8 tips for taking pictures of the night sky

Night sky

While seeing the stars from your cottage deck is easy, taking pictures of them isn’t. We’ve all seen amazing images of stars streaking across the sky, but why isn’t that what your images look like? If you’d like to snap pics of the night sky like a seasoned pro, here are a few tips to help you capture its beauty.

While point-and-shoot cameras have come a long way, they probably aren’t yet advanced enough for night-sky images. You’re best to start with any consumer level DSLR with the fastest (meaning the biggest aperture, which confusingly is represented by the smallest number, like 1.8, or 2.8) you can afford.

The most impressive night sky images are usually shot in dark places. It doesn’t take much light pollution to spoil an image. Towns, roads or house lights will quickly spoil your image. A full moon will also blow out the image, so it’s best to shoot during new moons, or before or after the moon has set. There are tons of apps to tell you what the moon is doing, so get something like Moonphase to help you plan your shot properly.

All rules of photography can be broken, but shooting the night sky without a tripod probably isn’t one of them. In order for your camera to get enough light to create an image, it needs to have its shutter open for a long time. This means any camera-shake or movement will result in blurry images. The steadier your camera is, the better.

Shutter Release
Even with a tripod, the push of the shutter release button causes some movement in your camera. An easy way to eliminate these tiny movements is to use the timer mode. Set your timer, press the button, and stand back until the camera completes the exposure before touching it again.

Try to avoid pointing your camera straight up. Get some subject matter in there: a tree, your cottage, a tent. Just about anything will make an image more interesting than a bunch of white dots on a black background.

Adopted from the days of film, DSLRs have an adjustable ISO rating. What does this mean? Well in the old days, the higher ISO the film, the less light it would need to produce an image. 100 is usually the lowest ISO available on digital cameras, and is used for bright sunny days. Depending on your camera, your ISO may go up to 10,000 or more. The problem being that the higher the ISO you go, the grainier your image will become. So a good rule of thumb is to stay around 1600. Of course, experimentation is the best teacher, so try going higher than that to see what your camera can do.

This is the trickiest part of night sky photography. You’ll need a long exposure so you’ll need to take control of your camera either through speed priority or full manual. Your camera will need seconds or minutes to expose the image you’re looking for. Remember though, that the longer you leave your shutter open for, the more noise the sensor will pick up, leading to grainier and grainier images.

Star Trails
Once you get into multiple-minute images, the stars will start to leave trails as the world turns. It happens surprisingly quick and when done well, creates some amazing images. If you point your camera towards the North Star, you’ll get some great circular patterns as the earth rotates on its axis.