7 Tips for Photographing the Sky at Night

The night sky over Eagle Lake in Maine's Acadia National Park. Winter.

The night sky over Eagle Lake in Maine’s Acadia National Park. Winter.

I am more of a morning person than a night owl, so I’ve never been very motivated to get out and shoot the night sky, despite the beauty that can be found in night images. But I’ve been seeing so many stunning night sky images from other photographers the last few years, that I’ve been inspired to stay up late every once in a while recently to see what I can do. It’s actually not that hard technically to get some nice images of a star-filled sky, but there are a few things you need to know before heading out and filling up your memory card in the dark.

The night sky over The Tarn in Maine's Acadia National Park. Winter.

The night sky over The Tarn in Maine’s Acadia National Park. Winter.

1) Wait for clear dark skies. If you live in New England like I do, that can be a challenge both because we have clouds a lot of the time and most of us live near cities and towns that pollute the night sky with light. Head away from town on a clear night and wait until 90 minutes or so after sunset to begin shooting for your best chance of capturing the most stars in your images. You’ll also have better luck when the moon is not in the sky.

2) If like me, you’re a landscape photographer accustomed to shooting at F16 and low ISO’s, you’ll need to break that habit for shooting at night. Believe it or not, the Earth’s rotation is happening fast enough to blur stars after no more than 20 or 30 seconds with a wide angle lens, and even faster with longer focal lengths. To get enough light to properly expose the night sky with a shutter speed of 30 seconds or shorter, you’ll need to shoot at F4 or bigger and at ISO 1600 or higher. Most of my night sky images are shot with a wide angle lens (16mm to 24mm), at F4 or F2.8, a shutter speed of between 20 and 30 seconds, and an ISO of 1600.

Night sky over the Atlantic Ocean near Wallis Sands State Park in Rye, New Hampshire.

Night sky over the Atlantic Ocean near Wallis Sands State Park in Rye, New Hampshire.

3) Using a wide angle lens also helps you get enough depth of field when using those large apertures. I usually focus about 20 – 30 feet into the scene to make sure my sky is sharp and to give me a semblance of sharpness in my foreground. If I need to extend my depth of field, I’ll take two exposures, one focused for the sky, and one focused for the foreground and blend them together in Photoshop using layer masks. Of course, focusing can be a challenge in the dark, so I’ll either get there before dark and set up or bring a powerful flashlight I can shine into the scene to give me enough light to see where I’m focusing.

4) Use a tripod and a remote triggering device like a cable release, infrared remote, or your camera’s self-timer mode.

Tent and canoe next to the Cold Stream "deadwater" above Upper Cold Stream Falls in Maine's Northern Forest.

Tent and canoe next to the Cold Stream “deadwater” above Upper Cold Stream Falls in Maine’s Northern Forest.

5) You can add interest to your foreground by adding light with flashes, lanterns, flashlights, etc. Sweeping a nice big mag-light over an object in the foreground can bring out some added detail. Some people like to add colored gels to their flashlights when “light painting.” It’s not something I’ve ever done, but it looks like fun. It obviously takes some experimentation to come up with an image you like – just expect to have a lot of failures before you get that killer shot. In the above scene with the tent, you’ll notice the sky isn’t as star-filled as my first couple of images because there was a big moon out that night. However, the moonlight lit the landscape nicely and by putting a lantern in the tent I was able to get a nice shot that depicts a night in the Maine woods. In this case, I did need to make two different exposures – one for the sky and one for the tent – and blend them together in Photoshop.

Star trails in the night sky above Little Lyford Pond Camps in Maine's Northern Forest.

Star trails in the night sky above Little Lyford Pond Camps in Maine’s Northern Forest. about 300 images shot over 2-plus hours and combined using Stack-A-Matic.

6) Shooting star trails involves some additional work. In the film days, we could just leave the shutter open for an hour or longer, and we’d get star trails in one exposure. With digital cameras, exposures longer than a few minutes start to break down, the frame filing with digital noise. Instead, it is preferable to take a series of 20 to 30 second exposure over the course of an hour or longer and then merge the images together using software. For this you’ll need an intervalmoter that fires the camera at regular intervals. Some Nikons have this feature built in, but for most cameras, you’ll need to buy an itervalometer (a fancy cable release) separately. I program mine to fire with as short of an interval as possible – 1 second – to avoid gaps in the star trails. To combine your series of images into one star trail shot, you’ll need to use a program like StarStaX, or Russel Brown’s Stack-A-Matic script for Photoshop.

Star trails over Mount Katahdin as seen from Patten, Maine.

Star trails over Mount Katahdin as seen from Patten, Maine. about 120 images shot over the course of 1 hour.

7) Post-processing. Even if you don’t stack multiple images into star trails, you’re image will need a little work in Lightroom or Photoshop to get a final look you like. I recommend shooting RAW files to maximize your ability to make tonal changes without introducing too much additional noise. I usually start by adding a lot of contrast and vibrance to night sky images, then adjusting the white balance towards the blue end of the spectrum if the sky color seems a little off.

These tips should get you started. It won’t take long to get the hang of shooting night images like these – just hope for clear skies and enjoy a big cup of coffee the next morning!




8 Responses to “7 Tips for Photographing the Sky at Night”

  1. laurie says:

    Excellent tips. Thanks, Jerry. Great to hear Power of Place mentioned on nhpr this morning, too.

  2. JF Purcell says:

    Just saw Canon Explorer of Light Jennifer Wu’s presentation at our annual LI Photo Spring Spectacular. She too had some outstanding starry night photographs. Appreciate the tips.

    Do you know Lance Keumig of The Night Skye? He is based in Boston. I took a tour in 2007 with him to Scotland, and did a lot of Night photography.


    JF Purcell, Oceanside, NY

  3. Thanks, Jerry. Because of these tips I will now stay awake the entire duration of my camping / photo trips! 🙂
    Best of luck on your big project!

  4. Jerry,

    I have found recently, doing night sky photography that with my newer cameras, such as the Nikon D 800 and the Nikon D 7100, because of them having to stops more dynamic range of the low-end that I can dropped my ISO down from 1200-2400 to 800 and get even better pictures. Try it out.


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