Tips and Tricks for Night Photography of the Starry Sky

Light is the most important part of photography; without light, there’s no picture to be taken. During the night it is dark and the light is sparse, making it challenging to photograph. In fact, in order to capture an image during the night, you’ll most likely have to sacrifice some image quality – forget about using a narrow aperture and low ISO.

Unlike regular landscape photography, night photography requires less than ideal settings in order to capture enough light to properly expose the scene. Since there’s not a lot of available light, that means opening the aperture, increasing the ISO and lengthening the exposure time .

There isn’t one correct setting for each and every scenario as it depends on many factors (such as the brightness of the moon). But as a rule of thumb, you want to use the widest aperture your lens allows in order to get the sky as detailed as possible. Lenses with an aperture of f/2.8 are widely popular amongst nighttime and astrophotographers and if your lens allows for such an open aperture, this is where you should begin.

ISO and shutter speed

The ISO also needs to be increased quite a lot for night photography. For regular landscape photography, I always stress the importance of shooting with the lowest possible ISO. Even though we still want to shoot with the lowest possible setting we’re now looking at an ISO of at least 1600 at night. It’s not uncommon to use an ISO of 3200 or 6400 during the night. Still, to maintain as much quality as possible, try to use the lowest possible option.

Choosing the shutter speed is slightly more challenging as it depends on the focal length of your lens, but I recommend not going longer than 30 seconds unless you want to photograph star trails (I’ll come back to this later in the article). The 500 Rule is a good guideline when choosing the shutter speed. Basically, divide 500 by the focal length of the lens you’re using and you’ll know the maximum shutter speed you can use (to avoid star trails). If you’re using a crop sensor camera you’ll need to calculate the equivalent focal length of a full-frame lens (for example 20mm on crop sensor = 30mm. 500/30 = 16.6 seconds).

Remember that a tripod is essential for night photography in order to get a sharp image. It’s simply not possible to hold your camera still for several seconds!

Planning to Photograph the Night Sky

Scouting can be hard during the night so it’s often beneficial to have familiarized yourself with the area before going there in the dark. I know this isn’t always possible but the very least use an app such as PhotoPills to learn the phase of the moon, its position, as well as the time of sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset and anything else related to your shoot. The more you’ve prepared, the higher the chance you’ll get a great image.

General Ideas for Night Photography

If your goal is photograph stars and the natural night sky, I think it’s fair to guess that you want to see as many stars as possible. In order to get the best possible view of the stars, you’ll need to position yourself at a location that’s away from larger cities and light pollution.

The Milky Way

Norway is known for Northern Lights, dark and starry nights, as well as the overall beautiful landscape but what we don’t have is The Milky Way. Let me be a little more specific; the Galactic Center (the brightest most visible part of The Milky Way that you see in most photos) is never visible in Norway – we only see the edges of it. So, you can imagine my excitement every time I get a chance to photograph the Galactic Center and The Milky Way in its most beautiful display.

Photographing the Northern Lights

Northern Lights is a phenomenon that we’re lucky to have in the northern hemisphere. It’s unlike anything else and I can guarantee that once you see it, you’ll want to witness it again.

The challenges when photographing the Northern Lights is that it often moves quite quickly and it can be rather bright. In order to freeze the motion, you’ll need a quicker shutter speed such as 1-10 seconds. Exactly how quick depends on the intensity of the lights. Just keep in mind that if they’re moving quickly, you should use a quicker shutter speed.

Slow it Down and Photograph Star Trails

Due to the rotation of the earth, your camera registers movement in the stars once the shutter speed becomes too long. This creates a blurry and soft sky and can be quite displeasing to watch.

That being said, every now and then this is something you want to use as an advantage rather than viewing it as a problem. By lengthening the shutter speed to several minutes or even an hour (this lets you use a low ISO and narrow aperture but may result in hot pixels) you’re able to capture what’s known as star trails. This effect can be really interesting but make sure that the shutter speed is long enough so that the stars don’t just look blurry.