stars, moon, constellations, and the Milky Way is not as difficult as you might imagine. With the correct tools and knowledge, you’ll be amazing your friends and family with the images you capture. Working with a decent camera and investing in a stable tripod will start you off nicely toward taking an award-winning shot of the night sky.

Once you figure out where to go and what moon phase to go during, you’ll be all set to practice what you have learned about taking photographs after dark. If the first few sessions don’t go great, don’t worry about it. Trial and error will play a role in your successful star photography session.

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