Photographing the night sky can seem intimidating and difficult at first, but as time goes by you’ll notice that it isn’t as hard as you first thought and you’ll be taking professional photos in no time. I remember the first time I ever tried to take a photo of the night sky – I sucked. The exposure was too short, the pictures were grainy and you could hardly make out what I was even trying to take a picture of. But like anything, I kept at it and over time I improved more than I ever thought possible. There is no substitute for experience so the only way to get better is to get out there and just do it. Making mistakes is the fastest way to get where you want to go and once you take a few under or over exposed images, you’ll remember for next time what not to do.
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Not all camera’s and lenses are created equal when it comes to capturing the night sky that only “pros” seem to be able to capture. We always hear that it’s not the camera but the person behind the camera – in this situation it really is the camera. Without the correct tools for the trade there is just no way that you’ll be able to get those amazing shots.

Tools and Equipment

My camera setup – Sony A7R, Rokinon 14mm f2.8, Sony Remote, Jobe Gorilla Pod, Samsung Phone, Zeiss 24-70mm f4, Sony batteries, Led Lenser head torch, Sandisk memory cards.
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Tripod

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Pretty much any tripod will do the job from a professional grade one to a bendy Jobe Gorilla Pod tripod. The aim here is to keep the camera as still as possible and keep everything sharp and in focus. Obviously, the bigger and better the tripod is, the more you’ll be able to do with it and you won’t be limited with your shots. I’ve shot night photos from rocks, fence posts and even from the top of my car but nothing can beat a tripod, especially if you want to get that composition just right. In windy conditions it is a good idea to tie something heavy to the bottom of your tripod. Many of the extendable ones will have a short piece extending down in the middle where you can tie your backpack or even a small bag that you can fill with some rocks or even a water bottle can do the trick. This will make sure your camera is kept super still so you don’t have a moving camera during your long exposure.
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Cable Release or Remote (Optional but highly recommended)

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If you are serious and want to go beyond the 30 second limitation most digital cameras adhere to then a cable release or remote is something you’ll definitely need. Most brands of cameras have their own branded ones but you can find just about any generic one on eBay or Amazon for a fraction of the cost. I’ve used a knock off $5 Sony remote for years and it works just fine. The trick is to be able to use the remote to open and close the shutter and also its handy when it comes with a good range on the remote.
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Phone App Remote Control (Free and a great tool)

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Most cameras now come with an app that is saved on your phone and connects wirelessly to your camera, giving you full controls including some time-lapse functions. These apps double as a remote as well and can give you all the controls you need to get those steady shots. You gain control over shutter speed, aperture, ISO and much more. The app can also save the photo directly to your phone once you’ve taken the shot for you to edit or share on any social media platform. When taking bulb shots there is also a timer so you can always refine and make those super long exposures just how you want them to be.
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Canon uses an app called Camera Connect, Nikon uses its Wireless Mobile Utility app and Sony uses the Play Memories app. They are all available for download from the App Store for Apple devices and the Google Play store for Android. All the apps have pretty much the same features so it just depends on which camera you have. A side note here  – Since I’ve started using my Play memories app for Sony I haven’t used my remote control at all for longer “bulb” shots. The app has its own timer and shutter release which is amazing and gets rid of the need for an old fashioned remote and timer.
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Wide Angle Lens

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When shooting nightscapes you’ll want to have a wide angle lens – as wide as you can get, usually between a 10mm and a 20mm ( 8mm is considered a fisheye). You’ll also want to go with a lens that has a very wide aperture – around f2.8 or even lower if you can. It’s a good thing to note that the smaller the aperture number the higher the cost. For example an f2.8 lens may cost say $500 and an f2.0 lens may cost $1000. So it’s up to you to weight up how much you’ll want to splash out on a decent lens but there is nothing wrong with an f2.8 lens, it still does an amazing job.
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Torch

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A torch is one of the most important things to bring along with you on your night time adventure. Imagine getting to your destination and not being able to see? It makes setting up and finding the right composition for the shot that much easier. Having a torch can also help you find focus by illuminating an object in the distance, something that you may find impossible without one. One with a red light is also very handy so you an still use it when you are behind the camera.
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DSLR with Manual Mode

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For beginners to professionals the correct camera is a must to get those amazing shots at night and unfortunately not just any camera will do. Just about any DSLR will be fine for taking night shots as long as you have the right lens then you’ll be fine. You just need to be able to have full control over your shutter, aperture and ISO. It’s also important to shoot in RAW mode and not jpeg to get the best results when it comes to editing later down the road.
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 Exposure and Composition

Milky Way, Busselton

Exposure
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Exposure can be the hardest one to master and it will take some trial and error to figure out just the right balance. There are a few things that can effect the exposure of your image and they are shutter speed, aperture and ISO. When taking photos at night you want the aperture to be as big as possible – a bigger aperture means more light is hitting the sensor. It can become a little confusing at times as a smaller f-stop number corresponds to a bigger hole. Just remember what your pupils look like when its really bright compared to really dark. In the bright day light a persons eyes can have a pinprick size pupil however, at night time, you’ll notice your pupils are huge and you almost can’t even tell what colour your eyes are. It’s the exact same for photography with an f2.8 corresponding to a big diluted pupil and a lens with an f2.8 is the minimum that you’d want and if you’re shooting during a full moon an f4 should do the trick.

ISO

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ISO speed is the sensitivity of light on your sensor. ISO is important because the higher the ISO number is the higher the noise or grain the image will have. The grain contributes to making the image look like a 50’s style photo, which is fine if that’s what you’re going for but in most cases you’ll want a nice, crisp image with little noise. To get the noise down we need to change the shutter speed and aperture. You have to adjust them to get them both to minimise the graininess of the image without over or under exposing the image. Because we’ve already chosen the smallest f-stop number we can get – f2.8 for example, the only thing to do now is to change the shutter speed to let in more light and lower the ISO value. So we play around with the shutter until we get a nice, properly exposed image without the high grain.
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The amount of ISO you need to use will come down to the camera that you have. For crop sensor camera’s or APS-C you’ll find that the ISO value will only be as low 800 or 1000 before you start to see some serious grain in your image. For full frame cameras, as they have a bigger sensor and let more light in, you’ll be able to crank the ISO way up to 5000 or more without noticing too much of a difference. This is especially true of the new camera’s that are coming out with huge ISO values up to the 400,000 mark.
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If you get stuck you can start off with my go to settings of 30 seconds shutter speed, f2.8 and ISO of 3200. I use these settings when it is pitch black outside so if there is some ambient light lower ISO to 2000 or lower and adjust the shutter speed to 20 or 25 seconds.

Composition

The composition of the image refers to how certain objects are placed in the image to get the desired result or feeling you are looking for. With night photography this refers to having a strong foreground subject contrasted against a bright and starry night sky. Whether it be a rock in the desert or a person in the mountains they are all good examples of having a good foreground against the night sky.
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The 2 photos above show how to correctly compose your image and draw in the attention of the viewer from the foreground to the background.
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Composing your image will usually begin before the stars come out to shine. Choosing the location for your night shoot usually involves a bit of research on where the milky way will be (more on this later) and how your subject will be placed in the photograph. Scouting missions can involve hiking into the wilderness to searching on google earth and finding geotagged photos from previous people. These photos can serve as a great tool for you to be able to plan your shoot and “see” it without actually going there first.
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There are apps you can use to track the milky way and they can tell you what time it will rise, where it will rise from and what time is best to capture it. Those perfectly aligned photos that you see don’t just happen by chance, they are meticulously planned out to the last detail and the photographer will be there all night attempting to capture that one amazing shot.
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If you want to know more about taking amazing photos of our night sky check out my ebook – How to Photograph the Night Sky. It features over 50 pages of relevant and up to date apps, location guides and much more.