A Guide to Taking Night Sky Pictures

southern Utah Milky Way

Night sky pictures, like the one above, are awesome. I’ll be the first to admit they’re my favorite type of photo to shoot. There’s something very humbling (and amazing) about standing outside in the middle of nowhere, gazing up at the Milky Way and the stars above you. I feel drawn to night photography and pictures of the night sky are special.

I get asked a lot about what gear and settings I use to take these pictures, so I wanted to write an article describing my experience. I will say first and foremost, that I am entirely self-taught. I learned through good-old trial and error. I’ve always told people that for every cool night sky photo I’ve taken, there are 500 more I’ve taken that didn’t turn out. Night sky photos take a lot of time and learning, so be patient when you’re first starting out.

McWay Falls California Big Sur
The night sky lights McWay Falls in Big Sur, California

The Gear

The Camera
I have a pretty long write-up about my gear on the “Gear” tab of this website, but I’ll give a quick run down of what I use at night. For the camera, I will always rely on my trusted Sony A6000 (http://amzn.to/2wosn0y). This is a compact yet reliable mirrorless camera with 24.2MP camera quality. It’s also been on the market for a couple of years, so the price point is a bit lower than most. This is the lower end of the Sony mirrorless line, but is a great choice for a starter camera. It does well in low-light situations and I’ve found that the user controls are intuitive and easy to use.

The Lens
For night shooting, I’ve always relied on my Rokinon 12mm f2.0 (http://amzn.to/2vrI6yK). This is a wide-angle manual lens that gives the operator a lot of flexibility when shooting at night. Not to mention, the frame is comparable to that of a full-frame camera. The low focal point and small aperture allow the lens to deliver high-quality pictures at night with minimal blur. I like this lens in particular because it also doubles as a nice landscape lens. Overall, you can’t go wrong with a wide-angle approach.

The Tripod
As with any night shooting, you’ll need a tripod. The tripod allows the camera to stay still while capturing the photo, and night sky shooting is virtually impossible without it. There a lot of options on the market, but you can’t go wrong with the Sony model (http://amzn.to/2vsKGo7). This is a high-quality and extremely durable tripod which is just compact enough to fit into a backpack. It is 5 feet tall, so taller folks may need to squat a bit, but I have never had any issues with it.

Grand Staircase Escalanate National Monument
The night sky is illuminated by the Milky Way in Grand Staircase Escalanate National Monument.

The Method

The Settings
Settings are crucial for capturing the night sky. Even a slight variation in a setting can cause a picture to look drastically different. I’d like to clarify that when first starting, I highly recommend shooting in “Night Mode” under “Scene Selection”. This mode allows the camera to automatically choose which setting is best based on the environment around you. Typically, the camera defaults to a long shutter speed (30 seconds) with a low ISO (100-800). This will give you a fairly decent picture, but will oftentimes look quite blurry. This is because the Earth is always moving. While you may not be able to see or feel the Earth’s motion, a camera open for 30 seconds will. For example, stars may appear blurry across the sky or trees may be blurry due to wind.

When shooting, I prefer to have a lower shutter speed (10-15 seconds) with a higher ISO (1600-6400). This will make any light appear brighter while also lessening the effects of movement. For example, the picture of the tent above had the following settings:

Exposure time: 15 seconds
ISO: 3200
F-stop: f4

This brought in the light of the galactic core while also minimizing the movement of the foreground and stars. I prefer to shoot with less brightness and to add colors and exposure in when editing.

The northern lights flicker over Montana.
The northern lights flicker of Glacier National Park in Montana.

For the picture above, I used the same concept. I used a higher ISO 1600 with a shutter speed 4 seconds so as not to blur the trees in the foreground. For this picture in particular, I brought down the brightness of the foreground in post-editing so as to focus the attention on the northern lights.

Conclusion
In conclusion, taking night sky pictures wittles down to personal preference. As I mentioned above, I typically target a mid-range shutter speed (10-15 seconds) while keeping a higher ISO (3200-6400) in order to brighten the sky and minimize blur. Based on user preference, these settings can be adjusted to let it more light (higher ISO) or have a longer exposure (more seconds). I recommend taking a few sessions of photos using the “Night Mode” scene selection and then checking the settings the camera used. Hopefully this helps a bit. Feel free to leave questions or comments below!

2 Comments

  1. Really enjoyed reading this !! Thanks again for putting a post up on how you photograph the milky way ! Now it’s my turn to go and try it out with my Sony a6000. Also, do you have any tips on finding the milky way or composing your pictures (since it’s usually so dark where you photography)

    Like

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