Beginners Tips for Night Sky and Star Photography

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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.

  • The primary appeal of this to me is the way the sky looks ‘torn apart’! Love it.

  • Ah, photography SHOULD be challenging, I think ๐Ÿ™‚ If it’s ‘easy’, it’s going to get boring. Part of the wonder of shots like these should be the pay off involved in working out how to do it with what you have ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Yes! I agree – the lightroom information you’ve shared is probably some of the most valuable inclusions in a how-to I’ve seen for a while. Thank you for not being so precious as to guard it as a special secret or something (some do!), and let us all know ALL the details on how you took the shot!

  • This is quite a good shot – and they say its not the equipment that matters, it’s the photographer. I’ve seen some amazing photos taken with something like Nikon 3300 (equivalent canon is perhaps the 1200D? Entry level). Just because it’s easier on a pro-level camera doesn’t mean it’s impossible on the entry-mid range ones. I’m a student and just starting up my business, and use a 700D. Put your money more towards really high quality lenses (research will help there), rather than the ‘bestest’ camera body you can get.

    I think my camera really tops out at about 800 for acceptable noise, but Lightroom if you have it does help remove it – you have to fiddle with settings to try and maintain your sharpness and not over-blur the image so it’s not a magic wand, but can help. If you can’t add ISO without losing quality, try using a remote or wireless shutter trigger, and use ‘bulb’. You might get the star trails mentioned, but sometimes they are cool too – and might be easier to clone out than noise removal!

  • I think perhaps since the article is trying to aim this to those of us without specialist equipment, a la telescopic photography stuff, it’s going to have to use some post processing. I really like your point, but if you look around you might find some information on what specific equipment is available to get an image this dramatic (or as obvious and clear), and that’s the angle to head towards if you’re interested in capturing this kind of stuff (or closer to it) in-camera.

  • I second the layers method. This is how we’re taught where I study photography + digital imaging (LR/PS), and it’s really easy – and very very handy. The dramatic difference it’ll make to the overall image even if you’re not basically making HDR images, is amazing. Good for multi-light shots as well, exposing multiples differently and layering in that respect means you can have a correctly exposed sky, foreground and say a lit up building or something. So simple, looks SO good.

  • The hardest part might be ensuring you’ve got a visually/aesthetically appealing border, so a nice horizon or something. If you can get out to try it (I’m making a wild guess these are from your backyard – I have a few from mine, lol), even in a park or something and just use the tops of trees – even buildings if you can’t get out of town can work with either some fiddling, or silhouetting them.

    I bet these are a hundred times better than the first time you tried to take a photo of the sky at night though, so you’ll get there ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Rahul Shah

    Bret, thanks for your tips. I have a question though. Should I first focus something bright and then turn off the auto focus and image stabilizationor or do what you are saying, the other way around?

  • Joseph Jelly Elmajian

    Would appreciate some beginner advice on some star photography! I have decided to use this for my senior project, a requirement project in order for me to graduate high school.

    I’ve heard of places like Joshua Tree National Park where I hear there is rarely any light pollution and it is a beauty there but I don’t know if I can go there as it’s 2.5-3 hours and I’m only 17.

    I’m arguing about light pollution and want to do a compare/contrast of areas where there are enormous amounts of light pollution vs. where there are rarely any amounts of light pollution.

    There’s a trail around where I live where people say the sky is cleaner than usual and I would like to shoot to get used to it. What advice would you recommend? I have a macro/fish eye lens up to f2.8 but it’s an older lens so it does not have autofocus. How would you recommend I get something to focus? What about the moon? I must avoid it? Any tips are appreciated, thank you and God bless!

  • Phillip Van Nostrand

    @josephjellyelmajian:disqus Thanks for reading! Yeah, Joshua park would be great, but really any place without a ton of lights is good. I’m sure you have foothills near you. It doesn’t have to be perfect, and that trial sounds good.

    Fisheye lens up to 2.8 is perfect! That’s exactly what I use. You don’t need autofocus, you can manually focus it to about infinity and you’ll be fine.

    No moon, that’s the worst light source possible! Talk about light pollution.

    No other tips except follow my instructions in the blog post. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Joseph Jelly Elmajian

    I’m doing a compare/contrast on areas of heavy pollution and areas without heavy pollution. I took this of the city lights with the same settings and then I took a pic on the other side where there aren’t as many lights and I got some stars. I’m doing this to prove that there is pollution but here is 1 shot. Look on the upper left, what do you think that is? Like a galaxy or something?? I am shocked and still have to go to less polluted areas.

  • Phillip Van Nostrand

    @josephjellyelmajian:disqus I can’t see a photo!

  • Die Groot Krokodil

    Just stumbled across this site and thought I’d share a pic I took last year in southern Botswana while in the desert.

  • Grand
  • Sven Scholz

    Too much light pollution will give you no chance for a good shoot, but if there’s just a little bit, the filters of Lightroom can do an amazing job. I applied a horizontal graduated filter at this one because otherwise the light from the city behind that hill would have destroyed the lower part of the picture.

  • David Gumm

    And this is why you need a good tripod:

  • I just checked into the app and looks awesome! It seems it takes a bit to learn it but all the information given to make the best of the shot is amazing – all in one app.

    I’m going on a camping trip in June, I’ll be definitely be trying this app. Thanks for sharing! ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Cool! Thanks for the info, I was starting to think I wasn’t going to get good shots with my D5100 and my Tokina 11-16mm! ;P

  • Phillip Van Nostrand

    @svenscholz:disqus This is fantastic!! Well done

  • Phillip Van Nostrand

    @die_groot_krokodil:disqus Love this shot! That tree looks epic. Nice job

  • Matt Sprout

    This article is what made me put on my shoes and tromp through to the lake at 10:30pm at night. My first shot. So much fun.

  • Using a point and shoot ๐Ÿ˜‰ canon s200 ISO 3200 15s f2 manual focus – about as straight out of camera as I could get. The green is airglow. Note that I usually shoot with a Canon 6d and do large panoramas, but have had so many people telling me that their camera wasn’t good enough.

  • Phillip Van Nostrand

    @michael_goh:disqus this exceptional! Nice job- Phil

  • Katherine

    These are great tips. the only camera I got is a cannon powershot but plan to give this a shot.

  • Fernando Inรกcio Cruz

    This photo was taken using a Canon 700D with 18-55mm,

  • Phillip Van Nostrand

    This looks AWESOME @fernandoinciocruz:disqus!! Nice job ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Qnita

    Hi Phillip
    I please need advice. I’ve read all your tips, done some shooting and editing, now I want some feedback on my work, please. Left is (I hope you can see it… ๐Ÿ™‚ ) the original.

    I don’t have a full frame camera.

    Canon EOS 550D
    f/3.5
    ISO-6400

  • Salman Ali

    If you see above:
    Camera settings

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

    If your lens doesnโ€™t open up to f/2.8 you can try 30 seconds at f/4 with ISO 1600.

    Note: this kind of photography wonโ€™t work if there is a full moon out (or even a half moon). Donโ€™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 โ€œlight pollution.โ€

  • Qnita

    Thank you Salman. I will give it another try next week during dark moon. I don’t think my lens can open up to f/2.8. I will post my results. I appreciate all tips and advice.

  • Matthew Darby

    not the best pic but i tried it quick with a samsung nx3000

  • Phillip Van Nostrand

    that’s pretty awesome @matthew_darby:disqus! Nice work ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Matthew Darby

    Thanks phillip.. hope i get clear skies tonight cant wait to get back out with my camera

  • Alex Gieder

    Did the purple cloud of stars, right above the tree, be edited in after the photo or was is part of the photo? Because if so, That is amazing!!!

  • campones

    it s the milky way.. why to add it lol? it s just there

  • Alex Gieder

    Alright, thanks. And I just didn’t think that a camera could do that

  • Jack

    Get a telescope and put your phone camera to the eye piece and you will get a better shot…

  • JBT48

    I just learned it too ._.

  • I never think about night sky and bird photography. Thank you so much for your informative post.

  • Thank you so much for your informative post.

  • Eric Wetzel

    It has long been a dream of mine to be able to take pictures of the night sky and night scenes. I’ve just always been busy with my regular job, and ibalwaysb kept telling myself I will I will some day. Well, unfortunately I have been,at 35, diagnosed with Diabetes and fatty liver disease and heart condition. I’m currently not working. Doctors said its hereditary, but that does leave open the time for me to stay out all night and do what I’ve always wanted! Only issue with this is….cashola. I have…hardly any. Moat deffjnatl not enough to go and buy some of the cameras I’ve seen priced.

    So my question is….are they any cameras out there that I can still take good quality photos for a few hundred bucks? Or am I going to have to once again put this dream on hold? Thank you for reading all this.

  • I never think about night sky and bird photography. Thank you so much for your informative post.

  • Anete

    Thank you for the great advices! Here is one of my shots from last night.

  • Joseph G Daniels

    Here is a shot I did in Torrey Pines, CA. 1st time shooting with a 7d Mark II.

  • Kat

    Do I have to use up to 1600 for this?

  • Kat

    Well i guess i mean is it alright to use around 200/400 if i didnt want it to grainy i suppose i think or should i just be using higher 1600 just because im trying to get light in?

  • Thomas Wilson

    I don’t have a fish-eye or wide angle lens, just a kit 18-55, so here’s my result. I also only have PE12 as a processing/editing tool.

  • Phillip Van Nostrand

    SOOOO GOOD

  • Ray Sherman

    Nice site you have! I stumbled upon it while seeking info on photographing the Milky Way and night sky. I recently bought a Sony RX100 and decided to try my luck at the night sky. I had never done this before but since the camera had manual settings I experimented. Here’s one I got near the Allegheny National Forest in Warren County, PA. It’s just jpeg with very little post editing as I do not know how to do RAW yet.

  • Phillip Van Nostrand

    This is pretty great @disqus_zoJ7ojmcVX:disqus ! The stars look fantastic. I noticed the trees kind of blend in with the night sky, and I would play around with the color temperature in your camera (try “open shade” mode) or in post production (Light Room, Temperature slider) to make the sky a little more orange or blue or something interesting that will separate it from the foreground a little more. Nice execution, though! You did it!

  • Ray Sherman

    Thank you and I will try the shade setting next time out.

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