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I always thought that taking a photo of the night sky meant mounting expensive cameras onto heavy telescopes and having extensive knowledge of the stars. But for the latest episode of my YouTube video series Full Frame, I flew 2,000 miles away from the big city lights of NYC to meet Bettymaya Foott, astrophotographer and director of engagement for the International Dark-Sky Association, who taught me how to capture incredible photos of the stars using cameras I already owned. What once seemed like a monumental task, involving deep knowledge of the cosmos, quickly turned into an incredibly peaceful but also incredibly cold night under the stars.
Here is everything I learned about capturing a great photo of the night sky:
Dark Place, Clear Skies
First, you need to find a dark place and be there on a clear night. The ideal location is located far from cities and towns that might pollute the sky with light. Check out lightpollutionmap.info or the International Dark Sky Places program for some ideas. It is also important to make sure that you will have access to your location at night. Many parks close their gates at night or require a campsite to be booked in order for you to have access to the park after dark. It is also important to scout your location during the day so that you can clearly see any hazards, such as a cliff or prickly plants, that you will want to stay away from at night. Do a thorough check of the weather as well: the fewer clouds, the better!
Next, it is important to know what phase the moon will be in and when it will rise and set. Generally, the brighter the moon is, the fewer stars you will be able to see, which most folks try to avoid. But while a full moon might make for less visible stars, it can create a really unique photo by brightening up your foreground. It is also helpful to check when the moon will rise and set, especially if you want to capture a dynamic moon-set timelapse. Below is the first and last frame of a timelapse I took while the moon was setting, but tune into the video above to see the full timelapse.
Gear and Settings
The most important piece of gear you will need is a tripod. Regardless of the camera (or phone) you use, the shutter will be open for an extended amount of time and will need to be firmly on the ground to avoid blurry photos. Be sure you have the proper mounts for attaching your camera to the tripod as well.
As for the camera, newer phones like the iPhone 13 Pro or Pixel 6 Pro have built-in night modes that can capture surprisingly good shots of the night sky without having to dial in custom settings. In these modes, the shutter of the camera stays open for extended amounts of time, which allows more light to collect on the sensor. I was very impressed with the photos from the Pixel 6 Pro that keeps its shutter open for four minutes and provides a 2-second timelapse along with the photo of the stars that it takes.
When using a DSLR or mirrorless camera, a wider lens will allow you to keep the shutter open longer without noticing the trailing of the stars. The 500 Rule can help you determine exactly how long you can set the shutter with your particular lens before you see star trails. If available, set your camera to shoot in RAW so that you have the most detail and dynamic range for editing with later on. Then, put the camera into manual mode and start with the following settings, then adjust the shutter speed or aperture for the perfect exposure for your scene.
- White balance: Daylight (5600K)
- Shutter speed: 10 seconds
- Aperture: f/2.2
- ISO: 3200
The final step in the field is to focus your lens. Begin by setting your camera’s lens to manual focus and focusing to infinity. Next, bring up the live view on your camera and zoom in to at least 10x magnification in the middle of your screen. Find a star and bring it in and out of focus until it is the smallest, crispest dot of light that you can make it. Then take a photo and review your focus. Once everything looks balanced and in focus, you are ready to photograph the sky!
Editing your astrophotos is important for bringing out the faint details of the night sky, such as airglow. Airglow is made up of particles in Earth’s atmosphere that release energy as light in the night sky. It is what makes for the orange and green bands spreading across the lower third of the photo below.
Foott suggests editing your photo so that looking at it makes you feel the same way you felt while you were there photographing it. She uses a mixture of Photoshop, Lightroom, and an astrophotography-specific editing program called Starry Landscape Stracker to create vivid portraits of our night sky. You can see more of her work on her Instagram. I am no master at editing photos and truthfully find it quite boring, so I simply brought up the contrast by brightening my highlights and darkening my shadows and blacks, then I added some saturation and clarity in Lightroom.
To see more of the photos I took while learning how to capture the night sky, tune into the video above.