But it doesn’t have to be.
Because with a few simple tips and tricks, you can capture images like this one:
And that’s what this article is all about. I’m going to share my favorite tips for photographing the various subjects of the night sky, including the Milky Way, the new moon, and the northern lights…
…so that you can become a night sky photography expert.
Let’s get started.
1. Make sure you use the right camera settings
The night is dark and light is sparse, which makes the night sky difficult 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 a low ISO for a clean, no-noise shot.
Unlike regular landscape photography, night photography requires less-than-ideal settings in order to capture enough light to properly expose the scene. That means opening the aperture, increasing the ISO, and lengthening the shutter speed.
Unfortunately, there isn’t one correct setting for each and every scenario. The right night sky photography settings depend on many factors (e.g., the brightness of the moon).
But here’s a simple rule of thumb:
Use your lens’s widest aperture to capture the sky with as much detail as possible. Lenses with an aperture of f/2.8 are popular for nighttime and astrophotographers – if your lens allows for such a wide aperture, that’s where you should begin.
The ISO also needs to be increased substantially for night photography. While I always stress the importance of shooting with the lowest possible ISO for regular landscape photography, night photography is completely different; even though we still want to shoot with the lowest possible setting, we’re now looking at an ISO of at least 1600. And it’s not uncommon to use an ISO of 3200 or 6400.
Still, to get the best image quality, try to use the lowest possible option.
Selecting the right shutter speed is slightly more challenging because it depends on the focal length of your lens.
However, don’t go longer than 30 seconds unless you want to photograph star trails (as I discuss later in this article). The 500 Rule is a good guideline here; 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 focal length using the crop factor – for example, 20mm on a crop sensor converts to a 30mm equivalent, and 500 divided by 30 gives you a maximum shutter speed of 16.6 seconds).
Remember: if you want to get a sharp image at night, a tripod is essential. It’s simply not possible to hold your camera still for several seconds!
2. Scout the location and the night sky in advance
Picking night photography locations while stumbling around in the dark can be tough – so I recommend you familiarize yourself with the area before heading out for a nighttime photoshoot.
If you can, visit the area during the day. And if that’s not possible, at least use an app such as PhotoPills to determine the current 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’re prepared, the better the chances that you’ll get a great image!
So let’s summarize what you should know before going out to shoot the night sky:
- The time of civil, nautical, and astronomical twilight
- The phase of the moon
- The moon’s position in the sky
- The time of moonrise and moonset
- When the Milky Way is visible (if applicable)
- The Milky Way’s position (if applicable)
All this information is easy to find with an app such as PhotoPills or by doing a quick search online.
3. Find a truly dark area to shoot
If your goal is photograph stars and the natural night sky, I think it’s fair to assume you want to see as many stars as possible.
And in order to get the best possible view of the stars, you’ll need to find a location away from larger cities and light pollution.
Websites and maps such as DarkSiteFinder are great resources when searching for areas with limited light pollution. If you live close to a major city, you’ll probably have to travel a little farther than if you live near a small town.
There are filters, such as NiSi’s Natural Night Filter, that help reduce light pollution. But a filter won’t magically remove pollution to give you a starry sky – it simply neutralizes the color of the light pollution.
For the most detailed night sky, you should avoid the weeks closest to a full moon. During that period, the sky is brighter, and there are fewer stars visible to both the naked eye and the camera.
However, that doesn’t mean you should stay home; there are many interesting subjects to shoot during the full moon, as well!
How to photograph the Milky Way
Norway is known for northern lights, dark and starry nights, and an overall beautiful landscape – but what we don’t have is the Milky Way.
Let me be 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 to photograph the Galactic Center and the Milky Way outside of Norway!
The techniques for photographing the Milky Way are mostly similar to other types of night photography.
You’ll want to use a wide-open aperture, a high ISO, and a shutter speed of no more than 30 seconds. I find that a slightly higher ISO and a shutter speed of around 25 seconds (when shooting at 14mm and f/2.8) gives the highest amount of detail.
If you slow down your shutter speed any further, the camera starts picking up a slight movement in the stars (due to the earth’s rotation), and your shots get blurry.
It’s also best to photograph the Milky Way during the new moon or before the moon has risen. The darker the sky, the more stars you see, and the more detailed the Milky Way becomes.
How to photograph a meteor shower
Whenever there’s a meteor shower, I keep my fingers crossed for clear skies. There’s nothing more magical than being outside in the darkness and looking up at dozens or even hundreds of shooting stars over a span of several hours.
But since most shooting stars last for only a second or two, it can be hard to capture them in an image.
So to capture as many shooting stars as possible, I set my camera to interval shooting and I let it fire continuously.
To pick up even the smaller shooting stars, I increase the shutter speed slightly to approximately 15 seconds (the exact value depends on the brightness of the night).
How to photograph the northern lights
The northern lights are a phenomenon that we’re lucky to have in the Northern Hemisphere. They’re unlike anything else, and I can guarantee that, once you see a light display, you’ll want to witness it again.
Shooting the northern lights does come with some challenges, however.
For one, they often move quite quickly, and they can be rather bright. In order to freeze the motion of the lights, you’ll need a faster shutter speed (such as 1 to 10 seconds).
(Your exact shutter speed will depend on the intensity of the lights; just keep in mind that, if the lights are moving fast, you should use a quicker shutter speed.)
Also, pay attention to your histogram, as it’s easy to blow out the highlights.
Since the northern lights are a bright phenomenon on a dark night, the contrast can be great. I recommend always exposing for the highlights, and if needed, capture a second exposure for the landscape that you can blend in later during post-processing.
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 soft, blurry sky – not the result that you want!
However, every now and then this is something you can use to your advantage.
By lengthening the shutter speed to several minutes or even an hour (the latter 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. The effect can be really interesting, but make sure that the shutter speed is long enough so the stars look like streaks rather than blurry dots.
Note that you can also capture a series of images using a shorter shutter speed, then merge them together in Photoshop or with software such as StarStaX.
Photographing the full moon and bright moon phases
As I’ve mentioned previously, a small moon is best for night photography, as it’s during this period that you’ll see the most stars.
However, when the moon is large and strong, there are still many interesting images to be captured.
First of all, since the moon is a bright source of light, you can get away with using a slightly lower ISO or narrower aperture.
And it can also be easier to find a composition in the dark because the landscape is brighter. Use this light to your advantage and pay attention to the shadows in the landscape. Does the moon light up a mountain? Does it create a nice reflection on a lake?
When the moon is bright, it can be wise to compose your images with more landscape than sky, as that’s where the most interesting things happen.
Personally, I prefer to photograph the moon when it’s low in the sky, as the shadows are slightly more interesting during that time. (This is for the same reason that shooting at sunrise and sunset is best for daytime landscape photography!)
Starry sky photography: conclusion
Starry sky photography isn’t always easy – but it’s a lot of fun!
So remember the tips and tricks I’ve shared with you. Then grab your camera and tripod (and maybe a buddy for some company), get out, and give it a go!