Getting Started with Night Sky Photography

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How to photograph the night sky

There is no doubt most of us would love to be good at night sky photography.

As astronomers, we get the greatest thrills at our telescope eyepiece, but...

How many times have you drooled over a night sky photo in ​Sky & Telescope Magazine, on a website like Flickr or even on our own Facebook page

They are spectacular and learning how to take night photos is often high on a backyard astronomers agenda.

In this article, we list 10 steps to getting started with night sky photography.​

Before we do, just a quick note to clarify what we mean by night sky photography, because it is not the same as astrophotography.

Astrophotography is taking pictures of a celestial object through the lens of your telescope. Night sky photography is taking pictures of landscapes with the night sky as a central feature.

More often than not, these are pictures of the Milky Way or star trails over a scenic landscape.

1. Take a Night Photo with Your Smartphone

If like 68% of all Americans, you own a smartphone with a camera, then you have (almost) everything you need to take your first astrophoto.

The only difficulty comes with holding the thing still, and leaving the shutter open long enough to capture the light needed to make a picture.

If you download an app like Hipstamatic from the iTunes store, that will give you control over your iPhone's shutter speed.

Then, grab a simple tripod like this one, and get outside for a play.

Try setting your phone to a one minute exposure at ISO 3200. Vary the settings from there to get the best results.

If you like it move on to the next step, if it's not for you, well... you only spent $20 to discover that instead of $2000 on a new DSLR camera!

2. A Dark Location (and a Dark Night!)

Taking pictures of the night sky is a tricky business because there's just not that much light to go around!

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.

A dark site is not enough on its own - you also need a dark night!

The prime target of a night photograph is usually the Milky Way (see below) and it looks the best when it's not being drowned out by light from the moon.​

Download our free 2017 moon calendar to see every day how much of the moon's surface is illuminated and when it will be 'up' (hint: go for nights when the moon is not out or has very little surface illumination). ​

Free moon calendar for 2017

Free Moon Observing Calendar:

Instant Download!

Also get our FREE mini course on how best to see the moon - 6 lessons over six days.

3. Photographing the Milky Way

Milky Way in Sagittarius

Milky Way in Sagittarius (source)

The most common subject of a night sky photograph is the Milky Way.

So... a vital element of good night sky imaging is to know when the Milky Way is presenting its best side.

​Between February and September, the Milky Way is highest in the sky and furthest from the sun. It can be seen near the constellations of Sagittarius and Scorpius.

Plan the best time to photograph the Milky Way on any day by using the free desktop version of Stellarium (or paid app)​ - and follow this video.

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)

4. Find a Great Landscape for Night Photography

Whilst we are trying to capture the night sky in our shot, don't forget that...

The best night sky images also feature spectacular landscapes:​

night-photograph-3

Sources: 1, 2 and 3

night-photograph-1
night-photograph-2

This stage is not essential, night sky photography for beginners is a lot more about discovering the settings you need to produce a great picture of the Milky Way.

But, if you can do that with an awe-inspiring landscape ​too, then that's even better.

5. Read a Book on Night Photography

Night sky photography book

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.

His reviewers on Amazon​ are overwhelmingly positive, with one referring to it as 'the night photographer's bible'!

Have you discovered the Nine Painful Truths of Backyard Astronomy?
CLICK HERE to find out what they are.

6. Get the Best Camera for Night Photography

Playing with a smartphone is fun, but there's a limit to the quality of picture you're going to produce.

If you want to step and produce some impressive nightscapes, then you'll need a decent (aka 'proper') camera.

There are four elements you need to consider for taking nightscape photographs:

  1. Shutter Speed - The longer you can hold the shutter open, the more light you'll let in, which is essential for night sky images
  2. ISO: This is a measure of the sensor's sensitivity. For night photography you'll need upwards of 800. Beware, although larger numbers are more sensitive, they are also 'noisier' which has an adverse impact on your Milky Way pictures
  3. Sensor Type and Size - Better sensors capture more light. CMOS-type sensors are a great combination of capability and affordability
  4. Aperture Size - is measured as an 'f-stop'. Smaller numbers = larger apertures, which are better for the low light conditions of night photography. f3.5 and below are best for night imaging

Three of the best value cameras for night photography are:

  • Sony A6000 ($$$) - You can adjust the aperture to f2.8 without additional lenses, letting in more light. The sensor is 24MP, and the higher quality APS-C CMOS type. This is a very capable - but probably excessive - first camera for night photography
  • Panasonic Lumix FZ200 ($) - With a 12.1MP CMOS sensor, this 'budget' camera comes with some high-end spec's that are just great for a beginner night sky photographer!
  • Canon Rebel T5 ($$) - Its 18MP CMOS sensor comes with a range of settings also great for night sky photography, including 'RAW' format, uncompressed picture quality.

7. Learn Basic Camera Settings for Night Imaging

We saw above that there are four camera settings to take account of when taking night sky images.

Ian at LonelySpec.com has a brilliant free guide to basic settings​, but the rule of thumb to get you underway are:

  • Use a faster (lower number) f setting to let more light in - below f/2.8
  • As the f setting gets higher, the ISO setting should too. But, higher ISO means more noise. f/2.0 and ISO 3200 is a good place to start
  • The narrower the field of view, the longer the shutter will need to stay open. You'll need to start with exposures of 15 seconds one minute and take it from there​

Experiment with your location, environment and camera to see which settings deliver the best results for you.

8. Take an Online 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.

If you're a member of an astronomy club, ask around there to see if any members are able to share their knowledge to guide you through the process of imaging the night sky.

[And if you're not a member - find an astronomy club near you now]​

The next best step is to take an online course like this one to show you the ropes.​

Night sky photography course

Lance Keimig (who wrote the Night Photography book, above) presents this great value, 7-lesson, HD video course.

After you've bought it, the whole course is available to you forever. The seven videos cover:

  1. Introduction to Night Photography
  2. Equipment for Night Photography
  3. The Basics of Night Photography
  4. Short Exposures
  5. Long Exposures
  6. Light Painting
  7. Post-Processing Night Photos​

Altogether, you'll have almost 2 and a half hours of detailed, HD video guidance from perhaps the best night photographer there is.

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.​

9. Post-Photo Editing

There are two ways to compile a photograph of the night sky:

  1. Just take a picture of the sky and let the landscape beneath be incidental, or
  2. Take separate pictures of the sky and the landscape (often the landscape is imaged during daylight) and merge them together using software later

Whichever route you follow, you'll appreciate the impact on the quality of your photo if you use some post-photo imaging software.

One of common option is Adobe Lightroom ​and the video below comes from Mike Newton of Hacking Photography. It gives a sense of just how powerful Lightroom software is.

With practice and the right tools, you can make your photographs of the night sky really zing!

Find out more about Adobe Lightroom by clicking on this link.​

10. Share your Photographs of the Night Sky

Astronomers love to see pictures of the night sky!

Once you have your first successful images, be proud and share them with your fellow astronomers on the Cloudy Nights Astrophotography group.​

You should also get them shared on your own Facebook page, as well as others...like ours.

Best of luck!​


Nine Painful Truths of Backyard Astronomy

The 9 Painful Truths of Backyard Astronomy...

There are some harsh realities when you take up astronomy, this brief guide will share with you:

  • The TRUTHS you need to be aware of
  • How we get past them to receive the JOY of the night sky

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