When you look at the sky at night with the naked eye, you see only a fraction of the stars that are actually there. But our cameras can capture much more than what we see.
In recent years the high ISO capabilities and sensor improvements of cameras means that anyone with a decent DSLR can start to shoot the stars and the Milky way. While you can shoot with entry level equipment, you will get better results with higher quality kit but don’t let that stop you.
Shooting the night sky is actually pretty simple. But it is more time-consuming than traditional landscape photography and preparation is key. At night, when we look up we can see hundreds of stars. But by keeping the camera shutter open for a longer period of time, using the widest possible aperture and utilising higher ISO, we will be able to photograph stars that are not visible to the naked eye.
What equipment do you need?
There is a basic level of equipment you will need and the more advanced your kit is, the better your results will be. However, don’t be put off. We all started with a crop sensor camera and the standard kit lens and these allowed us to capture fine astro photos.
You need a modern DSLR camera with manual controls that can produce good quality photos at ISO 1600-3200. A crop sensor camera is fine but a full frame camera will give better results.
You will need a wide and fast lens. The standard kit lens with a minimum aperture of F3.5 will suffice but a 14-24mm lens that can stop down to F2.8 or faster will yield better results. On the workshops, people can borrow our lenses if needed.
A sturdy tripod is absolutely essential. When shooting at shutter speeds around 20-30 sec, it’s super important that your camera is rock steady to ensure a sharp image.
This is an optional piece of equipment but it will make adjusting settings on your camera and moving around in the darkness much easier. You will find it better if you use a torch with a red light, as white light seriously affects your ability to see in the dark.
5. Remote Shutter Release
Again, this is another optional piece of equipment. If you don’t have one, you can use the timer function on your camera to trip the shutter. Doing this will further increase your chances of getting a sharp image.
Let’s find the Milky Way
The best times to see the Milky Way tend to be from about March to October and it’s normally visible in the south. During this time, we are facing the Milky Way’s bright galactic centre. Although you can still shoot it at other times of the year, you’ll just see less of it. If you are at a dark site, it can sometimes be visible directly above you. Allow your eyes some time to adjust to the dark.
Stellarium Mobile Sky Map from the Play Store is good for finding the Milky Way and other night sky objects.
How dark is your sky?
Another factor that will influence our photos is how dark the sky is. The Milky Way is dim enough on its own so even the tiniest hint of light can make it less visible and more challenging to photograph.
Light pollution from nearby towns and moonlight are the two issues that will affect your images the most. The best way to locate areas with minimal light pollution is to check online with sites like Dark Sky Finder.
However, in Mayo and along the west coast we are pretty lucky to live in some of the darkest skies in Europe. The Dark Sky Park in Ballycroy is always worth checking out. But the locations we visit along the Wild Atlantic Way are excellent for some astrophotography.
How bright is the moon?
Very! 🙂 Another source of light that influences photographing the stars is the moon. When there is a full moon, it is almost impossible to capture any stars. However, you can still get good night time photos using the moon as your light source. To check the moon phase, you can visit Moon Phases Calendar.
Phases of the Moon free is handy for finding out what the moon is going to be like. It’s a free download from the Android Play Store. If you’re an Apple user, I’m sure there are many similar alternatives on the App Store.
Do I need to plan?
Definitely. I normally check the moon phase and weather report first. If the night is good for shooting the stars, I will then check to see what time I should go out. Sometimes, the moon could be quite big but it may have set by the time you go out.
Check with Google Maps to see if your location faces the Milky Way or not. If the weather turns cloudy, you still have the chance to shoot photos that capture movement in those clouds and have then lit by light from a nearby town. You may be lucky enough to capture some cloud movement and some stars in the same shot.
How will I focus in the dark?
The biggest challenge of capturing perfect images of the stars is to get them as sharp as possible. Good focusing is absolutely essential. But, we all know how difficult it is to focus in complete darkness.
Sometimes, all you might have to do is turn the focusing ring all the way to the right and you should have infinity focus. However, I have found this to be less than accurate much of the time as the lens will often focus beyond infinity. Here are a few different techniques you can use to get the stars in focus.
During the day focus on a distant object and then make a mark on your lens. You could also use some tape to keep this position on your lens locked. Then switch your lens to manual focus to prevent it from hunting for focus later on. It’s still a good habit to check for sharpness of the stars after every shot – you may need to make slight adjustments.
You could also get a friend to stand down the road with a torch and grab focus on that. Then switch to manual focus.
If the moon is out, you can grab focus on it using autofocus. If there is no moon out, you can zoom in on a bright star using Live View on your LCD screen. Then, manually adjust the focus until the star appears as a small, sharp point of light.
What settings should I use?
Taking a photo of the stars is actually quite easy because you do not have much scope to experiment with different camera settings. Because the sky is so dark and the stars are far away, you have no choice but to use the widest aperture possible to capture that little bit of light that is there. You should always have your camera in manual mode.
And because the earth is constantly moving, your shutter speed cannot be longer than 25-30 seconds. If you do go longer, then the stars will start to appear elongated as the earth moves. Of course, making star trails like this is also an option.
Even with a long shutter speed and a wide aperture, you still won’t get a usable image. This is where your ISO will come into play. Start at ISO 2500 and work your way upwards until you get an acceptable image. You can also start ISO 6400 and work your way down. Try to get a balance between getting a pleasing astro shot and controlling the amount of noise. You should avoid using extended ISOs. These ISOs are generally represented by letters such as H1 or H2.
Once you have achieved a happy balance, these setting should be good to use for the night.
Although you can use a shutter speed of 25-30 seconds, I have found that 15 seconds will give you much sharper stars. You can use the rule of 500 to work out a shutter speed that should produce nice, sharp stars. With this rule, you divide 500 by the focal length of your lens to determine the optimum shutter speed.
For example, if you are shooting with an 18mm lens, you divide 500 by 18. This gives you a shutter speed of 27 seconds.
If you are shooting with a 14mm lens, you divide 500 by 14. This gives you a shutter speed of 35 seconds.
If you are using a crop sensor camera, you will need to multiply the focal length of your lens by the crop factor before using the rule of 500.
For example, if you are using an 18mm lens on a camera with a 1.5 crop factor, you will need to multiply 18mm x 1.5 to get 27mm as your effective focal length. Then divide 500 by 27. This gives you a shutter speed of 18.5 seconds.
If you are shooting with a 14mm lens on a camera with a 1.5 crop factor, you will need to multiply 14mm x 1.5 to get 21mm as your effective focal length. Then divide 500 by 21. This gives you a shutter speed of 23.8 seconds.
How do I compose a shot in the dark?
Don’t forget about composition when shooting the night sky. While images of the stars on their own do have merit, I find it much more interesting to include some land or foreground interest. Doing this will give the scene a greater sense of scale.
When out at a dark site, it can be difficult to see through the viewfinder so I often take a test shot and review the composition on the LCD screen. Then you can make small adjustments by just eyeballing the scene and moving the camera up, down or sideways until you get a composition that is pleasing. You should always consider the aesthetics of the shot.
How do I edit my shot?
Shooting in RAW will ensure you have the most information to work with when editing the final image. The biggest issue you’ll have to deal with in post processing is noise in your photo. This is because of the high ISO we use. Full frame cameras will handle noise better than crop sensor cameras.
If you have Lightroom, you should try reducing the noise in the Details panel. Apply some using the Luminance slider and play with the colour slider and try to reduce the colour noise. Be careful not to reduce the amount of stars in the sky.
You could use an adjustment brush to reduce the noise by different amounts in different areas of the photo.
Dfine which is part of the now free Google Nik Collection is a dedicated noise reduction application and is very good at this job.
You may need to adjust the exposure. Be careful when making adjustments as this can further exacerbate the noise. Don’t overdo it.
Adjust the white balance. Auto White Balance is often confused when shooting the night sky. AWB on my Nikon D800 gives a cool temperature to my night shots so I often warm them up a little.
You could boost the clarity a bit and use the saturation and vibrancy sliders until you have an image that shows off the stars and the sky. Don’t try to brighten the photo up too much. In my opinion, a night shot should look like a night shot.
But ultimately, it’s all about personal preference and producing an image you like.
Feel free to contact me or Colin if you’d like to know more about our Wild Atlantic Way by Night Workshops. We also do some work with light painting, orbs and steel wool on the night.