How to Photograph the Night Sky (featuring Death Valley)

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In this article, we will be providing a tutorial on night sky photography (or astrophotography).

Before we dive in, we will be assuming that you already know your way around your camera (generally speaking) and have appropriate gear for the job.

If you're not quite technically savvy yet, that's okay! One thing we'd suggest you to do is start off with getting some photography fundamentals down, as astrophotography tends to make more sense to produce when you have an understanding of aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and how the light (or lack of it) in the scene will impact your photos. A good starting place is by understanding the Exposure Triangle, as it will help you apply your technical understanding of photography to the world of night sky photography.

For the rest of this article, let's discuss some of the basics of astrophotography, and we'll showcase some of our own adapted techniques based on our recent experience taking photos of the night sky in Death Valley National Park. You'll be hard pressed to find a better testing ground!!


Background on Astrophotography

With the exception of the moon (usually), most of the things we will want to shoot in the night sky are pretty dim. While on a particularly starry night, much like we witnessed in Death Valley ourselves, it can seem like a lot of light is being outputted - the reality is that the light being dispersed by each individual star is pretty minimal, at least from our vantage point here on Earth. To our naked eyes, with a lot of stars all glowing at once, it can seem like there is a lot of light; but to our camera's sensors, not so much.

Once you get past the twilight hours, real darkness begins to set into the scene, and astrophotographers come out to play. This real darkness is part of the appeal of night photography, and learning how to take photographs in this sort of setting, one that is the polar opposite of most photography styles, is pretty special in it's own way.

Our own fascination with astrophotography stemmed from both our love for photography as an art form and enjoyment of nature. We like to travel and take trips around the world when time and money permits, and one thing that can often be difficult to come by in many areas of our planet is uninhibited access to the night sky and stargazing without high levels of light pollution. Unfortunately, in the area we live, the sky is often clouded with light pollution, making the ability to engage in astrophotography fairly limited. That's not to say it's impossible, but images will also have that human element stemming from polluted light that can seem detracting when compared to shots from a purely dark and star-lit night sky as we experienced in Death Valley, California.

Before we even went outside to experiment with this type of photography for ourselves, we made an effort to get some technical knowledge into our minds. Fortunately, we have a good basis to work off of due to our exposure to photography as we frequently photography wedding, portraits, and other personal projects. Still, astrophotography felt like this untapped photographic energy, and we are still figuring out the nuances.

Many of our personal starting points were videos on YouTube, as well as a few books we picked up on the subject including Collier's Guide to Night Photography in the Great Outdoors and Astrophotography by Thierry Legault. Of course, online resources abound, and in particular Catching the Light's Quick Start Guide for Beginner Astrophotographers is a useful resource for sure.

Astrophotography: A World of Possibilities

One of the incredible things about astrophotography is learning how complex it can be. While on the surface, you might be thinking that taking photos of the night sky is as simple as pointing your camera and shooting at the stars, that generally will not work (and when it does...it won't work well). Some examples of the different forms of astrophotography that exist include:

  • Night Sky Photography (the main focus of this article)
  • Star Trail Photography
  • Piggyback Astrophotography
  • Prime Focus Astrophotography
  • Afocal Astrophotography

Additionally, the subject(s) of your photography can change significantly. This is potentially one of the most fascinating areas of astrophotography that can attract amateurs all the way up to deep space astronomers collecting data through photography. Some potential subjects that could enter your frame:

  • Specific "Earth-bound" landscapes complimented by the night sky (such as mountains, hills, houses, etc.)
  • The Moon and Stars
  • Constellations
  • Planets
  • The Milky Way Galaxy
  • Distant nebulae and other galaxies
  • The Northern Lights
  • Meteors and shooting stars

The list can go on and on, but it ultimately showcasing one important thing: you can reveal a lot of natural beauty through photography, and in particular showcase some of the things that are generally quite distant from us as we often don't think about these things too much given how busy we can get in our day-to-day lives. For many astrophotographers, even if photography is just a hobby, it can function as a good reason to go out an immerse yourself under the starry night skies and better appreciate its worth.

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How to Take Night Sky Photographs

While there is no one size fits all method to photography, through our research and personal exposure to astrophotography, we have some good suggestions that should help you get started.

gear

We mentioned it in the intro, and we'll mention it again here. Having the right gear for astrophotography is important. This does not mean you need to spend a fortune if you don't want too. The best night sky images you are seeing online are, more than likely, being taken by high quality and professional level camera bodies & lenses. To some extent, while a skilled user can take good photos with even beginner gear, there will be technical limitations to how images will look. Higher end gear is higher end for a reason, as typically they output better and more consistent color, provide more crisp and clear images, and capture more data within a scene as a result of higher megapixel rates (among other things). In addition, camera lenses with wider apertures (some going as low as f/1.0) enable you to get more light into the sensor, while a good camera body that can handle higher ISO levels enable you to reduce undesirable grain in your photos.

Our personal recommendations for a good quality setup would be to purchase a Canon 5D Mark III (it has been dropping in cost since the release of the Canon 5D Mark IV), a wide angle lens (check out our list of the Best Lenses for Astrophotography for suggestions), and a sturdy tripod.

settings

From the technical side of things, probably the most important aspect of astrophotography to get down immediately is an understanding of what settings you want to use.

As a general rule of thumb, you will want to keep all of your main settings (shutter speed, aperture, and ISO) low. By setting your camera up on a tripod, it will provide you with opportunities to stabilize your camera and eliminated unintended movement that could negatively impact your images.

  • For aperture settings, you should use a "fast" (or wide open) aperture. Standard camera lenses will have apertures as low as f/2.8 or f/4. With a prime lens, you may have access to apertures as low as f/1.0.
  • Set your ISO between 100 - 1600. Yes, this is quite the range, but the actual setting will be dependent on things like sky clarity (ie: how much light is naturally available) and the exposure length. Always start by taking shots at 100 as this is optimal, and increase in small increments as you feel it is needed.
  • Set your exposure length (shutter speed) to 30 seconds. This provides ample time for your camera's sensor to capture all the light it needs to produce a crisp image.

Other technical settings to adjust:

  • Set your white balance to daylight - if you forget, this is correctable in post processing.
  • Shoot in RAW image format
  • Use manual shooting mode
  Image taken at f/4, 4000 ISO, and 30 second exposure with a Canon 24mm f/1.2 on a Canon 5D Mark IV body.

Image taken at f/4, 4000 ISO, and 30 second exposure with a Canon 24mm f/1.2 on a Canon 5D Mark IV body.

use a tripod for stabilizing your shots

One of the most important tools for night sky photography is having a tripod. It does not need to be anything expensive, but you do want to make sure you have a tripod with a decent build quality and that will be both light enough for portability, but heavy enough to not result in any unwanted camera shake (this is why you are buying a tripod afterall!). The Neewer Aluminum Alloy tripod is a good example of quality at an affordable cost.

Regardless of the tripod you choose to use, it is suggested that you also look for one with a 360 degree rotating head. This makes getting a better composition easier, and can also enable you to point your camera straight up if you need.

Use your camera's built in delay timer or a remote

In the quest for stable night sky photographs, reducing your interaction with your camera - particularly the press of the shutter button - is a mistake many unassuming first-time night photographers may run into. We had tried night sky photography in the past ourselves using this method, and unfortunately, even a slight press of the shutter can result in virtually unnoticeable camera shake that can ruin images. Fortunately, there are some options you have to easily and cheaply counteract this:

  • Use your camera's built in delay timer, you can set your shutter to be released on a delay (often between 2-10 seconds after you press the shutter button).
  • An even easier way is to use a remote shutter release remote, such as this one by Polaroid, which will allow you to shoot longer exposures than 30 seconds and even automate shot sequences. Alternatively, with select camera bodies, you can take advantage of first party software created by your camera brand (in our case: Canon) that enables you to remote control your shots using your phone. For Canon 5D Mark IV users, this software is Canon Connect.

use a light pollution filter

While not necessary when shooting in an environment clear of light pollution such as Death Valley National Park, a light pollution filter can be applied to your camera lens to help reduce the impact of light pollution on your images. This can make night photography possible in urban areas, or rural areas (like our own) that are right outside of larger metros that see resulting bleed of light. Not to mention, simple light pollution impacts that come just from the neighbors leaving their lights on at night or street lamps. Haida light pollution filters are good options to go with.

use manual focus and live view

One of the immediate difficulties of night sky photography is learning how to focus. Unlike shooting portraits where you have a clearly defined subject, shooting up at stars that are significantly distant from your position on Earth, can be trickier. This is especially true given the dimness of the light they output. As a result, one of the standards of astrophotography is to set your lens to manual focus (MF) mode.

Next, use Live View on your camera's screen to see the image as your camera is viewing it currently. Again, for Canon users, the Canon Connect app can also allow you to see this separately from touching your actual camera body. With correctly dialed in settings, you should be able to see at least on particularly bright star on your camera's LCD screen. Zoom in on this star gradually, and adjust the focus of your lens until the star becomes a small pinpoint of light. As a part of this process, you will end up going back-and-forth and in-and-out of focus until you find the best focus.

You should take multiple test shots to help determine the best settings and focus.

smaller aperture for more clarity (but less light)

While many astrophotographers (ourselves included) might make a big deal about having extra stops of light that you can get with prime lenses, it is important to keep in mind that, generally, a lenses' lowest f-stop is often not optimal for clarity. You can review tests of the specific lens(es) you may be using (we often reference YouTuber's who tend to have less biased perspectives that research funded by a lens manufacturer). In general, you can trade off some extra light for more image clarity by stopping up 1 or 2 f-stops. This means if you are shooting with an f/2.8 aperture lens, you should consider taking some shots at f/3.2 or even f/4 for more potential clarity. Of course, taking shots at different settings will help you to determine optimal settings of your gear over time.

final thoughts

Night sky photography is really the most accessible and "surface level" form of astrophotography. It is fundamentally beautiful when done well, and can enable you to incorporate elements of the Earth's landscape into the composition as well. Other forms of astrophotography tend to require more specific tools such as telescopes, and likely larger investments for quality images.

We hope you are able to find some of the tips and suggestions in this article to be beneficial and practical for your own astrophotography experimentation. Even with good starting points in terms of settings and having the right equipment, it will require some experimentation and practice on your own to find the sweet spots for your photography. As you begin to refine your process and have good "go to" settings, you will begin to really look for more impressive compositions, taking advantage of great landscapes aligned with the beautiful starry night skies. One thing leads to the next, and you will be staying awake into the early hours of the morning to catch the Milky Way Galaxy above the horizon.

No doubt, with enough patience and effort, your night sky photography will be great - and we hope you will find it to be a relaxing and great way to spend your time.