This will be an easy to follow beginners guide to photographing the night sky. Nothing super complicated and with a few fun techniques thrown in.
First off, the settings I mention in this guide are only suggestions for starting points, your settings will depend entirely on your circumstances but I will get into that later. Beware, once you get a hang of this you’ll never want to stop.
My first tip is that you download an app that lets you identify the things you see in the night sky. My favourite one is Stellarium, can be used both on your phone and on a computer. It will help you identify constellations, nebulae, clusters, galaxies, planets and even satellites you see floating by. Knowing what you’re looking at and capturing in your photos makes the whole experience so much more exciting!
So, what do we need in terms of equipment?
You’ll need a camera with the option to use manual settings, a lens which gathers lots of light and a tripod or any surface where your camera will lay perfectly still for several seconds.
What do I mean when I say ‘a lens which gathers lots of light?’ You need to choose a lens with a low f-stop (like f/1.2 up to f/2.8 but up to 4 will also work reasonably well.) That will be a lens with a large aperture.
Low number = large aperture = lets in lots of light.
High number = small aperture = lets in a smaller amount of light.
Most Smartphones these days will have the option to use manual settings and you can definitely get pictures of the night sky with a phone!
We have our camera, lens and tripod and are ready to go! Now comes the hard part, finding a dark sky. They are few and far between these days with the amount of light pollution in and around our cities. The amazing photos you see of a bright Milky Way are taken in properly dark locations so if you can, try to get as far away from light pollution as possible.
When it comes to the aurora, it shines much brighter than the Milky Way and can be seen right in town in places like my home town , Kiruna, Sweden.If you can’t get to a properly dark location then have a go where you can.
Set your camera in manual mode.
Focusing will be the trickiest part and can make or absolutely ruin a picture.
You’ll want the stars to look like tiny pinpoints of light, to achieve this there are a few techniques to try.
If the moon is up you can use auto focus, just point your camera at the moon and focus, then switch it over to manual focus and don’t touch it again. Check the image on the camera’s screen, zoom in and make sure the moon is actually in focus.
If you don’t have a bright light source far away to automatically focus on (like the moon or a street light far away) you’ll have to do it manually.
Switch over to manual focus and turn it to the infinity symbol and then just a tiny bit back again, take a test shot and check if the stars are in focus. If not, try again until you get it!
Then make sure you don’t touch the lens again and accidentally bump it out of focus.
I’m lucky enough to live where dark skies are all around, even here in town it’s possible to get the Milky Way visible in a photo. These settings will be suggestions on where to start and then you adjust from there. The best way to learn, I find, is to just try and fail many, many times.
Try setting your ISO to 800, aperture to the lowest possible number for your lens or phone, and the exposure length to 10 seconds.
Hopefully you’ll see a whole bunch of stars in your photo!
If you’re in a very dark location, turn your ISO even higher and do longer exposures.
Your digital noise (the grain you see in photos) will increase with a higher ISO number, this varies quite a bit between different cameras.
If you’re in a town or another bright location you might need to dial it down a bit instead.
There are light pollution filters you can get but I haven’t tried any myself so I won’t go into how well they work.
So that’s a starting point and hopefully you got an idea of how it works.
When it comes to the aurora, all rules are thrown out the window! The aurora is constantly moving and changing. It’s changing in shape, color and most importantly – brightness.
The starting point I mentioned is a good place to start with the aurora as well but you will have to adjust.
If the aurora is very bright you can lower the exposure time quite a bit, all the way down to below 1 second in some cases. On the other hand, when it’s very weak and barely even visible to the eye you’ll want to do a longer exposure.
If it’s moving rapidly you might want to capture the shapes, the spikes and twists and turns. To do this you’ll need to lower the exposure time to freeze the movement and maybe instead turn the ISO higher depending on how bright or weak the aurora is. It also depends on what type of photo you want to get, maybe you don’t want to freeze the movements but you want a smooth, green sky instead, then you do a longer exposure and again, depending on how bright the aurora is you adjust your ISO accordingly.
I will insert a few photos here and write down the settings I used to give you an idea.
The Milky Way shot in Holmajärvi here in Kiruna, Sweden. I shot this with a Sony a7s and a Samyang 20mm f/1.8 lens. Settings: ISO 3200, f/1.8, 25 seconds.
This is a location with barely any light pollution at all, on this night the Milky Way was the first thing that caught my eye when I stepped out of the car. On a moonless night like that, at a dark location, you’ll need to push your settings, high ISO and long exposures! One thing to think about is the focal length of your lens, preferably choose a wide angle, 12-20mm or so. The more zoom you have the shorter your exposures will have to be or you’ll start seeing startrails because of the rotation of the earth.
Compare that first picture of the Milky Way with this one. They were taken at the same time of the year but this one was shot at ISO 800, f/2.8, 30 seconds and the major difference is that this one was shot right on the edge of town so much more light pollution in the way. You can still see the Milky Way with the naked eye but just barely. Location really makes all the difference!
I shot this with a Nikon D800 and a Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 lens at 14mm. Settings: ISO 400, f/2.8, 4 seconds.
When it comes to the aurora it is much easier to see despite light pollution but you will always get a better experience if you get away from all the lights. I shot this panorama right behind my house in town, it was a very bright display so it was an amazing show despite all the city lights.
As you can see, my settings here are very different from the ones I suggested as a starting point before. Because this was shot right here in town, the foreground is already illuminated by the lights from my street right behind me, the sky is illuminated by light pollution from the town, hence the purple glow and small amount of visible stars. The aurora was incredibly bright and active though so still very easy to photograph. If I had done a longer exposure with a higher ISO the highlights in the aurora would have been blown out and just appeared white, as you can see on the left where the town centre is located.
I shot this with a Nikon D800 and a Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 lens at 15mm. Settings: ISO 640, f/2.8, 25 seconds.
Here I’ve done a much longer exposure because the aurora was much, much weaker. The foreground also allows for much longer exposures in this location, my absolute favourite, Nikkaluokta. There is next to no light pollution whatsoever, no people or noise. Just you and a blanket of stars. The bright area on the right is not from any type of city lights it’s simply due to the time of year this was shot. The very last night of August and the very start of our dark period after a summer of midnight sun.
Shot with a Nikon D800 and a Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 lens at 14mm. Settings: ISO 1250, f/2.8, 0,5 seconds.
This is an example of an extremely short exposure, half a second. This was an incredibly bright display with coronas appearing one after the other, moving rapidly. I really wanted to capture the shapes created in the corona so I did several super short exposures. This amazing corkscrew formation only appeared like this in one 0,5 second frame and then it had turned into something else. As you can see I bumped up the ISO to compensate for the short exposure time. Once it clicks (heh) this will all just come naturally to you, the relationship between the ISO, aperture (f number) and exposure time.
Try using manual settings during the daytime as well and it will all make sense pretty quickly!
Yes, it can be done with most modern smartphones. You won’t get anywhere near the quality of a DSLR but you can definitely get decent photos for posting online for example. I have to admit that I’ve never made a serious attempt at getting a good astrophoto with my phone, I only use it to take quick snapshots to post on twitter as a ‘hey! There’s aurora right now!’ and then I grab my camera. But those snapshots make it clear that it definitely is possible.
You’ll need some type of tripod or stand for your phone to keep it absolutely still during the exposure. Open your camera app and set it to Pro mode (that’s what it’s called on a Huawei P20 Pro, might be called something else on yours) where you can use manual settings. There are also several apps you can download that let you do long exposures on a phone. I won’t say anything about them because I haven’t tried them but that can definitely be an option.
Once you’re in there, it’s really the same as working with any other camera. Try the settings I mentioned before and adjust as needed and see what you get! You will want to set it on timer to avoid any shake when you press the shutter.
This is one of those snapshots taken from my balcony. I didn’t use any type of stand so it’s not at all sharp, it’s by all means a horrible photo but it does show you that you can indeed capture the stars and aurora with a phone. Just don’t do it this way, do as I say, not as I do mmkay? If you use a tripod and frame your image properly you’ll get something way better than this. 🙂 I have seen pictures of the Milky Way taken with a phone so that can also be done but again, it won’t be the level of detail or quality as with a proper camera.
Here’s a fun technique as promised.
This is not a Photoshop job, this effect was achieved in camera and is incredibly easy. I simply did a long exposure of the Milky Way, 30 seconds, once the exposure started I waited a couple of seconds and then, while the shutter was open, I slowly and very carefully turned the lens to zoom in. You can see that there is a bit of camera shake even though I was extremely careful. A few more tries might have done the trick but I only did the one.
Shot with a Nikon D800 and a Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 lens starting at 14mm and zooming all the way in to 24. Settings: ISO 1000, f/2.8, 30 seconds.
Another way to get a more interesting photo is to create panoramas. With editing software like Adobe Camera RAW or Lightroom it’s super simple.
You simply turn your camera on its side and shoot in portrait orientation, still on a tripod. When you rotate the camera to take your next panel of the panorama, make sure you overlap at least 40% of the previous frame. Make absolutely sure you keep your camera level for all exposures or the whole panorama will be tilted or the software might not even know how to stitch your panels together. Keep going until you’ve got the width you want. If you use Lightroom you just check all the frames you want in the pano, right click and select ‘photo merge’, ‘panorama’ and boom, you’re done.
I always do lens correction before merging to get rid of any vignettes in the original frames.
Shot with a Nikon D800 and a Nikkor 14-24mm at 14mm. Settings: each panel shot at ISO 2500, f/2.8, 30 seconds.
I always shoot in RAW format and I suggest you do too, if you don’t know how to develop/process RAW files yet you’ll be happy you have them once you’ve learned. You can usually choose to save both a RAW copy and a jpeg, if you don’t know how to handle the RAW’s, make sure you select that option.
As you’ve seen in this post, the settings will depend entirely on the circumstances of the night and location you’re in. This is why I always say no when people ask me to always write down my settings every time I post a picture. It just wouldn’t be very helpful to anyone. Everyone is free to ask though and I will always happily answer.
I hope you found some of this helpful!