Photographing Stars: Tips for Capturing the Night Sky

Few things are quite as captivating as a bright night sky littered with stars. Unfortunately, as many photographers are aware, translating that beauty into an image is easier said than done. Getting a passable shot takes careful planning, technical know-how, and perseverance.

Although I’ve been working with my camera for well over a decade, I’ll admit that I still struggle with nightscapes. I chalk it up to some combination of poor eyesight, older equipment, and a little bit of impatience on my end. Nobody’s perfect. But, as we all know, the best way to get better at something is to practice!

Today, I’ll be going over a few tips that I’ve picked up over time through trial and error. Hopefully, by seeing a few of my successes and failures, you’ll be better positioned to start shooting for the stars!

1. Wait for the Right Conditions

Some nights are better for photographing stars than others. In foggy or cloudy conditions, you won’t capture much, no matter how hard you try. Check out projected local weather forecasts before grabbing all of your gear. An app like Dark Sky can save you a lot of time and make planning a nighttime photo session infinitely easier.

The phase of the moon will impact the appearance of your image. There’s not necessarily a “best” phase for photographing the stars. For instance, a new moon makes celestial shots that include the Milky Way easier to produce. But the lower light also makes noise and chromatic aberrations more apparent. On the flip side, a full moon may not be the best for capturing faint faraway stars. However, they do an excellent job at drowning out distracting light pollution.

2. Location Is Key

On the topic of light pollution – avoid it at all costs. The closer you are to a bright metropolitan area, the more difficulty you’ll face in getting clear shots of the sky. Chances are the most striking star shots that you’ll see are made miles and miles from the nearest streetlamp.

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For some, getting far from city lights is a piece of cake. For others, light pollution is practically unavoidable. Unfortunately, I’m a part of the latter category. Even after driving an hour and a half away from my home in the Greater Boston area, finding an area entirely void of light was impossible.

Looking at a light pollution map can give you a better idea of what conditions are like in your area. If the circumstances you’re working with aren’t optimal, don’t fret. It’s still very possible to get a decent image, so long as you go into the situation with realistic expectations.

3. Experiment with Long Exposures

No matter how you slice it, a long exposure is a must when photographing the night sky. Unfortunately, your camera’s automatic settings won’t do you much good when photographing in the dark. This is where having some patience comes in handy.

Related Article: Guide to Long Exposure Photography

Once you’ve got the composition correct, start with exposures that last several seconds and adjust as needed. Keep in mind that, depending on the look that you’re going for, you might need to make more than one exposure in order to get everything in the frame exposed.

4. Keep Your Camera Still

Because you’ll need to take extra-long exposures, holding your camera in your hands isn’t an option. Even if you stay as still as possible, seemingly imperceptible movements will completely wreck the shot. So, before you start photographing stars, make sure that you have a sturdy tripod at the ready.

Keep in mind that even pressing down on the camera’s shutter may jostle the camera enough to cause motion blur. Many serious nightscape photographers use a remote shutter or an intervalometer to make exposures. But, if you don’t have room in your budget for a new gadget, there is a workaround. Just use the camera’s self-timer feature, and you’ll be able to make a contactless exposure of your own.

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5. Be Aware of Movement

Conversely, any sort of motion happening within your frame – whether your camera is still or not – will result in a blur. This isn’t inherently a positive or negative thing, but it is important to consider how even the slightest movement will impact your image.

When I first started shooting this particular series of images, I hardly noticed the gentle breeze in the air. However, the breeze became much more apparent when I started to look at a few of my images, which included some greenery that swayed in the wind.

I also started to notice a few mysterious bright streaks in my shot. It took me a minute to realize that these came from passersby using flashlights to navigate a nearby jetty. Other people can cause just as much of a disturbance as the force of nature when photographing stars!

6. Shoot a Series of Exposures

As we mentioned earlier, there’s a good chance that you won’t be able to capture foreground details and a night sky properly exposed in a single shot. In these cases, you may want to make a few separate exposures to get the richest, most detailed view possible.

Whether you end up combining shots when post-processing or not, shooting the same scene with different exposure settings can be a helpful exercise. You may just find that an extra five seconds or so adds a whole lot more detail to a dark scene.

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Separate exposures also allow you to see the differences between shooting techniques. I wanted to try a little bit of light painting to bring attention to the rocky beach I was photographing. Having a reference image without light painting was incredibly helpful in determining the impact of my artificial exposure.

7. Go Wide When Possible

For capturing specific objects in the night sky, most photographers opt for behemoth telephoto lenses. However, if you’re trying to capture the entirety of the sky itself, you’ll likely want to opt for a wide-angle lens to capture as much as possible.

That said, your lens isn’t the only thing you’ll want to keep wide while shooting. Always be sure to open up to a wide aperture while shooting the night sky. This allows more light in without compromising image quality with a high ISO.

8. Zoom In and Check Your Histogram

Sometimes, what you see on the back of your LCD panel is not as good as it seems, especially if you have poor eyesight (like me). You’ll want to zoom into each composition to ensure that every detail is in focus.

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Focus isn’t the only thing you have to worry about when relying on an LCD panel. Sometimes, highlights and shadows don’t appear the same on a camera as they do uploaded onto a computer. Make sure that you’re not losing too much detail by checking histograms for exposure clipping.

9. Don’t Shy Away from Post-Processing

When you’re perfecting a nightscape, layer masks, and adjustment layers will be your greatest friends. In almost every scenario, the best shots are actually a composite of several images rather than one stand-alone shot.

Post-processing tools can help you overcome obstacles big and small, and even the simplest touches can make all of the difference. There’s a variety of software available specifically with night photography in mind. But in a pinch, an image alignment, tonal curve, and sharpening mask in Photoshop can totally transform your photos in next to no time.

10. Always Capture RAW Files

Last but not least, always be sure to shoot in RAW when photographing the stars. This way, you’ll be able to preserve some detail in the lightest and darkest areas of your image. In addition, you can apply as many edits as you’d like to your night sky without losing information.

Photographing Stars: Start Experimenting

No two nights are the same, and photographing the stars isn’t always an exact science. It takes practice to master, and some of it relies simply on being in the right place at the right time. Even so, knowing a few basic dos and don’ts can dramatically impact the quality of your images. Take today’s tips to heart and you’ll be just a little bit closer to navigating the night sky!

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