Easy Night Sky Photography

Milky Way

How to Take Great Night Photos

What a lot of people don’t know is that it is relatively inexpensive and easy to take great night photos. The Milky Way, stars, and Moon are all within your reach. You can get some extremely cool-looking photos of them without a lot of effort. Here’s how…

Get the Right Equipment

Of course, you are going to need the right equipment to properly capture the night sky and all its glory. Here are my recommendations:

Essential equipment:

  1. Tripod – A good, sturdy tripod is essential. You can not take a good night photo without it. If you don’t have one, don’t even try to take a night shot. Any good tripod will do and you don’t have to spend a lot of money on one, but do get one that is capable of holding your camera’s weight. I prefer the MeFOTO brand of tripods.
  2. dSLR Camera – Yes, you can use a point-and-shoot camera, but to take decent photos you’re going to need a dSLR camera. Mine is not top-of-the-line by any means and your’s doesn’t have to be either. Mine is a Canon T1i (also known as a D500). It is not a full-frame dSLR. It is an APS-C sensor size version. You can use either. Full-frame is better overall, but costs a whole lot more. Shoot with whatever dSLR you have and you will get fantastic photos. Trust me.
  3. Lens – A good, fast prime lens is what you need. Fast, in lens terms, means one that is of large maximum aperture. That means a lens with a very low f number. Specifically, you need a lens with an f number of 2.8 or lower. Prime in lens terms means a fixed focal length lens and not a zoom lens. You won’t be able to zoom in and out with a prime lens. My number one recommendations for everyone are the cheapest, but best fastest prime lenses out there, the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 and/or the Rokinon 16mm f/2 . Look these up on Amazon or B&H and get one with a mounting for your camera (very important). They will not autofocus, but you can’t autofocus at night anyway. They will not have image stabilization, but with a tripod you won’t need that anyway. They beat the higher-priced lenses in a huge way because they don’t produce coma. Coma is an unwanted feature of all parabolic lenses. It is a form of aberration of a lens where light rays striking a parabolic lens do not all reflect to a single point and therefore makes a faint trail after it. This causes stars to appear to have a cometary coma, hence the name. This is reduced by changing the shape of the lens from parabolic to asymmetric or in other words, aspherical. The Rokinon lenses are aspherical and don’t have coma.

Optional equipment:

  • Cable Release – A cable release is just a button with a cord on it that plugs into your dSLR and replaces the shutter release button so you can push a button in your hand and not touch your camera. You don’t want to touch your camera shutter button when taking a night photo because it will cause shake and blur your photo even if you have a real steady hand and a gentle touch. So a cable release seems essential. Why is it not on the essential list? There is usually a 2 second or 10 second timer option on your dSLR and you can use that instead of a cable release. That’s why.
  • Intervalometer (External Timer) – This is like a fancy cable release. It is a box that does a timing function and replaces your dSLR’s brain for that function. It plugs in just like a cable release, but automatically releases the shutter after a time period you specify on the timer box. I use the Promote Control and let me tell you it has a lot of very cool functions on it that I now find essential (for me).

Here is a photo of my set-up that I leave sitting in my office all the time so it is ready for me to grab and go:

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Get the Right Settings

All the best equipment in the world doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have the correct settings.

Here are the settings and set-up I would typically use to take photos of the night sky and Milky Way:

  1. Focus – I focus my lens to somewhere between 10 feet and infinity. Why not just infinity? Because I want some of the foreground to be sharp too. Here is a photo of my Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 lens and my focus ring position.That white horizontal line on the left is the position indicator. The infinity symbol is below (with its L-shaped line indicating position of infinity) and the yellowish 10 is the 10 ft. mark. You can see my indicator is a little closer to 10 than infinity. This works for me. Also, you can (but shouldn’t) position the focus indicator way over next to the infinity symbol, but that is not where infinity focus actually is. That position is beyond infinity (sounds weird and a bit Toy Story-ish) and will produce blurry images. I’m not sure why Rokinon allows this but there might be a reason. if you put your indicator where I have mine as shown in the photo, you can’t go wrong.

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    The Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 lens, focused on infinity.

  2. In the dSLR, I need to make several setting. If I (or you) don’t have an intervalometer, I have to go into my camera settings and make these following adjustments. I have an intervalometer, so I will tell you how these are set, and you can see my intervalometer screen in the photo below, but you can make these settings within your camera just the same as I do.
  3. Exposure Time – I set my intervalometer (Promote Remote), to take one shot with exposure time (Exp:) of 25 seconds. This 25 seconds is my starting point because at this timing I know that I will not get very much blur in the stars. The stars move, but my camera does not, so I need to take a long enough exposure to capture the faint light of the stars, but not so long as to see the stars turn into lines from their movement.
  4. Focal Length – The focal length (F:) of the lens I’m using here is 14 mm, and this is fixed because of the lens being a prime lens. If I use a different lens, then it would be different and specific to the lens.
  5. ISO – I set my ISO initially to 6400. I start at ISO of 6400 to capture the Milky Way best. But, the high ISO will cause noise, so after this initial setting, I then try ISO of 3200 and see what I get. There is a trade-off between ISO and exposure time (initially set to 25 seconds as written above).
  6. Mirror Lockup – Another setting that is critical is Mirror Lockup (MLU:) that I set to ON. Mirror Lockup is a feature of dSLRs that locks the mirror in an up position when the shutter button is first pressed, then when the shutter button is pressed again, it takes the photo. The reason for this is that when any photo is taken, the process causes some vibration, and by first allowing the mirror to move and then later taking the photo. The vibration of the mirror moving is over and done by the time the photo is taken.
  7. Long Exposure Noise Reduction – To reduce noise in the photo, I set the camera’s Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LeNR:) to ON. This function in the camera makes every exposure take twice as long as listed. For example, if the exposure is set to 25 seconds, it will now be 50 seconds. This is because the camera first takes the photo, then with the shutter closed, the camera takes an identical exposure for the same amount of time. With the shutter closed, the image is dark, and only the camera noise and dust are captured. Then the camera performs a subtraction where it takes the initial exposure and subtracts the noise recorded in this second dark exposure. The resulting image is what was recorded minus the noise of the camera, creating a much cleaner image.

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I make these settings and set up my camera before leaving the house. This is not something I want to do outside in the dark. I leave my camera set up on the tripod with all my gear ready to go, so I can just grab it and take off. Often night photography is not a planned thing, and it helps me get my shots if I can just grab my stuff and go.

One important thing to note before you get frustrated that you are not getting the shot you wanted: The Milky Way is so much fainter than the stars, that to capture it you will need to shoot at a high ISO like 3200 or 6400. That is why I start out with my camera set at ISO 6400 and 25 seconds exposure time. If I don’t get a good shot of the Milky Way with that exposure then I up it to 30 seconds. I also experiment with the ISO.

Another barrier to getting good night shots is the Moon. If the Moon is out, then it could be too bright to get a good shot of the Milky Way without the whole picture being too bright. I show you some of my night photos with the Moon it in the sample photo section below, and you will notice that the ISO is lower and the exposure time is reduced to darken the image because the Moon is so bright.

 Get Prepared to Shoot

Before leaving to go out and photograph at night, I do a few things in preparation before leaving the house and often ahead of time as much as possible:

  1. Batteries – I always keep my camera batteries charged and ready. I also invested in a battery grip for my camera that stores several charged batteries in it for longer shooting times. If I’m leaving the house for an extended trip, I also have a 12V car charger that will charge my batteries. I keep charged batteries in and near my camera so I can grab them and go.
  2. Memory Cards – I keep empty memory cards on me and ready. The one in my camera is formatted, empty, and ready for action. I keep spare memory cards near my camera, so I don’t have to look for them when I am ready to leave the house.
  3. Environment – Shooting the night sky means a lot of standing around in the dark. I make sure I have the proper clothing on so I don’t get too hot or too cold. Also, bug spray is sometimes required as the insects at times will drive me indoors quickly.
  4. Gear – A flashlight helps immensely in the dark, so I keep one on me when I go out. My phone is also helpful, so I take that with me wherever I go. These are essential items to take for my safety too.
  5. Test Shot – I take some test shots with my camera setup before leaving the house. There is nothing worse than having a technical issue outdoors in the dark. I’d rather have that happen in my house instead, so the test shot before leaving the house is essential.

Get Out There and Shoot

One of the great things about night photography is that I can just walk outside and the night sky is right there. I live in the country so it is relatively dark always and this is an advantage over those who live in the city.  But wherever you are, you can just go outside and shoot right outside your door, so getting started with night photography is not hard from a location point of view.

If I want some interesting items in the foreground, then I have to get in the car and drive to wherever that may be. I try to scope these spots out ahead of time, but really the star of any night image is the sky, so the emphasis is generally on that. I stay home a lot and shoot in my driveway. The sky is always right there.

Sample Images and Settings

Here are some sample images and the settings I used to take them. You can copy my set-up as described above, and the settings I used for these sample photos and achieve substantially the same photos yourself. Click on each to see larger. I included the Exif data over on the right and put the exposure settings right at the top of each image. These are screens right off of my computer running Lightroom. One thing you will not see is the lens information. The lens I used for every one of these sample images was the Rokinon 14 mm f/2.8.

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One thing you will notice is that I took a lot of photos – you can see them at the bottom of each image in the filmstrip. Not all turn out well, so I take quite a few and at different settings for each.

A subject for another time would be the post-processing involved with each photo. It is not difficult, but it is unique to night photos and in a future post or publication, I will gladly share my workflow.

  Summary

It is neither difficult nor costly to get into night photography and the images are loved by so many because so few photographers take night photos. Initially it does appear difficult and this can be a barrier to getting started, but when you look more closely at what is involved, it’s really not that hard. I hope I have helped bring that to light in this post and I sincerely hope you will give night photography a try.

Thank you for reading what I wrote — I hope you enjoyed it!
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