Ever wondered how to take night sky photos – also commonly known as ‘astrophotography’? You’ve come to the right place! I’ve been practicing dark room and digital photography over the past 18 years and decided I wanted to explore a new (space) frontier. I’ve been fascinated by gorgeous photos of the Milky Way and figured I may as well give it a shot (pun slightly intended, ha!). Here are tips for how to take night sky photos – astrophotography 101!
First thing’s first – you need the right equipment. While it is possible to take some photos at night or of the stars with an iPhone, you really do need a special astrophotography lens to capture stars in great detail. Since I am just starting out, I wanted an astrophotography lens that wouldn’t break the bank. After TONS of research (a few good YouTube videos I found are here, here and here) I decided on the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 lens, which looks like a giant fisheye lens. You read that as 14 millimeter focal length and 2.8 aperture; the lower the focal length number, the wider the angle (aka the more sky and stars you’ll get in the frame). As far as the aperture goes, you really need something at f/4 or lower so that enough light can be let in to capture the stars. The last choice you need to make is between manual focus (MF) and autofocus (AF). Since I have a Sony a7riii I had to opt for a MF (manual focus) lens because the autofocus capabilities are incompatible with the Sony operating system. Be sure to double check that the lens will work with whatever camera (and especially the model) you have!!! You can usually find this in the reviews/comments or do a Google search to verify.
Pro tip: you may get confused between the Rokinon and the Samyang – the two are essentially interchangeable – same manufacturer. Rokinon is within the US, Samyang is outside. There have been some reports in different forums with some issues with the quality of the lenses, but I ordered mine through Adorama and didn’t have any issues.
Whichever lens you choose, you’ll need some other basic equipment to make use of it when it comes to best practices for how to take night sky photos.
Other Must-Have Astrophotography Equipment
- A tripod: because night photography shots are usually SUPER long (like at least 10 seconds or more) you cannot afford to have any motion otherwise it will blur your photos.
- A headlamp: trust me, you’re going to want to have your hands free and messing around with lenses and remotes and whatnot in the dark is HARD.
- A remote shutter: ditto for the tripod, you want equipment that will reduce the amount of touching you need to do with your camera, so a remote shutter will definitely come in handy for all your shutter-pressing needs.
- A gallon ziplock bag: if you’re shooting at night, often times it can be really cold (esp if you’re shooting in the winter) and you don’t want your camera to come to room temperature too quickly otherwise you can get condensation on the inside (no bueno). So you should put your camera in it while still outside so it can warm up more slowly.
How to Take Night Sky Photos – Planning Your Shots
The biggest issues with shooting astrophotography are typically light pollution from cities, obscurity by the moon and visibility. Luckily there are some key tools I use to plan around these issues.
- How to deal with light pollution: here is a map I use to check out different areas to look for the darkest spots near wherever I am. You can also visit the International Dark Sky Association for more information on official dark sky parks, dark sky designations and other information.
- How to deal with obscurity from the moon: I’ve been trying out different shooting situations and if there is one thing I’ve learned, you really can’t get any shots of the stars with light from the moon – especially in the winter because of the bright reflections. That doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t get any shots if the moon isn’t new (aka not there) – you can still shoot before the moon rises. But you’ll need to know when the moon is full, new and when it rises and sets. I really like the Weather Underground app for this.
- How to deal with visibility: clear skies make the best photos – clouds can really do a number on your view of the stars. Astrophotography takes a LOT of patience – not only when traveling to your spots and while shooting, but also while waiting for good conditions. I really like this website to keep an eye on cloud visibility (or precipitation) – you can get pretty granular by latitude and longitude to find where you’d like to shoot or check out the map view.
- How to take night sky photos and plan them beforehand: The other cool thing I’ve realized is that you can actually plan what your shots will look like by using a planning app like PhotoPills. It will allow you to overlay the stars on your actual surroundings using AR and then understand what time you need to get out there to get the shot the way you want it. I’ve used it to plan shots in Silverthorne, Colorado against the mountains!
Some of the Best Places to Take Astrophotography Shots
While some locations are obviously more ideal than others, you might be surprised to find that yes, you can find great places to take astrophotography shots without camping in the middle of nowhere. And even some in the Midwest! Here are a couple of go-tos below:
- Door County, Wisconsin: yes – Door County has its very own International Dark Sky Park! Check out our guide on things to do in Door County Wisconsin for more info.
- The Galena Territory: the owner of a brand new International Dark Sky Association designation – Galena is only about a 3 hour drive from Chicago.
- Boulder, Colorado: more specifically (or broadly, actually) tons of places in Colorado – the further you get into the mountains away from Denver, the better off you’ll be! Check out this guide on Boulder Colorado things to do for more info on visiting.
- Moab, Utah: HOLY MILKY WAY, BATMAN. Head to Arches National Park (which is open 24 hours) for some super cool backdrops to frame your astrophotography shots.
When it comes to figuring out how to take night sky photos of the stars, a little planning can go a long way. Be patient, keep an eye on the weather, check out the moon phases, don’t forget your tripod, remote shutter and head lamp, and have fun! Got questions? Feel free to DM me on Instagram here!