Photographing Starry Skies

photographing starry skies

Late summer is a great time to photograph the night sky. Cooler evening temperatures make for comfortable working conditions across much of the U.S., and the Milky Way is at its highest point of the year. Here’s a primer for getting started photographing nighttime landscapes that include the moon, stars and even the gorgeous Milky Way.

Avoid Manmade Light

If your goal is to photograph the moon, you can accomplish it almost anywhere—even in the city. But photographing stars requires getting away from as much manmade light as possible. This might require a short drive from the city’s light pollution or even better is to find yourself traveling in the middle of nowhere. Places far off the beaten track are perfect for photographing stars from horizon to horizon. Without manmade light nearby, expect your eyes to adjust after 10 to 15 minutes so it’s even easier to see stars with the naked eye.

If you want to see the nuances in the Milky Way, darkness is imperative. And that makes timing the moon helpful too. The new moon provides dark nights, and a waning crescent moon isn’t bad either. Just try to avoid those bright supermoons and other full moon evenings—unless you plan on including that big orb in your composition.

Of course, comfort isn’t the only reason the weather matters. Viewing the heavens requires an unobstructed view, so check the forecast and choose an evening with clear skies and low humidity to provide an ideal view of the stars. 

Location, Location, Location

If you’re photographing in an unfamiliar location, it’s best to arrive before dark in order to safely navigate and set up. But, once the sun sets, you’ll still need to see your camera controls in the darkness. Don’t just use any old flashlight, however. The white light will hamper your eyes’ ability to adjust to the darkness. Instead, use a red light by placing a red gel over your flashlight to preserve your nighttime vision.

Plan Ahead With Apps

If you’re hoping to photograph specific astral events or objects—such as a certain constellation, the Milky Way or the annual Perseid meteor shower—you’ll want to do some planning to determine the best time of night. Some things become visible or align with landscape elements shortly after dusk, while other events may not occur until closer to sunrise. An application such as The Photographers Ephemeris offers an ideal way to plan and forecast where the sun, stars and moon will be found in relation to your location and vantage point. It’s the perfect way to ensure the Milky Way is positioned exactly where you want, particularly when pairing that starry sky with an earthly landscape.

Foreground Elements

Speaking of image elements closer to home, often the most interesting starry sky photographs include foreground elements such as mountains, lakes and trees to provide context to the celestial bodies. Consider framing to include these objects to add interest to your images. Even if they’re unlit, their silhouetted shapes provide framing, scale and a hint of context. With a lake in the foreground, as in the example here, the added reflections off the water are another way to visually connect the earth with the stars.

Lens Selection

A wide field of view makes it easier to merge the landscape with the sky. A 24mm wide-angle lens is a favorite of astrophotographers everywhere, though a slightly longer lens can help isolate a specific area of the sky or to enlarge the earthbound compositional elements. A telephoto lens enlarges these things significantly, but be aware that the longer the lens the faster the shutter speed will be required to prevent the stars from streaking with motion blur. With a 24mm lens, for instance, 20 seconds represents the upper limit of a long exposure. There’s a handy rule to determine the maximum shutter speed that will produce sharp stars: divide 500 by the focal length of the lens in millimeters. A 24mm lens, for instance, would be 500 divided by 24, for a maximum shutter speed of 20.83 seconds. Of course, you can always shoot for a deliberately star-streaked sky by stopping down and using a bulb exposure for shots that last minutes or even hours.

Exposure Settings

Digital cameras brought an astrophotography revolution, making it possible to crank the ISO and handhold a sharp, star-filled sky without an overpowering amount of noise. But a better approach is to moderate the ISO and use a tripod with a slightly longer shutter speed. Start by selecting a manual exposure that will maximize sharpness—a shutter speed under 15 seconds, for instance, and a sharp aperture. A wide-open aperture would help to let in as much light as possible, but it isn’t very sharp, so I suggest stopping down by a stop or two and starting near ƒ/4 or ƒ/5.6, then adjusting the ISO as needed. In an ideal world, an ISO setting below 1,600 makes for sharp, low-noise images, but you may need to push this to 3,200 or even higher in order to achieve a fast shutter speed and sharp aperture. Don’t hesitate to open up a stop if needed, but try to avoid the maximum aperture for sharpness sake.

Use the camera’s self-timer or a remote shutter release to keep hands off and eliminate the chance for vibration to ruin the exposure. Set the white balance and focus manually—to daylight and infinity, respectively. If you’re using a large or heavy lens, consider taping the barrel so that the focus ring doesn’t slide.

Lastly, while it’s always a good idea to maximize image quality and capture RAW image files, with astrophotography it’s imperative. You’re going to want all the resolution you can get, with a great signal-to-noise ratio, as well as the leeway to reduce that noise and fine-tune exposures in post. This will allow you to not only bring out the nuances of a starry sky but also the subtle details of the landscape.

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