Beginners Tips for Night Sky and Star Photography

Beginners Tips for Night Sky and Star Photography


Star Photography

My favorite type of personal photography is taking night shots of the stars (long exposure pictures). I am often busy shooting pictures of people at weddings, or apartments, or models, and it’s important for me to make sure I take pictures for fun regularly. Taking pictures for no one other than myself is highly rewarding, soul filling, and fun! I also love taking travel photos and HDR photos, in this article we will take a close look at exactly how you can take your own epic star photographs.

star photography

30 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 1250

What you need to take jaw-dropping pictures of stars

To take your star pictures, you only need three things:

  1. a full-frame camera (for better ISO capabilities)
  2. a fisheye lens (for the widest view of the sky)
  3. a tripod (for stability during 15 second photos)

(Note: You can do this with a cropped sensor camera, without a tripod, and without a fisheye lens. It will just be a little harder and slightly less jaw-dropping)

star photography

25 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 1600

Camera settings

You can nail this shot almost every time with these settings:  25 second exposure, f/2.8, ISO 1600

If your lens doesn’t open up to f/2.8 you can try 30 seconds at f/4 with ISO 1600.

Note: this kind of photography won’t work if there is a full moon out (or even a half moon). Don’t compete with large light sources, the stars will be over powered. The best location for star photography is way out in nature, away from city lights that cause “light pollution.”

star photography

13.0 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 1600

Why to use these settings

The most important component of these settings is the 25 second exposure. An exposure longer than about 25 seconds will start to show star trails. Photographing star trails is a legitimate type of photographyon its own, but not the type of photography you are trying to do here. Since you are limited to about 15-25 seconds max shutter speed, you still need to let in more light. The largest aperture you can find on a fisheye lens is f/2.8, and still your picture might not be quite bright enough to look stunning. So this is where the ISO comes into play. On a full-frame camera like the 5D Mark III or the Nikon D800 you can bump the ISO up to around 2000 without seeing much noise. You’ll learn how to reduce noise in Lightroom in the next section for a super clean photo.

star photography

Editing in Lightroom

I do extensive retouching in Lightroom after I take my photos. I’ll usually boost the exposure up by a stop or more and I’ll use Noise Reduction under the Detail section to reduce any unwanted “noise” (those pesky extra white, red or blue pixels that show up when you push the ISO too high). Here is a standard star photo of mine and the Lightroom settings I used to create it:

star photography

25 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 1600

Here are the Lightroom settings I used to edit the above photo:

star photographystar photography

1) You can see in the first panel that I bumped the whites up to +46 and brought the blacks down to -52. I really wanted to emphasize the stars against the dark sky and this is a good way to do that. Pushing the clarity up to +55 also helps define the stars against the sky, making them nice and crispy. I boosted the saturation to bring out any colors that are in the sky.

2) In the second panel you can see that I sharpened up the image a bit, also to emphasize the stars. At the same time, I brought up the noise reduction to 33 to smooth out some of the noise that might show up, and I brought up the color to 25 for the same reasons.

Pro tips

star photography

Here is where you can have fun with the editing. Play around with the split toning sliders to make the colors in your sky appear magical. In the photo above you can see a little bit of turquoise in the lower part of the sky, and that comes from boosting that color in the Shadows of the Split Toning slider here:

star photography

You can also affect the color of the sky by playing around with the temperature and hue sliders to get some pretty magnificent looking star photos. Take a look at this one photo rendered three different ways:

Another pro tip that you may have noticed in all of the photo examples I gave here is this – shoot your stars in context. It really tells a great story to see a silhouette of a pine tree or a house in the background, and it shows the magnitude of the scene when you have an object in the foreground to compare to the stars.

Lastly, make sure you know which direction the Milky Way is. You can use an app like Sky Map to see exactly what stars are in the sky above you.

Have fun shooting, and please share your pictures below!

star photography

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Phillip Van Nostrand built his photography business in Santa Barbara, CA and New York City, where he has shot over 140 weddings, countless head shots, and events for the past 9 years. Currently living in NY, he manages to travel abroad at least once a year and is up to 30 countries traveled. Published in the New York Times, Huffington Post, New York Times Magazine, featured in Santa Barbara Dining and Destinations Magazine, Cretus Mag, and San Diego Style Weddings magazine. You can connect with him on his blog and on instagram.

  • Mithin Aachi

    Thanks! Helped me a lot

  • Dumith

    What’s a good time for night photography? I mean the lighting conditions. Twilight conditions or dark sky into the night?

  • Paul Carr

    Ha-ha, just contemplating doing some night time photography and figure I’ll read up a little. I start reading this great article all inspired to get out there and shoot, get to the author profile, and there’s my good friend Phil! Great article Phil! Talk to you soon!

  • 209 Spartan

    Now I have to try night sky shooting. These tips are great; now it’s time for me to attempt this method. I have a Canon Rebel T5 with the standard 18-55mm kit lens. I don’t expect to produce photos like the ones here, but I hope to be able in the ballpark. What amazing pics!

  • Bri

    Hi! Can you share what camera/settings/etc you used here? Such a great shot!!

  • jeffrockr

    You can lightpaint too, either get all in one picture so high ISO big aperture 1-2 seconds lightpainting with any flashlight, very fast like the jeep shot. You could also do separate shots doing the normal astro shot and a lower iso smaller aperture and lightpaint for 30 seconds or so and combine them in postprocessing. Orrrr you can do super long foreground exposures going 1-2 stops brighter on the exposure, 1-2 stops smaller aperture and/or 1-2 lower on ISO, which ends up naturally lit, less noisy but ends up being 8-16-32 minutes shots (startrails) that you combine with a normal milky way exposure. The icecrack picture was done using this method. And sometime you can just use a single normal shot. it really varies depending of the environment, the light pollution or having a part of the Moon to light the scene. Now you have 3 ways around! The third picture covers pretty much the 3 ways of doing it (there unfinished thou but gives an idea) Hope it helps!

  • Learned a lot. I just thank you Phillip for his great share. I have become his fan.

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    clipping path service

  • Stephanie Black

    What setting is this on?

  • Sanjay M S

    Great article. this helped a lot to try.

  • Yannick Leinweber

    hej, what cam did you use?

    i tried with a NIKON D3400 and a 18-55mm lense (f/3,5) with ISO up to 25600 and 30s exposure and i didnt get anything near those pictures. how important is the post processing in this?
    i didnt really see much of a difference between ISO 100 and 25600
    (cant upload the picture, as it is over 5MB -.-)

  • Yannick Leinweber

    okay, the post processing is the most important here. i think it would have been good to show the unprocessed picture too, as it makes a huge difference. i got a testversion of lightroom and edited my pictures similar to the turorial and now it looks kind of like the pictures here.

  • Felix Mustermann

    I really have to say, this article is very helpful, especially the Lightroom stuff, but im having a bit of a problem. The Stars come out quite nicely on my photos but they look very unnatural, they are very colorful like different colored leds. Does anyone have a tip on what i can do? Im using a Panasonic Lumix G7 with a 20mm f1.7 or sometimes a 7-14mm f4.0 lens.

  • Jim Brunson

    14mm wide angle f 2.8. Sony a6000 (cropped sensor). Manfrotto tripod. 25 sec. exposure. Hells canyon Oregon.

  • Dunc Davis

    Hi, do you set the focus to “infinity”? I am guessing the camera cannot focus on the night sky

  • Lidya Sutton

    Incredible work!

  • Corey Lee

    Incredible tips guys, you always have the best articles here! I am a complete newbie in all of this, and I am not a big fan of school or taking some photography classes, so I find these kinds of articles where you give us newbies tips very useful and helpful! Please publish more articles like these 🙂

  • Marco El Turro

    I just looked at your site and it looks great.
    Unfortunately, I live in Italy and your site works just for the U.S.
    Would it be a big hassle to make international? Just sayin’
    Anyway, it really looks great!

  • Marco El Turro

    First of all, thanks for this great article, very interesting to me: I am a newbie in this field and looking for informations.
    I have a question (not too dumb, I hope): I remember that I once read somewhere that longest time exposures (>30secs) could damage the sensor. Is it true?
    I’m asking because, while I could get star photos with shorter exposures, I could have like to take star trails, too, but I had the fear to ruin my camera,
    Thanks in advance if you answer; but thanks again for this article!

  • Marco, international support is planned, and is something I am currently working on, but its going to take some work. The trick for me is that I have no income to pay for international data, so I have to re-architect how things are done so that I am not stuck with a bill I cannot afford. Feel free to vote for the feature on UserVoice, so that you’ll be the first to know when it is available:

  • Marco El Turro

    Dan, first of all, thank you for your kind and quick reply.
    I had the fear that money could have been an issue, here. I’ll soon cast my vote, as you suggested.
    Anyway, I want to make it clear that I truly appreciate your efforts and that my compliments for what you have already accomplished are sincere!

  • Didier Delahaye

    Thank you for the awesome tips. There are a few out there but yours are simply great, very clear and thorough. They work great too and make a great base for night exploration. Attached is my very first shot, taken right outside the house. I live in what they call a “starry village” in Normandy, meaning they kill all the public lights at 11 pm. The skies then only need to cooperate, which they did after a cloudy stretch. I had gotten myself a newer generation Pentax to supplement my aging DSLR, and the first thing I got for it was a OGPS1 for its Astrocer abilities which I was dying to put to the test.
    The first shot is actually my very first one.
    It was taken at the 11mm length of a 10-17 zoom, 60 sec exposure at f5.6, ISO 4500
    The second is with the same lens, same exposure but with ISO dropped to 3200.
    I noticed a trail after the fact and thought I had lucked out with a shooting star but maybe you can enlighten me on that… It is an intriguing trail of dots
    The third one is … a bunch of stars that looked pretty to me.
    Taken with a prime 40mm lens at f5.6, ISO dropped to 1600 shooting straight up.
    As an Italian visitor pointed out before, if you have tips of where to go to get an educated sense of current skies those would be most welcome.
    Thanks again, and I do hope you got to have some fun with the Aug 21 eclipse.
    No such viewing luck here, but I had a blast following it on the NASA channel.
    Starry best,

  • Santiago Paez

    Thank you for these easy to follow tips! Quick question — I’ve been taking some shots using your instructions and I am getting small star trails with any exposure over 10 seconds. Are there any other factors that influence? I am using a tripod with a remote control and mirror up/bulb setting.

  • Santiago Paez

    Got this shot of the Orion Constellation last night from my backyard:
    Nikon D7100
    ISO 400
    EXPosire time 7.5 sec

  • vivien keizer

    I’m not having much luck yet with star photography as I’m only getting oblong star shapes. The first pic (dark sky) is using Tokina 14-20mm lens with settings 1s f2.8 ISO 3200 14mm.The second pic (blue sky) is with the Nikkor kit 55-200mm lens with details 10s f9 IOS 3200 200mm. Any ideas?

  • Cait

    Do you need a fisheye lens for this to work? Also, will the Olympus em10 mark ii work for this?

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