by Kirk Norbury

 

Ever fancied photographing the night sky but weren’t sure how? Kirk Norbury shows you what equipment you need and how to get it right. 

 

Kirk Norbury - How To Photograph The Night Sky

Photographing the night sky is a truly fascinating and amazing experience. Looking up at thousands upon thousands of stars just blows my mind at how small we really are, and in this article I’m going to tell you some of my best tips that you can use to create some amazing photographs of the night sky, wherever you may live. It’s easier than you may think, and with a few simple rules to remember you will soon be out in complete darkness creating wonderful images of the night sky.

 

Equipment

 

Essentially, you only need four things to capture images of the night sky:

Nikon D610

DSLR

You don’t need a top-of-the-range DSLR to photograph the night sky, just one that’s good at shooting high ISOs.

 

Samyang 14mm f2.8 ED AS IF UMC

Wideangle lens

The night sky is huge, so you want to capture as much of it as you can. I prefer to use super wideangle lenses (usually with a focal length of 14mm or 16mm) and preferably one with a fast aperture; around f/2.8 is perfect.

 

Canon RC-6 Remote Control

A cable release or intervalometer

I use a cable release so I don’t need to touch the camera, which helps to avoid camera shake. I also use it for exposures that are over 30 seconds long and when I’m creating a timelapse of the night sky.

 

Gitzo GT3532-80QD Mountaineer Series 3 Carbon eXact Tripod Kit

Tripod

A good strong tripod is all you need with a solid head on top. Personally, I use a Gitzo carbon fibre tripod and ballhead.

 

Where and when

 

As you may already know, the UK can be quite bad for light pollution – but don’t let that put you off! You need to find somewhere with as little light pollution as possible; depending on where you live, this may be quite easy or extremely difficult, but it will mainly involve driving to the middle of nowhere to get the best shots. If you’re struggling to find an area I would recommend checking out the Blue Marble Navigator which shows the darkest areas around the world.

Kirk Norbury - How To Photograph The Night Sky

You can photograph the night sky pretty much throughout the year, but for the best results you need a good clear night with no clouds and no moon in the sky. The moon can be your worst enemy or best friend when photographing stars; during a full moon it can be too bright, which will result in you not seeing many stars in your shots. When the moon is in its first phases, however, it’s light can help get a more even exposure by bringing out details in the foreground.

 

How to set up the shot

 

I recommend arriving at your location before it goes dark. This way, you’ll have enough time to wander around and find an area that allows for the most pleasing composition (which you won’t be able to see when it’s completely dark). Set up your tripod and force it a little into ground so it’s harder to move, before putting your camera and lens into the Manual exposure mode, usually labelled as “M”. Finally, set your lens to focus to infinity by turning the focus ring until you see the ∞ symbol.

Manual exposure mode and infinity focus

At this point you should know the best shutter speed for your lens and camera by referring to the “500 Rule”:

 

The 500 Rule

 

If you leave the shutter open too long when photographing the night sky in a single exposure, the earth’s rotation will create star trails. If you’d rather capture the stars as stars (rather than trails) use this rule to calculate the most appropriate shutter speed based on the lens you’re using and your camera’s crop factor. Simply take the number 500 and divide it by the focal length of your lens, before dividing that figure by the crop factor of your camera’s sensor if it isn’t full frame. Here’s a table showing the longest exposures you can achieve before seeing star trails in your image:

Focal Length

Full Frame (sec)

Nikon 1.5x Crop (sec)

Canon 1.6x Crop (sec)

8mm

63

42

39

10mm

50

33

31

12mm

42

28

26

14mm

36

24

22

16mm

31

21

20

18mm

28

19

17

20mm

25

17

16

22mm

23

15

14

24mm

21

14

13

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Set the camera to its widest aperture (I usually set it to f/2.8) and dial in your shutter speed. Your ISO needs to be high; depending where you are in the UK your chosen ISO values will vary quite a bit, so I would recommend starting at ISO 1000. I personally use ISO 3200 for 90% of my shots but I’m shooting mainly in the Galloway Forest Park where there is very little light pollution. Now connect your cable release and fire off a test shot. Review the image and check whether you need to adjust your composition or settings to make sure your shot is sharp. You are now ready to wander around in the dark and photograph the night sky to your heart’s content!

 

Star Trails

 

Kirk Norbury - How To Photograph The Night Sky

 

If you want to take your night sky photography to the next level you could try creating a star trails. Throughout the night the stars will look like they’re rotating in a clockwise motion around the North Star (when really they don’t move at all, as it’s the earth which rotates on its axis) and if done correctly they look amazing. For the best effect you need to point your camera at the North Star (Polaris); there are images online which show you how to find it, but if you point your camera directly north you should see it.

There are two ways you can create a star trails with your camera: one very long exposure or a stack of many shorter exposures blended into one.

A single long exposure

If you want to take a star-trail image with one long exposure, put your camera into its “Bulb” mode and set your aperture as low as it will go – ideally f/2.8 – before setting your sensitivity to around ISO 200. Set your lens to manually focus and focus to infinity. At this point I always take a test shot for around 10 minutes to see if my exposure and composition are okay.

Kirk Norbury - How To Photograph The Night Sky

If everything is fine I lock the shutter and leave the camera for between one to three hours to get the best effect. Getting a perfectly exposed image can be difficult, so if this is your first time photographing the stars I would recommend the next technique.

Multiple exposures blended together

I find this way always produces the best results. You take short exposures (following the 500 rule) and then blend them all together using either StarStax or Adobe Photoshop. There are many tutorials for this on YouTube.

Kirk Norbury - How To Photograph The Night Sky

Once your camera is set up and you’re happy, press the shutter release button on the remote before locking it so it keeps taking images until you want it to stop. Doing it this way means you have a greater control over exposure and, as a great bonus, you can create a timelapse video with the resulting images.

Photographing the night sky can be very easy but you will not master it overnight. It takes a lot of practise and you need to be patient as you need to remember to get a number of things right – and I should know! I’m hoping that my tips will benefit you in capturing the night sky in all its beauty.

 

About the Author

Kirk Norbury is a nature photographer and cinematographer based in Ayr, Scotland. You can find out about the workshops he runs and view more of his work on his website.

 

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  • Ben Lawton

    Hi Kirk,
    Great article and some good tips too. I never new about the ‘500’ rule!
    Anyway, I’ve a couple of questions for you. First, at such a high ISO, isn’t noise becoming a factor? And second, how do you make sure that any foreground interest, such as the fence in the image above, are in focus. Apart from arriving in the light and setting up the shot and waiting till dark, but switching off auto focus. I appreciate setting the lens to infinity helps, but when I’ve had a go at night photography, the focus is always a little soft.
    Any thoughts would be great.
    Many thanks,
    Ben

    • Hello Ben,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

      Having noise in your images when photographing the night sky is something you will unfortunately have to get used to. As I’m shooting at ISO 3200 for most of my shots noise is always an issue and at times it can take awhile to get rid of it but editing software is now at a standard where you can successfully remove the noise so you get a clean image. I use Lightroom 5 to edit my images and Adobe’s noise reduction software is very good at controlling the noise levels and with the Graduated Filter tool I will edit the noise in the sky and foreground separately.

      Getting a sharp focus can be tricky at first as different lenses infinity point may vary, I would recommend practising to manually focus your lens to see where the sweet spot is for your lens. When I set my lens to infinity I already know that the image will be sharp without looking down the viewfinder. If you are still not getting sharp images you could take a high-powered torch with you and point it at something and then try to focus on it in live-view but this can be tricky depending on your camera model. Hope this helps. :)

      Kind Regards,

      Kirk Norbury

    • Ben, use a flash gun in hand and fire it onto the fore ground elements you want to record. It will take trial and error to get right, but you can bring your foreground to life, put gels on it, etc. Just don’t flash it towards the camera.

  • Hi Kirk, i am very interested in your night time photography and your advice is very much appreciated,, at the moment my budget is a bit limited ,

    i do have a Canon 7D with a 18-135 and a Canon 2.8 70-200 is Lseries mk1,
    would any of these be use for night time photography , i am going to the Mull of Galloway at Easter and i know of some dark area,s around there as i Holiday there on a regular basis

    • Hello Harry,

      The Canon 7D is a good camera for the night sky and 18mm of your 18-135 should be good enough to photograph the night sky, just have the lens on its widest aperture and have the shutter speed around 30 seconds. Also, don’t be afraid of bumping the ISO up to around 2000-3200 :)

      Hope this helps.

      Kind Regards,

      Kirk Norbury

      • Thanks for your reply Kirk,
        it is very much appreciated ,

        i will take your advice and hope to learn more as i go
        Regards Harry

  • Eileen Furr

    I am hoping to find and photograph an Aurora with my D7000. I have the Nikkor 18-300 zoom lens and a wide angle Sigma (sorry!) lens 10 – 20 1:3.5. I would love some tips on some basic manual settings from which to experiment. I have both a wireless remote controller and a corded remote (I bought the latter so I could set the aperture to bulb, which you can’t do on the wireless remote setting) and of course a tripod. The Northern Lights may well not show up but I’d like to be ready with my camera if they do.

    Thanks

    • Hi Eileen
      You should be fine with the gear you have there.I shot the aurora in iceland with just a canon s95 and they turned out great.
      Just used 10-15 sec exposures at 100 Asa taking the images in RAW and JPEG and manual focus .no longer than 15 second mind as the bands of the aurora will blur and lack form and detail .then post production pull the image and a RAW converter a couple of stops and burn in a bit of detail if there is foreground interest and there you have it..
      There wasn’t any difference withe images taken by my friend who had a canon DSLR.
      It’s not as difficult as you might think .do a dry run of some night sky shots before you go and take notes of what works .get the stars right and the aurora will look after itself ,remember slightly faster shutter speeds.sign up to an aurora text alert before you go ,gives you 2 days warning.
      Have fun Dave

  • Wendy

    Hi Kirk, thank you for your great tips. I enjoy photographing the night sky both wide sky with my camera and more recently I have been trying astrophotography. Astro stuff is still very much a work in progress but, I hope to improve with more experience. One of my favorite night time subjects is the Aurora Borealis, I am lucky to have had 3 trips to Norway to photograph it and seen and photographed spectacular displays on each occasion.
    In your article you mention the ‘rule of 500’ does this still hold true with the increasing sensor size. I read an article recently that suggested that the now high resolution sensor means the distance between the pixels is much smaller so trails will appear even at very fast shutter speeds. The formula for calculating in mm how far a star travels across the sensor is d = t * f / 13750. d is the distance from the centre of one pixel to the next and is calculated by dividing the number of pixel on the long edge of the sensor by 36 ( the length of the sensor). Based on this formula a 24mm lens on a full frame large RAW format would produce trails after only 3.58 Seconds, small format would only increase it to 7.16Seconds. I am sorry if this sound a bit geekish but I find the whole subject fascinating, maybe I will stop reading and do some real time test shots and see what I get!
    I would be interested in your thought on this.

  • Wendy

    Hi Kirk,
    thank you very interesting and informative article. I too enjoy photographing the night sky both wide sky and astrophotography. the latter being very much a work in progress and with more experience I hope will develop and improve. One of my favourite night subjects is the Aurora Borealis which I have had the good fortune to see and photograph on each of my 3 trips to Norway. It has been different every time and is truly magnificent to watch and photograph.

    You mention the ‘Rule of 500’, I read an article recently that suggest that this has become less accurate as sensor sizes has increase due to the much smaller inter pixel distance this creates. The Formula used to calculate the distance in mm a star travels across the sensor is d = t * f /13750. d is the distance from the centre of one pixel to the next and is calculated by dividing the number of pixels on the long edge of the sensor by 36. Using this formula a 24mm lens on a full frame camera (Canon 5D Mk3) large format RAW image will start to show trails after only 3.58 Seconds Small format RAW after only 7.16 seconds. I am sorry if this sounds a bit geekish but I find the whole subject fascinating. I think it is time for a real time study so when we next have a clear sky instead of reading about it I will take some test images.
    I would be interested in your thought on this.