Taking pictures of stars in the night sky is easier than you might think.
It just requires a little bit of planning, and the right equipment with the right settings, and you can take amazing images of starry skies and even the Milky Way.
Below we cover what gear you need, how to plan your shot, what settings to use, how to focus, what post-processing you might want to do, and other useful tips to help you take the best star photos.
What Equipment Do You Need for Star Photography?
For best results with night sky photography, you are going to want to have:
- DSLR camera (or similar interchangeable-lens mirrorless camera)
- Wide-angle lens
- Sturdy tripod.
This doesn’t have to be the top-of-the-line brand new equipment, but having the right gear as laid out below will make it much easier to capture amazing night sky photos.
Where possible, we’ve recommended the cheapest equipment that can deliver (see also our article on Astrophotography on a Budget if you want to dig deeper).
Camera – Full-Frame DSLR
You are going to want to be using a DSLR or similar Mirrorless camera, ideally with a full-frame sensor (rather than a crop sensor).
The reasons for this are:
- With interchangeable lens DSLR/mirrorless cameras you can attach the most suitable lens for star photography to it (as opposed to point-and-shoot cameras or bridge cameras, where the lens is built in and fixed);
- With these cameras you can use them in manual mode. This gives you the flexibility you need over the settings. You won’t be able to shoot the stars in auto mode; and
- Full-frame sensor cameras are better in low-light conditions and capture a wider expanse of the sky when you are shooting (as opposed to crop sensor cameras, that literally crop what is captured to make it smaller).
In our article on the Best Camera for Astrophotography, we recommend the best overall and best value full-frame cameras.
However, if you already own a DSLR – even an entry-level model with a crop sensor – there is nothing to stop you from using that. You can definitely take great photos of stars with these cameras – it’ll just be a little harder. That’s what that the best cameras do with night sky photography – make it easier, not make the impossible possible.
Lens – Short focal length, fast aperture
You are going to want to use a wide-angle lens. This is indicated by a low focal length in millimeters, for example, 14mm.
This might seem counterintuitive since you are photographing objects that are very far away and think a long focal length will allow you to zoom in more, but a short focal length allows you to capture a wider expanse of the night sky.
You will be imaging stars that are faint and a long way away by using long exposures (more on this below in Settings) and a telephoto lens will only narrow your image so you would capture a much smaller view of the sky.
In our article on the Best Lenses for Astrophotography, we examined data from hundreds of award-winning night sky images and found that 14mm lenses are best. However, you can certainly have a go with any lens up to 35mm, or even 50mm, provided it has a fast aperture.
This is the second characteristic of a good lens for star photography – a fast aperture indicated by a low f-number.
So a 14mm lens, with f/2.8 aperture is great, f/1.8 is better.
There are some good options for lenses in this range – see the Best 14mm Lenses.
The kit lens that comes packaged with most entry-level DSLRs is 18-55mm, which is plenty wide enough and can be used for night sky photography, but it will not usually have a fast enough aperture and might hold you back. But, again, it’s not impossible, just harder.
Lots of photographers have 35mm or 50mm prime lenses in their arsenal because they are great all-round lenses. These are usually pretty fast and better to use than the kit lens, even if they have a narrower focal length.
If you’ve got both, try both and see how each turns out. You’ll learn a lot about focal length vs aperture for star photography in the process.
Tripod – Steady & sturdy
You will need a good sturdy tripod that will stay completely still whilst shooting. This is because you are going to be taking long exposures and your images will be ruined if the tripod shakes at all in the wind or from the vibrations of footsteps.
You can see here the Best Tripods for Astrophotography but you don’t necessarily need the best of the best, just not the worst.
A flimsy, budget tripod will hold you back, but you can easily pick up models that are good enough for $50-60.
Star Tracker – Optional, but great
This is an optional bit of kit that you might want to add if you get really into night sky photography.
It is essentially a small drive that sits between your tripod and camera and moves your camera at the speed and direction of the rotation of the Earth so it stays focused on the stars.
This is because when we shoot the stars with long shutter speeds they will effectively move in the sky – giving us star trails – and therefore lose their sharpness in the image.
If you are interested, see our guide to the Best Star Trackers. They cost from $160 for the cheapest, to over $500 for the best.
The reason this is optional is that there are ways to calculate how long we want to keep the shutter open before we get any star trails. Read more on this below in the Settings section.
There are also techniques (like stacking) if you’re are not getting enough from a single image using these settings. Read more on this below in the Processing section.
You might not need this as many cameras have them inbuilt, but if yours does not then you will probably want to get hold of one.
These are effectively remote controls for your camera that allow you to program it to shoot a certain number of times with your chosen settings.
They also allow you to shoot the image without pressing the shutter button on your camera and so removing that source of camera shake (although you can also bypass this by setting a shutter release delay timer on your camera).
They are not expensive though and are usually easier to navigate than your camera’s menus so well worth the investment – see here the Best Intervalometers.
Other Night Sky Photography Equipment
A few other bits of kit you might need include:
- A red headlamp – since you are going to be going out in the dark you will something to help you see. However, regular white or yellow light from torches ruins your night vision so you are best with red light, which does not. Having it as a headlamp also means you have your hands free.
- A spare battery of your camera – you don’t want to run out of juice when you’ve got up in the middle of the night to shoot the stars
- Camera memory card – again, check you’ve got the essentials packed so you don’t waste your planning
- Light pollution filter – a bit more advanced, but these can be used to improve images taken from light-polluted locations. This is not essential and you can one to add to your setup later if you’re keen on taking this further.
Planning How to Take Pictures of Stars
The most important element of getting night sky photography right is the planning.
It’s not as fun as getting a new bit of gear, but the greatest camera in the world will lose to a lesser one if the conditions aren’t right.
You need to consider:
- Moon phase
- Light pollution
- Composition and location
Let’s look at each of these in turn.
The Weather & Night Sky Photography
You want clear skies free from clouds.
There are some great apps to help you plan this. See the Best Apps for Astrophotography for a full list, but a great one I use is Clear Outside.
Using the app here I can see that in Boulder, Colorado tonight it’ll be fairly cloudy in the evening but early in the morning the skies should be clear:
It also gives you other great information about the phase of the moon, the time of sunrise and sundown, the temperature, and the chance of rain.
The Moon Phase & Photographing the Stars
You want the moon to be as small as possible, ideally a New Moon, when it is completely invisible in the sky.
This is because the moon is a source of light and to get the best shots of stars you want the sky to be as dark as possible.
Therefore, you want to try to aim for as close to a New Moon as possible.
You can see in the screenshot above that it’ll be at 17% on 5 July 2021 and swiping forward we can see that this will get smaller each day until 9 July when there will be a New Moon at 0%:
In fact, on this day above the conditions look perfect for shooting the night sky!
Light Pollution & Star Photography
You are much more likely to get great pictures of stars if you are shooting from a location with low light pollution.
For the most part, this means away from city centers where there are lots of street lights and buildings.
We want to avoid this because – like with the presence of the moon – we need dark skies to allow the stars to shine through more easily.
You can check a light pollution map to check how it looks where you are or to scope out other possible sites.
Composition & Location for our Starry Sky Photo
As well as finding somewhere with as little light pollution as possible, we also want somewhere where we can take a great shot that incorporates some of the features of the landscape.
For example, in the shot below the stars are captured above the treeline:
You can use Google Earth for this for quick planning. The PhotoPils app is also great and allows you to scope out locations in the daytime and use augmented reality (AR) to see how they will look at night.
This then leads to timing and knowing what will be in the sky that night.
Timing Star Photography
There are two main things to consider with timing:
- When the sky will be at its darkest
- If and when the Milky Way be visible and possibly other objects like the planets
On the first point, the skies will be darkest a period after the sun has gone down.
In the screenshot above in the Moon Phase section, you can see that the Clear Outside app shows that on 9 July the sun will go down at 20:31 but then the sky will not be full dark until 22:30. It is at this time you will have the best chance of seeing and photographing the stars.
On the second point, you may just want to capture a starry sky but you can also try and capture the core of the Milky Way galaxy, like in this picture:
You can see our here guide to Photographing the Milky Way, it requires an extra level of planning and it is only able to be captured for a few months of the year.
As a quick guide, the best tool for seeing if it will be visible for you on any night is the Stellarium app (see Best Astrophotography Apps).
Using it here we can see that on 9 July 2021 in Boulder, Colorado at around 1 am the Milky Way will be visible when facing south:
This is an important element of planning our composition – does your shooting spot enable you to face south to capture this?
In addition, this tool tells us that we may be able to capture both Saturn and Jupiter within the shot (they will appear as bright stars, but it’ll be cool to know that they are part of your image).
Night Sky Photography Settings (DSLR & Mirrorless Cameras)
Now that we’ve got our gear together and we’re at our planned location where we know the conditions are going to be right it’s time to take our picture.
This is where we get our settings right as none of the preset modes are going to work for us.
Manual Mode & Manual Focus for Star Photography
The first thing you are going to want to do is to have your camera in Manual (or Bulb) mode.
The images below are for a Nikon DSLR (the D750) but should be similar for most DSLR or Mirrorless cameras:
And also, have it set to manual focus for the lens:
ISO for Night Sky Photography
ISO governs your camera’s sensitivity to light. Generally, we use low ISO in the daytime and with good light sources, and high ISO in low light.
However, higher ISO settings degrade the quality of the image and lead to what is known as ‘noise’ in the picture (a short of graininess that you can see when looking closely).
Essentially, you need to find the balance with your camera between having high enough ISO to capture the stars, but low enough that we retain quality in the image.
This will vary between cameras with some retaining great image quality at high ISOs but others less so.
It therefore requires a bit of experimentation with your own setup and the best way to do this is to take an image and see how it looks before adjusting.
Try it at low (200), mid (800), and high (1600+).
One thing to note is that the image at low ISO might not look as good on your camera screen but might look better when you get it back on your computer and apply some editing or if you are planning to stack multiple images (more on this below).
Another thing that is worth doing when trying to capture the Milky Way is to take an initial shot at a high ISO so you can see how it looks from a composition point of view in the camera. You can then shift the composition if needed and adjust down the ISO to take a better quality image.
Exposure Time / Shutter Speed for Capturing Stars
Working out your exposure time is a key element. You want to keep the shutter open for as long as possible to capture as much light and give you the best chance of photographing the stars, but, as noted earlier, this is limited by the stars moving in the sky as we shoot (or, more accurately, the Earth we are standing on rotating).
All this is assuming you are not using a star tracker, which bypasses the need for this.
There are a couple of rules that give us guidance on calculating this one is the 500 rule and the other is the NPF rule.
The 500 Rule is: 500 divided by the focal length of your lens equals your exposure time in seconds.
So, with a 14mm lens that would be 500/14=35.7, or 36 seconds.
However, this tends to overestimate the time and most prefer to use the NPF Rule.
This is a more complicated equation that takes into account the megapixels of individual cameras, but there is a free online calculator here from the people that devised the calculation.
The app Photopils can also work it out for you too when you enter your camera and lens information.
Here, using Photopils, you can see for a Nikon D750 and 14mm lens the NPF rule says we should have our exposure time of 18 seconds (rather than the 36 seconds suggested by the 500 rule):
Aperture / Fstop for Photographing Stars
You want your aperture to be as wide (fast) as possible as this gives it the best capacity to capture the low light.
So with an f/2.8 lens, this should be f/2.8.
The only caveat with this rule is that some lenses tend to perform better when they slightly below the widest setting and so you might find you get better results when choosing one step narrower. But to start with, just keep it simple and make it as wide as it goes.
Image Format for Night Sky Photography – JPEG & RAW
Within your camera’s menu you can choose whether your camera saves the photos in JPEG or RAW format. The key things to know are:
- JPEG means that your camera has done some processing itself within the camera and so you are likely to get a better looking image at first glance.
- RAW means it is the unprocessed data in an image, and so it may not look as good on the camera screen but it retains the potential for you to edit it and make it look better.
Therefore shooting with RAW is recommended, since with night sky photography we can usually substantially improve the images with post-processing (see below). This might seem daunting at first, but is generally a matter of playing around with your chosen software and seeing what makes it look better and learning as you go along.
One thing you can do is choose to have your camera save in both JPEG and RAW. That way you can see if the JPEG version processed in the camera looks good enough for you – for example, it might be good enough to share on Instagram where it is generally going to be very small as the flaws might only show up if blown up really big. You can then delete the RAW files if needed, or play around with them in post-processing.
The only other small factor to consider is that RAW files are usually very big since they retain so much data and so will fill up your memory card quickly if you have too many.
Use Daylight or Auto for your White Balance setting.
This can also be tweaked in post-processing if shooting with RAW.
How to Focus for Night Sky Photography
Now that we have our settings right, it’s time to set up our image.
Getting the focus right is essential to capturing our image with pinpoint stars. You cannot fix unfocussed night sky images in post-processing in the way you can other factors.
The best way to do this is if your camera has a live view screen. What you do is:
- Get your gear set up with tripod etc and the settings as laid out above.
- Put your lens to infinity.
- Zoom into a bright star on the live screen and tweak the focusing until the star is as small and sharp as it can be.
This should then be focused perfectly. Just make sure that you don’t move the focus on the lens even a tiny bit now, some lock it in with tape.
If you don’t have a live view screen on your camera there are a few other ways of focussing including using a far-off object in the daytime to focus on and then locking it in until dark.
Here is a good video from Ayln Wallace to give an overview of the options:
How to Take Your Photo of the Stars
Now we are focussed and the stars are pinpoint sharp and have got to our location and composed our image we are ready to shoot.
As noted earlier, we don’t want to press the shutter release button with our hand as this will result in the camera moving slightly and ruining our image.
One easy way to avoid this is to use a shutter release delay so that once you press the button it counts down from 3 or 10 seconds before shooting. This can usually be done with your camera’s internal settings but also with an external remote shutter release or intervalometer.
This will give you one shot, which may or may not be enough.
The other option is to program your camera to take multiple shots of the same composition with the intention of stacking them later. Again, this can often be done within the camera:
Or it can be done with an external intervalometer.
Either way, what you want to do is program it to take multiple shots using your settings calculated earlier (ideally with the NPF Rule).
You can specify the number of shots and the interval between each shot. The interval is important as it takes your camera a few seconds after a shot to deal with the internal processing.
Therefore a good example program would be 8 shots of 20 seconds each with a 10-second delay between each shot.
You then set it to start shooting on a delay from your pressing the shutter release button or at a certain time (say, one minute in the future).
If this has all gone well then you will end up with a set of images that might not look like much on your camera screen but they enable us to stack them and produce something really great later.
Star Photography Post-Processing & Software
Now that we have our set of images, we can take them home and see if we can make them even better with editing.
Processing Starry Skies
Basic processing can be done in software like Adobe Lightroom or Affinity Photo, or even free online tools like Pixlr.
We won’t cover this in too much detail here, but you can play around with the settings and see what works for you.
Stacking Night Sky Photos
Aside from basic editing, we can use our group of images and stack them. This means using software to place them on top of each other to bring out the stars. Doing this enables us to keep our ISO low when shooting and so we shouldn’t have too much noise in our images.
This can be done in paid-for software like Photoshop or Affinity Photo, but there are also free tools like Sequator.
It’s best to follow an online guide when doing this the first time, but essentially you upload all the images and it stacks them for you into one.
You can then take this image to your chosen post-processing software like Lightroom and apply any tweaking necessary to make the photo even better.
Over to you – How to take Photos of Stars?
Whilst it’s not a simple process if you follow the steps in this guide and do a little bit of planning you should be well on your way to producing stunning night sky images.
For more guides and case studies of some great star photography, see our Astrophotography hub.
If you have any comments or questions, please leave them below.