Astrophotography Guide: How to shoot night photography, star photos, Milky Way, and more!

I remember when I started with my night photography ambitions. I had zero idea how to photograph the Milky Way, so I printed out someone’s blog and brought it with me to shoot astrophotography.

Now, six or seven years later, it’s pretty wild that I’m writing my own guide based on my numerous experiences shooting photos under the night sky.

I genuinely hope this helps you get into night photography and learn more about space and our vast unknown. Truly, some of the most memorable moments of my life have come in the pitch black, with the Milky Way glowing above me, visible to the naked eye.

Wind River Range, Wyoming - Star Trails
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Master the Night: Beginners Guide to Night Photography

Throughout this article, you’ll learn everything you need about astrophotography, night photography, shooting the Milky Way, and so much more!

What to Bring for Night Photography

Camera

This is always the hardest part to discuss. If money weren’t an object, I’d say go get the best camera. But that’s not possible. And most reading this are likely beginners, so you probably don’t want to invest much money in your camera.

I totally understand. My first camera was used, but I lucked out: It worked for five years and never failed me.

Professional Tier I Recommend:

Mid-Tier I Recommend:

If you’re starting out, I recommend getting a used camera, but make sure it’s a full frame. With many people moving to mirrorless, you can find some fantastic deals on used lenses that are still top-notch.

Wind River Range, Wyoming - Milky Way
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Night Photography Lenses

You’ll ideally want a lens with an f/stop of 2.8 or smaller to get the best Milky Way and astrophotography shots. This will allow you to bring in enough light without boosting your ISO extremely high. (Though newer mirrorless cameras can handle it better now.) (PS: I added prime lenses in a lower section.)

Professional Wide Angle Lenses:

Budget Friendly Lenses:

Tripod

You’ll want a sturdy tripod that can withstand a little wind, if any. However, I do not recommend a big, bulky, and heavy one if you’re hiking out to our location. From experience, this is not a fun time!

Tripods I recommend:

Remote Shutter (or delayed shutter)

With a remote shutter device on your camera, you can take pictures without physically touching the camera. This helps decrease the shake and blur that your camera deals with.

You can also turn on your 2-second delay setting. When you do hit your shutter button, the camera will have enough time to stop any movement it had when you touched it, allowing you to create a beautiful image.

You could theoretically use both options simultaneously, but I think it is a bit redundant. I do the two-second timer, and it works great.

Lastly, newer cameras offer another option: setting the camera to take a certain number of photos in a row. This means you don’t have to hit the shutter after the first time, making your life much easier.

A photo of the milky way from inside one of the caves. It's nearly vertical in the night sky.
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Headlamp/Phone Light

In order to reach your dark sky destination, you’ll need a light to get you out there. While you probably only need your phone to help you once you’ve picked out a spot to do your night photography, you’ll want a good headlamp to guide you.

Even if you’re only walking a quarter of a mile, I’d recommend a legit headlamp so you don’t get lost or trip.

Warm Clothes

Even in the Arizona desert, summer nights shooting night photography can get chilly. So bring a warm jacket and sweatpants (always be comfy) so the late nights don’t chase you away!

Food and Water

When you head out to shoot star photos and do astrophotography, make sure to bring snacks and stay hydrated. This will not only help you enjoy your time more, but it will also help you stay alert. I would also suggest bringing some coffee to help keep you awake as the hours get later and later.

Music

Sometimes, it’s nice to be quiet and enjoy the solitude. Other times, the darkness can be a little eerie, and it’s nice to have music or a podcast to listen to while shooting the stars. However you like to do your night photography, do it. (Unless others are around, then be courteous.)

How to find the darkest skies

When shooting the Milky Way or any night photography, you want the darkest sky possible. This helps the stars be seen at their brightest potential, making your images even more impressive.

For Milky Way photography, there are a few ways to venture out and get away from urban light pollution.

The first is to use logic and drive away from the city and into the wild. If you’re driving at night, you’ll be able to reach places far darker than you’d have at your house. For example, even going 30 minutes outside Phoenix still has plenty of light pollution.

Compare that to heading out into the deserts of Death Valley National Park, though. Here, you canky Way with your naked eye. There’s zero percent chance you’d get to witness near a major metro area.

Secondly, there are websites that can tell you where not only your dark skies are located but also the darkest of skies. These two sites, HERE and HERE, are great resources for truly finding the best places to shoot night photography.

Alice Lake Sawtooth Mountains Idaho Backpacking Milky Way Photography Hiking
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

The Basics of Night Photography

The Rule of 500

The Rule of 500 is a widely used guideline in night photography, particularly useful for capturing clear images of the night sky without the appearance of star trails. This rule is centered around the calculation of the maximum shutter speed to use based on the lens’s focal length.

The basic formula is to divide 500 by the focal length of the lens you are using. For example, with a 50mm lens, the calculation would be 500 divided by 50, resulting in a maximum exposure time of 10 seconds.

This rule, however, requires some adjustments based on the type of camera sensor. For full-frame cameras, you can apply the rule directly. In contrast, crop sensor cameras, which have a multiplying effect on the focal length, necessitate adjusting the focal length to its full-frame equivalent before applying the rule. For instance, a 50mm lens on a 1.5x crop sensor camera would effectively be a 75mm lens, and thus the maximum exposure time would be around 6.7 seconds.

It’s important to note that the Rule of 500 is more of a guideline than a strict rule. Factors like the choice of lens, particularly wide-angle lenses, can allow for longer exposure times since star movement is less noticeable with wider lenses. Also, due to shorter exposure times, especially with longer lenses, you might need to increase the ISO setting to capture enough light.

The effectiveness of the Rule of 500 can vary depending on your geographical location. Near the poles, the Earth’s rotation has a more pronounced effect on star movement, making the rule less effective. Additionally, the rule doesn’t account for factors like light pollution and atmospheric conditions, which can significantly impact night sky photography.

Photographers may also consider alternative rules like the Rule of 600, which is similar but allows for slightly longer exposures, or the more complex NPF Rule, which provides a more precise calculation by considering factors like pixel pitch and the declination of stars.

In practice, especially with digital cameras, the best approach is often to start with the Rule of 500 as a baseline and then adjust the settings based on the results of test shots. If star trails appear in your photos, it’s a sign to reduce the exposure time.

The rule provides a starting point, but experimentation and adaptation to the specific conditions and equipment are key to achieving the best results in night sky photography.

What Are My Camera Settings for Night Photography

Your camera settings are slightly dependent on your lens. If you have a wider lens, you can use a longer shutter speed without having star trails. But the settings below will be a good place to start, and we’ll go from there.

Many people have a 20mm- 24mm lens. Due to this, the following camera settings will be a starting point. After that, I recommend experimenting and seeing what happens when you change your settings.

Lastly, you are going to need to set your camera to manual. Some begin by shooting on auto, which lets the camera decide the settings. With night photography and astrophotography, however, you’ll have to control each yourself.

Shutter Speed: 15-20 seconds
ISO: 3,200
Aperture: As low as you can go (for some, f/2.8, or f/1.8 if you have high-end gear… for others, f/3.5 or f/4)

Switch to Manual Focus

Once you get to your spot, you’ll want to switch your camera to manual focus. In the extra low light of night photography, 99% of cameras cannot autofocus. Once you’ve switched to manual, look around you or up into the night sky.

Find the brightest object you can. Zoom in on it.

From here, take your focus ring and find the clearest focus you can. It’s a little hard to explain over text, but you’ll notice at the sharpest clarity, the star has four points of light coming out of it.

At this point, this is now your focus setting for Milky Way photography. Do not touch it, or you’ll have to redo it later.

(PS: You might have to redo it once you start taking photos and realize that it’s completely in focus. This is okay. There’s a slight learning curve at the beginning, with some trial and error.)

Iceland Northern Lights MilkyWay
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Night Photography Tips

Below are a few astrophotography tips to land the best star photos.

Wide Angle is the Best

For your night photography, you’ll want to use your widest lens. This will allow you to capture more of the night sky and the foreground. Plus, you’ll be able to have longer exposures without having star trails.

My first lens was a 24-70 f/2.8, which allowed me to capture some great images. After a year, I added a 16-28 f/2.8 Tokina lens, which was great for astrophotography. Years later, I have a 16-35 f/2.8 from Canon, a fantastic lens that offers momentous Milky Way opportunities.

Find the lowest aperture lens you can afford

A lower aperture (f-stop) allows you to open up your camera lens and let in more light without adjusting the shutter speed or ISO. A lower f-stop can be the difference between needing your ISO to be 6000 or 4000. A lower ISO will help make your image less grainy in this scenario.

Now, lower f-stop lenses are more expensive. But you get better results for your Milky Way photography.

Additionally, you can look for prime lenses. These have one focal length but offer incredibly sharp images.

The following would be epic prime lenses for night photography:

Most of these run around $1,100.

Milky Way Grand Teton National Park Photography
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Darkest sky possible

Ideally, heading out into the darkest skies possible will make your experience 100 times better. The easiest answer is to simply drive away from the nearest metro areas and find yourself.

Here are some of my top spots:

Find good foreground compositions

While the Milky Way is great, having a rock-solid foreground to position under the night sky can bring your image to life. This can be rocks, cacti, a mountain, a lake, or anything you believe looks cool. Whatever you choose is up to you, but the more unique the foreground, the more captivating the image.

Shoot Star Trails Intentionally

I haven’t touched on star trails much, but they can be a great way to shoot night photography. You’ll need to keep your camera shutter open longer than the 30 seconds yours likely maxes out on.

Using a remote shutter is an easy way to do this. Another way is to take multiple images at 30-second exposures and merge them. Doing this will connect the star trails, making them more exquisite.

Quick tips:

Because you’re having your shutter open longer, you will be letting in A LOT of light. Because of this, you can keep your ISO much lower than when you shoot the Milky Way.

It’ll take some testing, but I recommend using your remote shutter for a 2-minute exposure and setting your ISO around 500.

Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Milky Way Photography

Shooting the Milky Way is one of my favorite activities. It makes you feel tiny, and seeing the magic of space above fills you with emotion.

For us in the United States, the Milky Way photography season, when the Core is above the horizon, is from March through October (give or take). This is when we get the best view with the most magic. I personally use the PhotoPills app to plan how I want to photograph the Milky Way.

It will appear “flatter” across the sky earlier in the season, while it will present in a more “vertical” format later in the year.

Processing Your Milky Way and Star Photos

Stack you photos

One way to improve your photos without editing them first is to stack them. This means taking a series of photos, let’s say 10 in this case, and layering them on top of each other in post-processing.

Each image might be somewhat grainy (higher ISO, for one reason), but when you stack ten photos together, you decrease the noise (graininess) and are able to pull out more information.

Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

You cannot do this in Lightroom but can in Adobe Photoshop. Additionally, you can stack your night photography images in any of the following applications. This website provides a good outline of each.

  • Sequator (I use it.)
  • DeepSkyStacker, aka DSS (I have used it.)
  • PixInsight
  • Adobe Photoshop (Use it.)
  • Starry Landscape Stacker

One thing to note is that since I upgraded from my Canon Mark 3 to a Canon R5, the file styles changed. I went from a CR2 file to a CR3. In doing so, Sequator and DSS could not read my images correctly and created some really funky images.

To get around this, I had to import them all into Lightroom and then export all of the images as DNG files in order to stack them in Sequator. Hopefully, something will be updated so that I won’t have to do this tedious roundabout way.

Camera Settings to Stack Your Photos

If you plan to stack your photos, you can get away with doing shorter, longer exposures because you knwo you’ll make up the difference later. Additionally, shorter photos will mean the star photos will be sharper and have no trails.

I recommend doing 10 10-second exposures. Once you stack them, you’ll have a 100-second exposure, which is almost two minutes. From here, you might think you need a super-high ISO, but I would still keep it around 3,200 – maybe even 2,500.

Once you stack them, you’ll be blown away by how much detail can be pulled out.

Milky Way Grand Teton National Park Photography
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Lightroom

Once you’ve stacked your night photography shots, you can import them into Lightroom. You can begin the editing process from here, which we’ll dive into below. If you prefer to edit in Photoshop, you can do that too!

How to edit your night photography pictures

Usually, I’m a big fan of Adobe’s AI “auto” button to speed through my editing process with daytime photos. However, the “auto” button doesn’t work for night photography and photographing the Milky Way.

If you’re simply edition star photos, say the Big Dipper, life is a bit easier than if you’re editing a Milky Way image.

Trial and error with your Milky Way Photos

First off, you’re going to be tinkering a lot at first. There’s not a rigid path to follow (with all art creation), and everyone does their Milky Way edits a little bit differently. Here are the major areas that I would focus on, but I recommend checking out some videos, too.

  • De-warm your temperature dial (maybe -3)
  • Increase your contrast to around 10
  • Bring up your highlights a smidge
  • Vibrance around 20 and saturation around 4
  • Dehaze around 10
  • Clarity and xxx mess around with. I usually make my negative to add a little blur, but it can also look cool if you go positive 15-20 for striking stars.
  • Go to your individual colors and increase the saturation for blue, red, and yellow to around 5-10

Next, I add a radial filter around the Milky Way. This will help emphasize the best part of the night sky. However, these will only be minor edits, as you still want the night sky to look natural.

  • Just add a little exposure, highlights, and shadows (think 0.2 for exposure and +2 for highlights/shadows)
  • Increase saturation and vibrance

If you want to take it a step further, get your brush out. Go over the most colorful parts of the Milky Way to bring out the color and make it more vibrant.

Milky Way Grand Teton National Park Photography

Deep Space Astrophotography

Deep Space photography is not my best work, as it takes a lot of practice, time, and effort, and the use of a sky tracker. (Which I own and sadly have not used enough of.) Deep space photography is photographing planets, nebulas, solar systems, and anything else that is way out there.

Many people don’t have the equipment or time to get into deep-space photography. The biggest barrier to entry is getting a sky tracker. This is a system on which you mount your camera, and it moves with the Earth’s rotation.

This enables a longer exposure time, but you don’t get star trails because your camera moves with Earth. Instead, you get clear images of whatever faraway object you want to photograph.

From here, you’ll take dozens or hundreds of images of the same photo, and then you’ll stack them. Photographers like Bray Falls or Derek Culver create truly mind-blowing photos that used to be reserved for NASA or other planetary telescopes.

If you’re interested in this extremely cool type of night photography, I’d suggest following them and reading more about it!

Garibaldi Lake Milky Way
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Final Thoughts on Night Photography

Mastering the art of night photography can open up a whole new world of creative possibilities.

Photographers can capture stunning images that showcase the beauty and mystery of the nocturnal world by understanding the essential techniques and equipment needed and exploring different settings and subjects.

While it may require patience, practice, and a willingness to experiment, the rewards are truly worth it. So grab your camera, venture out into the night, and let your creativity shine through in every shot.

With this comprehensive night photography and Milky Way guide at your disposal, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a skilled night photographer.

Until next time, adventurers, stay safe out there.


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