A Primer For Shooting The Night Sky

On a clear dark night, far from artificial light, billions of stars dot the sky. These celestial bodies can be so magnificent, the human eye strains to absorb the composite of their tableau. Capturing such a beautiful display with a camera can be both rewarding and fun, and surprisingly, is easier than you may think.

This post is written with a DSLR in mind, but provided you have a point-and-shoot with manual mode, you should have no problem getting similar results.

Recommended Equipment:
1. Camera (Duh!)
2. Lens (The wider the better, but any focal length will do. I use an 11-16mm)
3 Shutter Release Cable
4. Tripod
5. Time to experiment

Begin by finding an area with minimal light pollution to get the most detail from the sky. But don’t worry; you can get some pretty cool results provided the artificial light isn’t too overpowering. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different locations.

Once you have your camera on your tripod, and your shutter release plugged in, it’s time to start playing. I like to start with my lens as wide open as possible to capture as much light as I can from the night sky. The widest aperture you have available will vary depending on your lens. I shoot with a Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8, so I am able to open my aperture up to 2.8, effectively lowering the amount of time the shutter needs to remain open. If your lens only
opens up to say f/4.0, that is okay. You can compensate by bumping up the ISO a few stops or just keeping the shutter open longer.

I suggest starting with manual mode on your camera at 30 seconds with your widest available aperture. Once you see what kind of results a 30-second exposure yields, mix it up and see what you get. Using your camera’s bulb mode and your shutter release cable, you will be able to keep your shutter open as long as you like. On a dark night at f/2.8 and ISO 320, I can get pretty good results at just under one minute of exposure time. Keep in mind however that
exposure time will vary depending on what aperture setting you are using, and also don’t forget, that the once you get into extended exposure times, the stars may beging “drag” across the frame creating star trails, which can be a cool effect as well, but that is a whole other post.

As a rule of thumb I try and keep my ISO under 1000, but with today’s camera sensors, and the ability to mitigate noise in post-production, it is ok to pump up your ISO. So don’t be afraid to experiment with high ISO. Just don’t forget to turn it back down when you’re done.

Once you get a nice healthy set of shots, it’s time to bring them into your favorite photo editor and clean them up. You shouldn’t need to do too much work in post – a little noise reduction here, a little exposure or temperature adjustment there. Especially if there is ambient light in the shot, adjusting the color temp can yield some cool results.

As always, if you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment and I will do my very best to help you out.


f2.8 – 11mm – ISO320 – 52 Seconds – Canon 60D


f2.8 – 11mm – ISO640 – 30 Seconds – Canon 60D

f2.8 – 12mm – ISO640 – 30 Seconds


By | 2017-12-16T19:34:23+00:00 June 28th, 2012|Effective Pixels|1 Comment

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One Comment

  1. Dan @ ShareThisAdventure June 29, 2012 at 3:00 am - Reply

    totally awesome post! just what i have been looking for forever. simple and straight forward for a newbie like me. gonna give it a try this weekend, thanks again!

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