How to Shoot Night Sky Photography

Camera:

You will need a camera to manually control your ISO, shutter speed, and aperture.

Lens:

A fast wide-angle lens of 1.4 – 2.8 is ideal. If you use a 3.5 or higher (slower lens), you will increase the ISO. The higher the ISO, the more grain or digital noise or grain will appear in your photos. Nikon’s 28mm f/1.8G or Canon’s 28mm f/1.8 are good choices if you go shopping for your night photography trip.

Tripod:

A good sturdy tripod is essential for night photography. If it gets windy, you will need a sturdy one, and we never know what Mother Nature will bring us while we are out there. Keep that in mind when you buy one to go in your suitcase if you are going on a plane. It should be sturdy enough to withstand the wind but small enough to fit in your suitcase.

Sky Map:

These are good for shooting Milky Way Photography. Sky Guide is available through the iTunes Store for $1.99. It has a 5 out of 5-star rating on both the current (3.2) version (1200+ ratings) and all previous versions (8600+ ratings).   Android Version? Sky Guide is not currently available as an Android app. The closest thing I can suggest is SkySafari ($2.99). This light pollution map: light pollution map

Flashlight:

Our choice is the Coast brand for flashlights. The ideal flashlight will have high lumens, and you will be able to zoom in and out on the amount of light emitting from the flashlight. I like a small stream of light, not a wide amount of light. I can be specific as to what exactly I want to paint with light. Get the HP7, PX45, or the G50. Ideally, go with the  HP7 if you can.

Moon Phaze Map:

The best time to do Milky Way photography is during a new moon, and you want to be in the darkest area possible. If you are doing night sky photography without the Milky Way, the moon can be your friend. 

Remote Shutter Release:

When painting with light and going over a 30-second exposure, you must have a shutter release to use your bulb mode. When exposing your pictures in general, you can use the remote release, so you do not use your hand to press the shutter button and make the camera move even a little bit. Without one easily, use your 2-second timer.

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Milky Way photography

Use a Tripod:

You must be on a tripod. A good sturdy tripod is necessary if it is windy. If the tripod moves, your picture will blur.

Focus:

Use live view. To focus the camera in the dark, use your camera’s live view, zoom in, and focus on a bright star. You can also use the infinity setting on your lens but do several test shots to see if it is accurate. It can be a little off on some lenses. If you have subject matter like a tree, shine a flashlight on the tree to obtain focus, then carefully, without touching the focus, switch it to manual focus. Do this each time you change your shot.

Manual Mode:

Set your camera to manual mode so you can control the aperture and the shutter speed.

ISO:

Start with ISO 3200. This is just a common starting point, and you will adjust from here. Remember, the higher the ISO, the more digital noise.

Aperture:

The depth of field isn’t critical on these shots, but letting the light in the camera is; therefore, you shoot wide open. (The lowest aperture your camera will allow). Ex: 2.8

Shutter Speed:

Now that the ISO and aperture are set in manual mode roll your shutter speed until your meter reads (0) zero. Take a test shot and adjust from there.

Remember, the earth is rotating. If you leave the shutter open for too long, you will see star trails that will not make for a crisp image. You can make star trails specifically, but that’s not what we are going for here since we start with Milky Way photography. We want crisp non-star trail images when doing this. Here is the formula to avoid star trails. The 500 rule – Divide 500 by the focal length of your lens. So, if you have a 24mm lens on a full-frame camera, you will set your shutter speed to 20 sec. (500/24 = 20.83). If you are using a crop sensor camera, first do the math of the crop sensor to find the focal length. Cannon is 1.6, Nikon is 1.5. Convert to full-frame focal length, then use the formula. Nikon 18mm x 1.5= 27mm – 500/27 = 18.51 seconds.

White Balance:

Shoot your night photography raw so you can easily edit your images and have more information to work with than if you shot JPEG. You can change your white balance settings in live view mode and see which looks best for each shot. You can shoot in the shade or cloud as a standard-setting and adjust things later. Add in color in your milky way to match the subject while editing the image then if you would like to.

Those are all essential starting points for doing your Milky Way shots. You will want to find some exciting foregrounds to make your image dynamic. Doing routine old Milky Way shots will not win you any awards.

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Telescope Photography Image – Film image of the Andromeda Galaxy shot at the prime focus of an 8″ f/4 Schmidt–Newton telescope

If you really get hooked on this you can get into the advanced area astrophotography.  We spend enough money on camera gear and travel so we are going to stick to the basics here. I can just imagine the money that can be spent to set up for advanced astrophotography.