5 steps to better night photography

posted in: How to, Tips

You’ve probably noticed the proliferation of night photography across all media channels, especially Facebook and Instagram. A new batch of camera sensors with excellent low-light capabilities have made night photography popular among amateurs and professionals alike. Night photography was very hard to do just a few years ago, but now that technology has progressed, all that has changed.

Looking upwards through treetops toward a nighttime sky of stars. (Seth K Hughes)

Taking photos of our galaxy literally opens up a whole new universe of captivating imagery. It still requires a fair amount of skill and willingness to stumble around in the dark. It’s easy to get caught up in the technical stuff and loose sight of artistic vision. Remember, there’s never going to be a fancy camera or Photoshop filter to create an amazing photo for you. All the usual principles of composition, depth and lighting still apply to night sky photography. A starry sky simply adds a deeper level of beauty and mystique to what should already be an interesting scene and composition.

There’s an array of in-depth blog posts and tutorials online that describe the technical process of star photography. I’ve included some of those links at the bottom of this page. My goal here is not reiterate all the how-to information, but rather condense it all into the most important points to remember. These are my 5 steps to better star photography.


1.) Artistic vision and storytelling

This is my number one recommendation. It is very important to maintain your artistic vision throughout the process. Don’t loose sight of it while juggling the technical aspects. ISO speeds and focal lengths are obviously very important. You can nail the focus, exposure and star trail duration, but if those skills aren’t serving an overarching story or artistic vision, your images will suffer.

Do this:

Brainstorm some topics or themes that can be incorporated to tell a story. i.e. travel=road, adventure=tent, exploration=person with flashlight.

[Photo by Michael Shainblum]

A telescope in the foreground looking up at the Milky Way galaxy in a star-filled night sky. (Seth K Hughes)

2.) Compose an interesting location

I know, it’s supposed to be star photography right? That’s correct, but we’re still stuck on Earth and the best star photos from here are the ones that juxtapose our planet and the cosmos. Preferably with an interesting composition. See the essentials of composition here.  Our high-sensitivity camera sensors can see much more than the human eye in the darkness. So you’ll need to dial up the ISO and fire off some test shots in order to zero in on your final composition.

Do this:

Go camping or find somewhere away from bright city lights and scan for interesting structures or natural features. Think about how they would look with the Milky Way or star trails stretching directly overhead. Also, keep step #1 in mind.

[Photo by Seth K. Hughes]


3.) Pre-planning

Ideally before you arrive on the scene, you should already have a good idea of what the sky and Milky Way are going to be doing (see the Sky Guide and Dark Sky app for that). Also, during the day if you can plan out your landscape and foreground composition you’ll be way ahead of the game. Everything gets more challenging in the dark. Yes, serendipity is a possibility but chances are you won’t just stumble into an extraordinary photo op. Even in Death Valley or Arches National Park.

Do this:

Download and familiarize yourself with a few night sky apps (my two favorites are listed above). Where’s the nearest dark sky? Where will the Milky Way be at different times tonight? What’s the phase of the moon? Determine your present relationship with the night sky.

[Photo courtesy of Fifth Star Labs]


4.) Time

Give yourself plenty of time. You’ll need a lot of it for commuting to your location, walking around in the dark,  fumbling with gear and camera settings, fine-tuning your composition, experimenting, and for the actual exposures themselves. If you plan to do some light painting, budget for that extra time as well.

The time of night that you’re out is also crucial. If you don't want a bright full moon glaring in your shot, or if you want to position the Milky Way over a certain landmark, or if you hope to catch a comet or eclipse, these events need to be timed appropriately. Ample time and the right time are critical.

Do this:

Go out and practice. Give yourself an evening with no other distractions or early morning commitments and just go play around with exposures. You’ll get a good idea of how much time you’ll need for future shoots. Plus practice makes perfect!

[Photo by Douglas Vincent]


5.) Lighting

Without light you have no photo. It’s that simple. The better you understand the language of light the better your photographs will be. That’s a fundamental law, but in regards to star photography this means you must be aware of things such as; your proximity to light pollution, the brightness of the ambient light (moon phase), the illumination of passing cars, the affect of your headlamp on the foreground (light painting) and the ratio of ambient light to artificial light. Oh, and don’t forget to check your histogram to be sure your image is exposed properly.

Do this:

When you’re out shooting, concentrate on one aspect of light at a time. First nail down your night sky exposure as the baseline. Then start experimenting by adding other light sources to enhance the scene. i.e. frame in a street light, use a soft white screen on your smartphone to fill in the shadows of a foreground element, position a flash off to the side of a rock to give it dimension and detail.

[Photo by Scott Jarvie]

Lastly, have fun! But beware. Star photography can become addictive once you get the hang of it. It opens up a whole new realm of photography that until recently was inaccessible. If you think I missed something please feel free to comment and share your personal tips below.




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