Shot on Donner Lake in Truckee, CA using Canon's 6D and Tokina's 11-16 2.8 lens.

Shot on Donner Lake in Truckee, CA using Canon’s 6D and Tokina’s 11-16 2.8 lens.

In recent years there has been an explosion of images capturing the night sky. While it may seem elusive and challenging to those of you just starting out, I assure you it’s much easier than you’re anticipating. Modern camera systems now have incredible ISO ratings allowing photographers to greatly increase the sensor’s sensitivity to light, bringing out the brightness of stars like never before.

In this tutorial I’m going to discuss the kind of gear you’ll need, how to set your camera, along with a few additional tips relating to composition and light painting. If you’re ready to take your star photos to the next level, let’s get started!

Related reading: E-Book Review: Collier’s Guide to Night Photography in the Great Outdoors

What Kind Of Gear You’ll Need

At the most basic level, you’ll really only need a camera (DSLR, Mirrorless, Compact) capable of shooting in Manual mode, a wide angle lens, and a tripod. However, most consumer grade packages are only capable of so much in terms of producing dynamic long exposures. In order to take stunning photos of the milky way, you’ll want to try and invest in a set-up close to the following:

Related reading: Gear and Resources for Night Photography

Camera

The best cameras on the market for capturing the night sky are those with full-frame sensors. This is because they’re capable of pushing their ISO beyond what you’d want to shoot with a typical consumer-grade body. The higher you push the ISO, the brighter the night sky becomes, therefore you want a camera that won’t completely fill your image with noise.

Some good recommendations would be:

These recommendations are at the top of each brand, and they do cost a considerable amount, but you don’t need the best to produce great images. For instance, the photo below was shot on Sony’s DSC-RX100 which can now be purchased for under $500 on Amazon. The best way to select a body is determining your budget, and going down the line from the top.Glenshire Milky Way

Lenses

Just like landscape photography, you’re going to want a wide-angle lens capable of capturing as much of the sky as possible. The faster the lens is, meaning the lower the f/stop rating (f/2.8 or lower is great), the more light you’ll be able to let in while capturing a long exposure. My personal favorite is Tokina’s 11-16 f/2.8 (for cameras with APS-C sensors); for the cost I love how crisp the photos turn out.

Wide Angle Lens Example

Shot from Eagle Rock in Lake Tahoe using Tokina’s 11-16 f/2.8 Camera settings: f/2.8, 25″, ISO 5000

Selecting Your Camera Settings

You’ll begin to notice that choosing settings for long exposures at night usually stay relatively the same. This is because the first rule of shooting the night sky is finding a location dark enough to cut out light pollution and allow the camera to pull as much light from the sky as possible; therefore, our camera’s settings are usually maxed out to create the best image. Step number one: shoot in manual mode!

Selecting the aperture

Depth of field becomes much less prominent at night, and in order to pull as much light as possible make sure to keep your aperture wide open.

Shutter Speed

This setting is highly important because for most lenses you’ll begin to notice star trails after a 25″ exposure. I’ve gotten away with 30″ before with no noticeable movement, but the shorter the exposure, the crisper the stars will look.

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ISO

Selecting your camera’s ISO speed goes back to what camera you own, or are planning on buying. Sony’s a7S reportedly shoots clean exposures up to 12,000 ISO, while my Canon 6D can shoot up to 6400 with minimal noise than can be reduced in Lightroom. This is something you’re going to want to experiment with, but I would start by shooting at 3200 and seeing if your body will allow more, or if you need to reduce the ISO to avoid heavy noise.

Focus

One of the larger challenges I’ve seen people face is correctly focusing their images at night. Many lenses have what’s known as a “infinity focus” (using manual focus), which is the point at which the lens will focus at an infinite distance away. This is perfect for night photography as it’s often difficult to see what you’re focusing on in the dark.

Composition and Light Painting

Long Lake Milky Way

F/2.8, 25″, ISO 8000. Light painting done with a Samsung cell phone.

Once you understand the mechanics behind creating your exposure, the fun part becomes creating dynamic compositions and using the technique of light painting to reveal subjects in the foreground.

Much like landscape photos, you want your viewers to feel as though they’re apart of the scene. While capturing only the stars can be great, I feel using the landscape in front of you makes the night sky look even more incredible. To do this, find a perspective that abides by the rule-of-thirds, and place a strong emphasis on a subject in the foreground. Next, using a flashlight or even the screen on your cell phone, you can “paint” the subject you wish to appear lit. This only requires a few seconds of painting as reflected light can over-expose your foreground very quickly at night.

*Tip- If you’re using a model, try and place them in complete darkness, or shoot a shorter exposure so they can remain still. You can always layer two exposures in post to blend the different ranges of light.

What To Do After You Take The Photos

Edit them of course! Photos of the night sky change completely with even small enhancements to the whites and contrast. For almost every photo I take of the night sky, I will edit it twice (Once for the sky, and once for the foreground) and then blend them. Some photographers will use a remote to take an exposure far longer than the camera will allow, and use it for the foreground to bring out the shadows.

Ultimately have fun, and develop a style unique to your preferences. Coming home with photos of the stars is an incredible feeling!