A Beginner's Guide to Astrophotography: 5 Tips to Get You Shooting Stellar Images of the Night Sky

New Zealand, 2019. All photos © Jess Santos

(Editor's Note: Jess Santos is an outdoor photographer and a member of Datacolor's Friends with Vision.)

I have always held a deep fascination with the cosmos. As a child, I would look up at the stars and gaze in sheer wonder. Our ancient ancestors used the stars to guide their journeys and told stories of celestial beings hiding amongst the deep blue of the night sky, nestled between thousands of twinkling lights. So naturally, when I first began in photography, astrophotography was high on my list to learn.

It was a learning process full of fumbles and adjustments of technique before I was able to venture out into the wilderness under a sky full of stars and confidently photograph our galaxy. In this article I will share with you a few tips and tricks to get you started in astrophotography or even to push your night images to the next level, through the follies of my own learning experience.

Joshua Tree, 2019

#1 Dark Is Not Always Dark
The very first step is to find dark skies, but what does this mean? Isn’t the night full of dark skies? The short answer is no.

If you live in a large city or even the suburbs, you may have noticed how very few stars are actually visible, this is due to light pollution mostly from streetlights, housing lights and the like. This means that you will have to venture away from the city to find dark skies, free of light pollution. To find these areas, I suggest a quick Google search for dark sites in your area; the more populated area you live in the further out you will have to travel.

The moon also plays a key role in lighting up the night. If you are photographing during a full moon or even a half moon, stars will appear washed out by its light.

I often joke that I live and plan by the phases of the moon. When planning a shoot on a trip my first check is the moon phase calendar.

You will want to photograph the stars during the new moon phase if at all possible; this is when the moon is in shadow and therefore no longer drowns out the light of the stars.

If this is not possible, verify the rise and set times of the moon, and align these with the times that the Milky Way is visible. This can be done using a phone app or a Google search.

Joshua Tree, 2019

#2 Choosing the Right Equipment
There are a few key pieces of gear that will set you up for success during your night shoot. Your camera should have the ability to change lenses; often cameras that have a fixed lens lack the necessary aperture.

A wide fast lens is ideal. This means choosing a lens that is at least 24mm or wider and has an aperture of f/2.8 or lower. The night sky is a large place and we want to be able to get as much of the scene in as possible.

Choosing a wide-angle lens allows us to compose with enough room for an intriguing foreground and brilliant Milky Way. The night is dark, so we need to let as much light into our sensors as possible. Using a fast lens capable of reaching f/2.8 or lower is key to success in this area.

Aside from your camera and lens, you will need a sturdy tripod. To bring as much light to the camera sensor as possible, we will be using longer shutter speeds and our hands simply won’t cut it. The sturdiness of the tripod becomes very important if conditions during your shoot prove to be less than ideal, like high winds, ocean tides or river currents, all of which will move the camera ever so slightly when using a subpar tripod.

Here are some other handy tools that will make your life easier but aren’t a necessity:

• A headlamp for when your phone flashlight just won’t cut it. This allows you to keep your hands free while adjusting settings, camera angles or just plain hiking around in the dark.

• A remote trigger, which will help keep your hands off the shutter and your camera free of shake.

• Some sort of lighting to illuminate your foreground subject, if this is the look you want for your final image.

Utah, 2020

#3 Telling a Story through Composition
Now that you’ve determined when and where you will photograph the night sky, it’s time to start thinking about how you will frame up your scene. Composition is in my opinion the most important element of a photograph, whether you photograph during the day or at night.

Stumbling around in the dark in an unfamiliar place is obviously not ideal, and therefore you will want to scout your location during the day first. This is the stage in your process where you will start putting together your final image in your mind’s eye.

Walk around your location, check where the Milky Way will rise and set, and how you can have it intertwine with your foreground to tell a story. I recommend taking your time in this step; the best Milky Way images are those that convey some sort of message, whether it be about your experience or about the location.

This can be achieved in a variety of compositional options, my favorite being leading lines. I often choose my compositions in a way that the foreground leads you into the Milky Way. This creates a dialogue between the two elements that tells a story through their interaction.

Utah, 2018

#4 A Settings Balancing Act
Photographing at night is a very different process than photography in the day. There are a variety of problems that need to be addressed and resolved through camera settings. Due to the lack of light we have to determine how we can let as much light as possible into the sensor, without introducing bucket loads of noise.

The first step is your aperture. You will need the lowest aperture possible to let in the most light, so for our purposes a setting of f/2.8 or lower is necessary.

Next we move on to shutter speed, which will be determined by your focal length. Since the earth is rotating, the stars in your photos will appear as dashes instead of pinpoints if your shutter speed is too long. This is known as star trailing.

The longer the focal length, the shorter your shutter speed will have to be. To determine your shutter speed, I recommend starting with a speed of 15 seconds and shortening it until there is no more trailing in your stars. You can also use an app (such as Photo Pills) to determine this.

You’ve now determined your aperture and shutter speed, so let’s move onto ISO - this is where it gets tricky! We want to keep our ISO as low as possible, resulting in a low noise image.

However, photographing in dark conditions forces us to pump up the ISO. For single images, I recommend starting with an ISO of 3200. This should yield a bright image with a relatively low noise factor.

The second option (and this is the method I use and prefer) is to photograph at an extremely high ISO allowing your camera to pick up as much light, detail and color from the Milky Way as possible, starting with 10,000 - 12,800 ISO. This will result in an extremely grainy image.

To reduce the noise, shoot 20 images consecutively with the same settings. Using a program like Starry Landscape Stacker, you can merge (called “stacking”) these shots to remove the noise gained from the high ISO. This results in the best of both worlds - a night sky image full of light, detail and color, and free of noise.

New Zealand, 2019

#5 Color and Workflow is the Key to the Digital Darkroom
The color of your original Raw images can vary widely depending on the original white balance used - auto white balance is not your friend. All the time I hear, “Can’t I just change the white balance in post?” Well, yes, you can in fact adjust white balance in post. However, as with all our other settings we want to get as much right on camera as possible, and this includes the white balance.

Naturally the night has tones of blue, and thus we want to start with a cool white balance. Choosing the same white balance every time is the first step to creating a continuity throughout your night images.

The handling of color and white balance in the digital darkroom can be a delicate process and ensuring that your monitor is routinely calibrated is more often the most important factor in maintaining the uniformity we worked so hard to create through the shooting process.

Of course, we don’t want all our images to look the same. However, we do want to create an easily recognizable style, as I often do with the pink and purple tones in my images. I do this by regularly calibrating my monitor using Datacolor’s SpyderX, choosing the same white balance for all of my astrophotography images and a strict workflow during the editing process.

Workflow, workflow, workflow. By creating a routine to edit your images, you are creating a style, unique to you.

Yes, this may be formed by inspiration from others or tricks you’ve picked up here and there, but it becomes a set of constant actions that are done to every single image you edit, regardless of location variables. Once these core actions are performed, begin to play with the finishing touches defined by the image you are editing.

This may include additional color changes using HSL sliders or painting in light through dodge and burn because the scene was lacking that extra pop. Whatever the case may be, I cannot stress enough how important an editing workflow is to defining your voice as an artist.


To view more of Jess’s photography, check out her Instagram page: https://www.instagram.com/MissJessBess/