This is a 4,000-word guide. If you’re pushed for time, click the orange button now to discover why we recommend Lance Keimig’s excellent Night Sky Photography course.
There is no doubt that many of us astronomers would love to learn how to take pictures of the stars like the one below.
(Note: If you’re more interested in astrophotography, e.g. taking pictures of nebulae, then read our best telescope for astrophotography guide).
Learning how to photograph the Milky Way
How to Photograph Stars
As astronomers, we’ve learned to get our thrills at our telescope eyepiece, but…
Spectacular pictures of the night sky have the effect of making us want to learn how to take take them for ourselves. So, in this article, we look at exactly how you can get started or improve your night sky photography skills.
Our list of 8 steps covers all the areas you need for great results, such as night photography settings, how to photograph stars, taking pictures of the Milky Way, the best DSLR cameras for shooting the night sky – including the best lenses for star photos and how to improve your night sky photos in post production.
Let’s waste no more time and get started with step 1: picking the right kind of camera to take pictures of the stars:
1. Best Cameras for Night Photography
Whichever camera you choose, you should opt for a DSLR that shoots RAW-format images. These give you the maximum control possible over your images in post-production because no information is stripped from the image to save on file space.
You have two types of camera to choose from, full-frame and crop frame. Full frame give the best results, but also cost the most money. Fair warning: these cameras are not cheap! Click on any of the models mentioned below to see the current price on Amazon.
A full-frame DSLR is the ideal camera to photograph the Milky Way in its best light. Nikon full frame models like the Nikon D810 come highly recommended by the renowned night sky shooter Dave Morrow for its high dynamic range, but be ready with a lot of cash!
In the Sony camp, at the top end, you should check out the Sony a7RIII full frame model. Remember though, both of these are ‘body-only’ meaning you will need to add lenses to the mix, which we’ll look at in a second.
To complete the ‘big 3’ of night photography, we should include the Canon 5D Mark IV, which is Canon’s best offering available today for taking pictures of the night sky you can be proud of.
If these models are a bit rich, then a crop-frame DSLR will still give wonderful star photos but without hitting your pocket quite so brutally. In fact, for very little difference in picture quality (especially if you’re just getting started) you’ll save 40% or more by choosing a crop-frame camera to shoot the night sky.
As you probably guessed, the crop-frame camera has a smaller field of view than a full frame model. The biggest challenge you’ll experience with by choosing crop-frame is that you won’t be able to fit the whole Milky Way into your shot like you can with a full frame camera.
If that’s not a big issue for you, then good choices in the crop frame DSLR market include the Nikon D7100, from Canon take a look at their EOS 80D model or, if you’re a Sony fan, the Sony A6500 might be your model of choice.
Once you’re equipped with a camera body, you’re going to need that lens…
2. Camera Lenses for Night Sky Photography
To take pinpoint pictures of the stars, your camera’s sensor needs as much light as possible hitting it – which means a ‘fast’ lens is required, i.e. one with a low f-stop. Make sure to get no more than f/3.5 if you plan to image the Milky Way. The lenses we recommend below are no more than f/3.
Because earth is always turning, the stars appear to move overhead, so you only get to open your shutter for 15 or 20 seconds before star trails start to appear in your image. In that short period of time, your camera needs to collect as much of that tiny light source as possible – hence the fast camera lens; fast basically means ‘wide aperture’.
In general, go for lenses with a focal length below 35mm if you are using a full-frame camera, and half this (i.e. 17mm) if you’re shooting the Milky Way with a crop-frame DSLR. These choices will give you the mega-wide field of view to capture the expanse of our galaxy overhead.
Our best night sky photography lenses are as follows. Generally they get cheaper as you move down the list, but clicking any link will open an Amazon page so you can check current pricing:
- Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED
- Rokinon 24mm F/1.4 Aspherical Wide Angle Lens
- Tokina 11-18mm/2.8
- Rokinon 14mm f2.8 ultra wide angle lens
Make sure that whichever lens you choose, you select one compatible with your camera model. It’s an annoying mistake to buy a Canon-compatible lens for a Nikon camera!
Pro tip: to improve the sharpness of the stars in your pictures, try using your lenses a stop or two down from their maximum opening. This can decrease star coma and other chromatic aberrations, giving you a better finished image.
3. To Photograph the Stars Use a Tripod!
The tiny diamond impression of a star taken through a shutter help open for many seconds is apt to blur with the faintest vibration. This is definitely not what you need to deliver a fabulous image of the Milky Way!
Two final pieces of equipment that are an essential purchase to shoot the night sky are a tripod and a remote shutter release button.
Here is one piece of equipment you won’t need to break the bank on. At least to get started, a simple tripod like this can get you going.
If you want to step up your gear and photos though, consider something more robust and with great flexibility for pointing your camera at the exact star field you’re after. You won’t go wrong with a Really Right Stuff model.
Shutter Release Cable
The last item on the shopping list (thankfully) is a shutter release cable. This simple device lets you open the shutter on your camera without actually holding or touching the camera itself. The big plus of this is you don’t accidentally introduce any shake and ruin your Milky Way pic.
These can either be a simple button mechanism or one with a timer built in. This link will open a relevant selection for you to browse.
Okay, we’re including this as night photography equipment, but if you’re already an astronomer, you probably own one.
Suffice to say that working in the dark needs light and working with a camera is best done with two hands, which is why the torch should go on your head! To keep your night vision in tact, use a red light. This is a bright and popular model.
Okay, enough about equipment – let’s go take a photo of stars!
A Photo of the Milky Way from a Dark Sky Site
4. Good Star Pictures Come From (Very) Dark Sites
Taking pictures of star fields or the Milky Way itself is a tricky business because it just doesn’t generate that much light.
To stand a chance of getting a great image, you’ll need to find a dark site away from sources of light pollution. Use this Dark Site Finder to locate a great place for night photography near you.
Ideally, you need to find a location which is in the blue / black zone. You’ll get okay results under orange and yellow skies, especially if you pick a locally dark spot in that zone, but red and white zones are so badly light polluted that it’s not worth the effort of trying here.
As a rule of thumb, if the site is dark enough to see the Milky Way with your own eyes, then it is dark enough for taking pictures of the Milky Way too.
You Also Need a Moonless Night
A dark site is not enough on its own – you also need a dark night! Consult your favorite astronomy software to find out whether the moon will be visible and how full it will be when you plan to shoot. Stellarium is free but paid software like Sky Safari offers greater flexibility and depth.
When its full, or near full, the moon is visible all night long and is very bright, drowning out the subtleties of the dust channels and star chains in the Milky Way. If the moon is out, you and your camera shouldn’t be. (Unless you want to photograph the moon itself, but that’s a lesson for another day).
For the perfect photographs of the stars, get outside on nights of the new moon (or very near it) or when the moon is below the horizon. Find the details here, but simply, the moon is:
- Above the horizon afternoon and evening around first quarter
- Visible all night long near full
- Rising after midnight and setting after sunrise when it’s near last quarter
Lastly, don’t forget to check the weather. As a rule, clouds make for rubbish pictures of the night sky!
5. How to Photograph the Milky Way
The most common subject of a night sky photograph, and the most rewarding to shoot, is the Milky Way.
Find the Milky Way
The first step to taking a good Milky Way picture is to know when it is visible and where to look for it.
Your first step in photographing the Milky Way is to find it
Between February and September, the Milky Way is highest in the sky and furthest from the sun and can be seen near the constellations of Sagittarius and Scorpius. Depending on the time of year, it can be easier to use other constellations to find the galactic plane.
Cassiopeia, the Summer Triangle and Orion are all very recognizable and work as great pointers. Below, for example, is a screen shot from Sky Safari 6 showing the Milky Way (as a grey field running top to bottom) in relation to Orion and Cassiopeia (each in an orange box).
Using Cassiopeia and Orion to locate the Milky Way
As recommended above, use Stellarium, Sky Safari or any similar software (including apps) to plan the best time to photograph the Milky Way on any day.
As a rule of thumb, the Milky Way looks best in the:
- Early morning, early in the year (March – May),
- Middle of the night, in the middle of the year (June-August), and
- End of the day, at the end of the year (September – October)
After that, we can move on to setting your camera to capture the Milky Way or any general star field.
6. Night Photography Settings for Your Camera
We’re coming to the crunch now (at last!), adjusting your camera’s star photography settings so it’s ready to take stunning night sky pictures.
Your lens will have an infinity setting on it (looks like this: ∞) which will be pretty close to where you need your focus to be… but it won’t be perfect. Try not to rely on autofocus, which is not so great in darkness, and manually adjust your focus ring until you get perfectly focussed points of starlight.
One simple trick to keep this step easy is to mark a line with pen between the moving (i.e. focus ring) and non-moving parts of your lens. From now on, you’ll get straight to your focus point.
(Remember: this setting is for a particular focal length, if you change it, you’ll need to find a new focus point on the ring.)
Exposure Times and ISO Settings for Photographing Stars
It’s possible to write a whole post on this subject alone, but we don’t have the space for that here. Instead, let us give you some rules to work from and some starting points. From there, use trial and error to see what works best for your own experience.
As mentioned above, make sure you are capturing images in RAW mode, so no detail is lost. Also, set you camera to manual focus and exposure, so you have control over the important exposure settings.
Get the widest field of view you can if capturing the Milky Way, otherwise frame the shot you want.
Keep your f-stop around the f/2.4-f/3.0 mark, any faster and you’ll have focus issues. As we said earlier, whatever your lens is capable of at its fastest, dial it down a stop or two and see the impact it has on the stars’ sharpness in your pics.
Don’t worry too much about white balance. The joy of RAW data capture is the white balance can be adjusted in post-production of your night sky pic, so just set it to ‘auto’ for now.
Finally, have the histogram setting toggled on so you can keep an eye on exposure as you go and make adjustments as you shoot.
Exposure Time Settings
There is some more trial and error involved at this stage as the perfect combination depends heavily on your camera’s capabilities – particularly with regard to noise reduction – and the light levels you are shooting in.
David Morrow developed the ‘500 Rule’ for exposure times. This basically says: divide 500 by your focal length and the result is your maximum exposure time to avoid getting star trails on your Milky Way pic. It is a little more complex because it’s impacted by full-frame and crop frame DSLRs, but this link gives you the full chart.
ISO Settings for Photographing Stars
A higher ISO will give a brighter picture, but that will always introduce some noise to the shot. Therefore, the best thing you can do for your Milky Way photography is to maximise exposure time (see above) to increase light hitting the sensor, rather than increasing ISO.
If you’ve pushed exposure time as hard as possible, i.e. any longer and you’ll get visible star trails, that’s when you can think about your ISO settings.
Begin at a low ISO like 800 or 1,200 and steadily increase it until you see the Milky Way on your camera screen. When you do, leave the ISO setting there. Even if the picture looks dark, it can be brightened up back on your computer using post production techniques.
You should find you’ll settle on a value between 800 and 3,600. It may be tempting to go over that but you really shouldn’t need to and, if you have a full frame DSLR, you will probably be fine at or near 2,000 / 2,500.
Using the Histogram to Set Exposure
Aim to have your exposure histogram look like a standard bell-curve, i.e. starting shallow on the left, rising to a peak in the center before falling away to shallow levels on the right.
There’s a great chart on the Lonely Speck website showing you exactly what to aim for and what to do if you end up either side of that middle ground.
And if you want a handy HD video guide on all of this, check out videos 4 and 5 of Lance Keimig’s Night Photography course.
With that, you have all that you need to begin shooting the night sky. Once you have a clutch of images you’re happy with, the last stage is to polish them up in post production!
6. Post Production of Milky Way and Star Field Photographs
At this stage you’ll be forgiven for being underwhelmed with the photographs you’ve taken. They probably look dark and uninspiring and have none of the zing, vibrancy and awe that we’re used to seeing in space magazines.
Well, worry not! Post production is going to turn your raw images (or RAW images) into shining examples of Milky Way photographs.
Night Sky Photography Post Production Software
Use Lightroom for the macro RAW image processing and then Photoshop for more subtle and nuanced improvements to your images.
We don’t have the room here to share with you Lightroom presets for Milky Way photos or detailed post-production of star images with Adobe Photoshop, so, instead, we’ll share with you a couple of really valuable resources that are full of detailed tutorials.
If all of this sounds a bit much though, there are some simpler ways to access night sky photography. For example, Hacking Photography’s ‘Five Minute Lightroom‘ post or Lance Keimig’s low-price HD Video Course.
7. More Resources for Night Sky Photography
Other options for learning to take photos of stars include:
Books on Night Photography
Lance Keimig is a renowned photographer of the night sky.
His book ‘Night Photography and Light Painting‘ (Amazon link) is a low price, but high value guide to the art of night sky photography.
The book has nine chapters spread over 240 pages. Chapters cover equipment, camera settings, star trails, processing and other subjects with actionable detail.
Night Sky Photography Course
Experimentation will teach you a lot, but there is no substitute for having an expert coach you through the first steps.
Lance Keimig (who wrote the Night Photography book, above) presents this surprisingly cheap, 7-lesson, HD video course.
Once you’ve bought it, you can access any of the videos and class materials whenever you need them. The seven videos cover:
- Introduction to Night Photography
- Equipment for Night Photography
- The Basics of Night Photography
- Short Exposures
- Long Exposures
- Light Painting
- Post-Processing Night Photos
Altogether, you’ll have almost 2 and a half hours of detailed, HD video guidance from one of the best night star photographers out there.
You also get ‘class materials’ which include camera settings instructions and techniques specifically for night photography. Find out the current price of the course by clicking here.
YouTube Video on Photographing the Night Sky
Finally, if all of this has whet your appetite for more, you can do a lot worse than starting with this video from Nick Page. It just made us want to get put there and shoot stars!
8. How to Share Your Star Photos
Astronomers love to see pictures of the night sky!