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Night Sky Photography: How to Photograph the Night Sky Like a Pro

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You’re out on a camping trip, looking up at the gorgeous night sky. You excitedly pick up your camera, hoping to capture the moment. The result? A disappointing black screen and nothing else. You may as well have taken a photo of the inside of your pocket.

If this is your nighttime photography experience, you’re not alone. Making that jump from Instagram-worthy snaps during the day to professional-quality night sky shots can be a challenge, but it’s not insurmountable. Yes, even for the newbie.

Night Sky Photography
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Your Kit

For you to take photos of the night sky that are worth printing (yes, printing is still an important part of photography!), you’re going to need the right kit. We’re not saying you need to go out there and spend thousands of dollars, but we suggest the following:

  • Full-frame camera: Add a 35mm (equivalent) sensor to the mix and you’re golden.
  • Manual mode: You’ll need to be able to adjust the ISO, Exposure time, and Aperture manually.
  • Wide Angle Lens: We’re talking f/2.8 aperture here. If you want to capture the Milky Way, this is a non-negotiable minimum. For stars, you can get away with less.
  • Tripod: Can you keep your hand completely still for 30 seconds or more? We didn’t think so.

Minimum Natural Requirements

Even the most talented photographer on the planet coupled with the best equipment money can buy won’t be able to make things work unless nature ticks a few boxes:

  • The sky must be dark. If you can’t make out the stars with the naked eye, your camera won’t have a much better shot. Before you venture out, check out this light pollution map.
  • Where’s the moon? Ideally, you want the moon We’re talking the New Moon phase, meaning it won’t be visible in the night sky.
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Camera Settings

In terms of the settings on your camera, it’s all about the ‘Big Three’: exposure, aperture, and ISO. You’ll have to experiment with these settings yourself to get the ideal shot, but there are a couple of ground rules you should follow. The recommended settings you’re looking for are as follows:

  • 25 second exposure. Any longer than 25 seconds and star trails will appear in your shots. Sure, this is a legit way of shooting the night sky, but this is not what we’re talking about here. There’s a chance that 30 seconds will work, but if you want crisp stars then stick to 25.
  • f/2.8. You only have 25 seconds, which means you need to let in a decent amount of light. f/2.8 or the widest aperture value on your camera works best. It’s all about achieving sharp images whilst still maintaining focus at night.
  • ISO 1600. Even using a wide angle lens with f/2.8, you may still not get the perfect shot you’re looking for. ISO is what ‘fixes’ this. Don’t worry about any resultant ‘noise’ – the next section will help you clean that up!
  • Focal length. For full-frame cameras, you’re looking for roughly 14-24mm.
  • The 500 rule. To capture points of light (i.e. stars as we see them with the naked eye), use the 500 rule. It’s an easy-to-follow formula that uses the focal length of the camera’s lens to calculate exposure time for the perfect shot!
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Photoshop is Not Cheating!

Contrary to what some people think, using Photoshop during ‘post production’ isn’t the ultimate sin. You can use software to truly bring out the oomph of the stars you’ve captured; it doesn’t make your snaps any less ‘natural’.

You’ll need to use luminosity masks in Photoshop, a feature that allows you to choose ranges of light in the image. You can, for example, brighten the brightest stars, making them stand out even more in your photos. Bear in mind that using luminosity effectively will require a decent amount of trial and error. Luckily there are plenty of tutorials available on YouTube. Happy snapping!

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