Gizmodo Photo Guide: Tips For Shooting The Night Sky

Want to get outside and snap some amazing photographs of the night sky, of some stunning moonlit landscapes and time-lapse starlight trails? Here are six key tips you need to know.

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Get A Tripod

This is the big one. At night, there's less light for your camera to pick up and funnel down the lens and turn into little digital ones and zeros. And that means your camera has to boost the digital gain of its image sensor — creating unwanted noise — or slow down its shutter speed, potentially causing unwanted image blur, or open up its aperture — meaning less of the image is in sharp focus. The easy solution to that is to use a sturdy tripod for your camera, to hold it steady to capture light no matter how slow its shutter speed is and how long it has to take to capture any given photograph.

You can buy a huge variety of tripods — tall, short, heavy, light, carbon fibre, aluminium, plastic — but what's most important is that it holds your camera well and won't shake or topple at an inopportune moment. A heavy tripod can be an inconvenience if you're planning to take it travelling or if you like moving around a lot while taking your night-time photographs, but at the same time it's an easy solution to eliminate photo blur from shaking. Usually, the more expensive a tripod is, the better a job it will do — this is why exotic materials like carbon fibre are pricier, because they combine that prized duo of portable/light and stable enough to make your photos clean and clear of unwanted blur.

Set A Manual Shutter Speed

Setting your camera's shutter speed is just about the most important thing you can do for capturing a night-time photograph. The reason for this is that your camera — whether it's a compact or whether it's a more powerful mirrorless camera or digital SLR — will only go so far in its automatic settings, especially since those are optimised for handheld shooting. Whenever you're on a tripod, it's a great idea to switch to entirely manual camera settings, but at the very least a customised shutter speed will give you majority control over the images that your digital camera produces.

A manual shutter speed gives you control over a huge number of variables just by switching one knob or twiddling one dial. A slow shutter speed lets you blur motion — like the walking of pedestrians, the motion of cars or the waves in an ocean landscape at the beach — while a fast shutter speed will freeze things in place. Obviously the faster your camera's shutter is set, the less light it will let in, so you'll either need to be snapping a photo of a relatively bright scene or need to be carrying around a powerful flash to give your camera a bit of a leg up.

Lower Your ISO

Camera image sensors have one big caveat — the less light they have available to them, the more they struggle with picking up colour and brightness information from the outside world and converting it into a digital signal. You might have heard of a camera's ISO rating — think of it as the volume control but for an image sensor, with the caveat that the higher the volume goes, the more background noise and interference starts to appear. This appears as grain and purple-green dots on your image. For that reason, you want to keep your camera's ISO setting as low as possible to make images as clean and free of digital interference and noise as they can be.

If you switch your camera's ISO to a relatively low setting — that is, an ISO of around 400 or lower for most cameras, and generally as low as possible is advisable — then your night-time images will look clean of any digital noise and won't look like they were captured with a $10 smartphone camera. Of course, your camera's ISO directly affects the shutter speed and aperture of your camera, meaning the shutter will have to stay open longer to let in the same amount of light — and that's why if you're shooting at night, you really should invest in a high quality tripod and use it whenever you want to capture beautiful images of the night sky.

Choose A Custom White Balance

Cameras generally aren't the best at picking the correct white balance from a night-time scene, unfortunately, and especially if you're not already shooting in RAW mode then an incorrect white balance can ruin what would be an otherwise good night sky photograph, usually making it look far too blue or far too yellow. Setting a custom white balance in your camera's photography settings menu, or even pre-selecting one of the more moderate presets like a cloudy or a daylight mode, will make a huge — and easily noticeable — difference to the colours within your photos, and will also prevent differences between individual images in a series.

If you're shooting a scene that has artificial lighting. As our cities move towards LED lighting in public spaces this is becoming less of a problem, but if your images are coming out with an especially orange or yellow hue for artificial lights then setting your camera's white balance to an incandescent or tungsten white balance can be an instant solution to the problem. Try your camera's auto white balance setting first, of course, to see the results that it produces, but then don't be afraid to jump to a custom or forced preset white balance if you think that might solve the problems that your images are having.

Shoot In RAW

Shooting in RAW is the big one for shooting clear night-time photographs, since a RAW photo file contains a lot more behind-the-scenes camera and exposure and colour information than its ready-to-view JPEG equivalent. A RAW photo therefore has a lot more leeway for you to get a photo wrong and still produce a high quality image, or if you get the settings right a RAW photo can be adjusted to produce a more stunning photo than any in-camera JPEG can produce. If you plan to print your photos off and frame them or show them off for public viewing, the extra quality hidden away within a RAW is almost a mandatory prerequisite for night shooting.

As skilled as you might be at capturing a night-time photograph, even if you think you set the exposure correctly and used a low ISO and long shutter speed setting, capturing in RAW is still a good idea Most good cameras can also capture in RAW+JPEG to allow you to share a file straight after capturing while still maintaining a much higher quality file to adjust on your PC later on and tweak to your heart's content. This method does chew up storage space quickly though, so make sure you have an additional SD card handy or invest in a large capacity card early on.

Get A Wireless Shutter Release

Picking up a wireless shutter release means you can set your camera to fire remotely without touching it, and that removes one of the most annoying — and easily avoidable — causes of blur in night-time photographs. Combine a wireless shutter release with a tripod and the right settings in-camera, and you'll end up with photos that look just as good as pin-sharp day-time ones. A good wireless shutter release will also have a bulb setting, where you'll be able to hold the shutter open as long as you want to capture extra-long exposures, and the best can be rigged to fire multiple shots that you'll later be able to combine.

If you don't want to pick up a wireless shutter release or your camera isn't compatible, you can fire your camera's shutter remotely through another couple of methods. You might be able to hook your camera up to your smartphone over Wi-Fi, and use a companion app to change settings and start photographing without touching it or shaking the tripod around, for example. If nothing else, any half-decent camera should have a built-in timer that'll let you fire the shutter and then wait a couple of seconds before capturing a photo to reduce any unwanted camera shake and lens blur.


Comments

    You forgot a couple of things.

    - Try and get away from city lights. Google local "Dark Sites" in your area. In Sydney, Katoomba Airport is a good place to start.

    - With White Balance, try using 'Tungsten'. Most reflected light is from street lights and they usually throw light out around the 3200 to 3900K range

    - Use the "500" rule (or the more accurate "600" rule if you know the correct declination). Google 'Astrophotography 500 rule'.

    - Figure out how high an ISO setting you can use before the shot becomes 'noisy'. This is sometimes called the 'Unity Gain' of the camera. (Say, with a Nikon D7000 and a kit Nikon 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G Lens, this can usually be as high an ISO as 800).

    - Use as wide a lens as possible.

    - As counter-intuitive as it sounds, when taking photos of the moon; remember that it is reflected sunlight. You need to use similar settings as if you are shooting in broad daylight. Believe it or not, f8 to f16 is usually your best bet.

    - Turn off any anti-shake settings for the lens. Again, it might sound counter-intuitive but the slight movements of the lens stabilising motor can and will blur the shot.

    - and turn off auto focus. The last thing you want is for the camera to automatically try and focus the shot as soon as you press the shutter release on the remote and capture a blurry shot as it can't focus properly in darkness. Set your focus to infinity and back it off just a smidgen.

      good stuff. That last tip about focus set to infinity and then back off slightly, I've noticed that myself when taking photos of the moon once or twice, what is the reason behind needing to back off slightly (other than nothing in space is actually infinity km away, or is this the reason??)

      Another one to add here- a shutter speed longer than 30 seconds can results in stars beginning to trail, which looks pretty weird! Unless you're stacking them for effect, obviously.

      All very great points, I love doing this stuff.

      Also, if you have a Canon 6D, the respectable amount of ISO level is over 4,000, I think I put it at 5,200 without it looking terrible.

      Here is an example of what I did a while ago with these methods and a 6D: http://sbyrnes.deviantart.com/art/Infinite-470811728

      Haven't done photos for so long though, I miss it, I just don't have the time.

    What about lens selections?
    No picking a wide lens with a low f-stop?

      Generally, you are more concerned about the focal length over the f-stop as you are generally keeping the shutter open for extended periods of time. Yes, a lower f-stop does mean you collect more light but when you're dealing with shutter speeds between 10 to 40 seconds, your ISO and shutter speed take precedent.

      Remember, this information is just a good place to start and take very nice photos of stars. It's just intended starters guide. Not many people want to or are willing to spend money on a computer controlled motorized German-equatorial mount with stabilisation and a good apochromatic refractor telescope with a camera mount ESPECIALLY when something like this can run up to the $10,000 mark quite easily (and that's not a typo). :-/

      You ALWAYS want the fastest lens you can afford. The more light the lens lets in then the lower you can have your ISO.

      This is especially important if you aren't using a wide angle or ultra wide angle for 'nightscapes'. The longer the lens the less time the shutter can spend open before you get star trails; look at the 500/600 rule referenced above to see how focal length affects exposure time.

      You also want something that has minimal chromatic abberation and coma.

    Might want to think about locking your mirror for the DSLR as the movement in the mirror can potentially blur the image.

    Mostly good advice.

    One disagreement is with a wireless shutter release. There are some cheapish aftermarket versions available, but wireless is generally more expensive than wired. And there's no real advantage. The goal is simply to not be holding the camera body at any point. An even cheaper trick is to just set a timer release.

    The best tip is get away from light pollution. Even on apparently clear nights, there's enough particulates in the air to reflect back street lights etc up to 100 or more kms away. Yes, there are ways to reduce how much of this the sensor picks up (e.g. get a selective gate filter) or fiddle in post accepting you'll lose stars of that colour and the image will look artificially "blue".

    Viz lens choice, my preference is to use a fast lens (f/2 or less). It's by no means essential as exposure time can compensate. But longer exposures (certainly anything beyond a minute) will start to result in star trails especially with wide-angle frames.

      Yep, i just use a timer.. any kind of shutter release is just another piece of gear to pack & setup.

    1. DSLR's are not obsolete.
    2. Use the highest ISO in terms of acceptable quality.
    3. Don't worry about choosing a white balance if you are shooting in raw, you can change it later.
    4. You don't need a remote shutter release, just put it on a 2sec timer.
    5. Look at other websites not trying to sell you stuff if you want to learn properly.

    I've only done a very limited amount of astro photography but I did read some interesting stuff about Magic Lantern firmware hack for Canon cameras and some cool features in relation to making astro time lapse videos, stuff like auto adjusting exposure/bulb ramping during scenes that span from night until dawn.

    A camera can still shake when the shutter is opened, especially if the tripod is a cheap lightweight. To compensate:
    1. Hold dark object over lens (lens cover is good)
    2. Open shutter, WAIT a few secs for vibrations to finish
    3. Move cover away, start your countdown...
    4. At desired time, move the cover back over the lens
    5. Close the shutter.

    Sorry it doesn't suit the Alpha theme but some Olympus cameras feature "live composite" which only adds anything that is brighter than previous through the duration as opposed to the usual bulb mode where the effect is accumulative across the entire frame so you risk overexposing the brighter parts. And you see it as it happens on the rear screen.

    I'm sure it doesn't suit every situation and "rah, rah, rah not a full frame" but damned if it isn't easier than heading out to the sticks or stacking a crapload and doesn't look completely amateurish.

    How about the best apps on android for taking night shots with your phone that would be great

    what are the difference of this type of camera and a GoPro like GoPro HERO 4 Silver? which is more detailed and clear?

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