How to photograph the night sky

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.

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.

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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 multiplying it 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

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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.

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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.

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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