Night-Sky and Star Photography: Tips for Beginners

How to capture jaw-dropping photos of the stars

My absolute favorite photography subject is the night sky. As a more “conventional” professional photographer, I am often busy shooting pictures of people at weddings, photos of apartments, and images of models – but it’s important to me that I regularly take photos for fun, and that’s where my love for night sky and star photography comes into play.

Photographing the stars is, for me, highly rewarding, soul-filling, and oh-so-enjoyable! Capturing that sense of wonder that literally everyone feels (and has felt for millennia) while looking up at the night sky is deeply meaningful. I can certainly understand why you might want to do the same, so in this article, I’m going to share the methods I use to shoot the night sky. I’ll discuss my recommended camera settings, my favorite equipment, how I like to edit my star photos, and more.

Ready to capture some epic star shots of your own? Let’s dive right in!

What you need to take jaw-dropping star photos

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Captured using a 30 second shutter speed at f/2.8 and ISO 1250.

Photographers often think that capturing amazing night-sky photos requires a ton of expensive gear. In my view, that’s not the case.

Instead, to take great star pictures, you only need three things:

  1. A full-frame camera. This is because full-frame sensors offer better high-ISO capabilities, and night-sky photography involves shooting at high ISOs to achieve reasonably fast shutter speeds. However, if you have an APS-C camera that can shoot at ISO 1600 and especially ISO 3200 without a whole lot of noise, feel free to use it!
  2. A fisheye lens. This is so you can capture the widest possible view of the sky. Fisheye lenses do introduce optical distortion, but I personally feel this makes the resulting images even more jaw-dropping. If you prefer to shoot without this added distortion, or if you don’t want to invest in a fisheye lens, an ultra-wide angle lens can also do the trick!
  3. A tripod. A sturdy tripod is non-negotiable for serious star photography; you’ll be capturing long-exposure images that last 15-30 seconds, and if you can’t keep your camera absolutely still, your photos will turn out very, very blurry.
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Shot with a 25 second shutter speed at f/2.8 and ISO 1600.

The ideal camera settings for photographing the night sky

I’ve found that it’s possible to get a good image of the stars almost every time with these settings: a 25-second shutter speed, an f/2.8 aperture, and an ISO of 1600.

If your lens’s maximum aperture is f/4 – rather than f/2.8 – then you can try shooting at f/4 with an ISO of 1600 and a 30-second exposure.

If you look at my images throughout this article, you’ll note that I’ve generally adhered pretty closely to these settings (though I’ve made minor modifications here and there based on the specific scene!).

The key is to keep the ISO at its lowest while preventing the shutter speed from going beyond 30 seconds or so. The wider your lens’s maximum aperture, the easier it is to achieve a usable image with minimal noise and a sufficiently fast shutter speed.

(Why are these settings so important for star photography? That’s what I discuss in the next section!)

Note: Capturing night-sky photos that show lots of stars doesn’t really work when there’s a full moon (or even a half moon). When you try to compete with large light sources – such as the moon, or streetlights, or electric lighting on the tops of buildings – the stars will be overpowered, and they won’t be especially visible in the final image. That’s why the best location for star photography is way out in nature, away from city lights that cause light pollution.

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Captured at f/2.8, with a shutter speed of 13 seconds and an ISO of 1600.

Why are these settings important?

The most fundamental component of my recommended star photography settings is the 25-second exposure. Since you’ll be shooting in darkness, you need a long shutter speed to prevent underexposure. However, if you use a shutter speed that’s longer than about 25 seconds, the stars will begin to blur, and you’ll begin to see star trails. (Note that photographing star trails is a legitimate type of photography, but it’s not the type of photography we’re trying to achieve here!)

Since you are limited to a shutter speed of about 15-25 seconds, you can’t use a narrow aperture and a low ISO. You need to let in plenty of light to compensate for the pitch-black conditions.

Therefore, you’ll need to use your lens’s widest aperture. Even with an f/2.8 maximum aperture, your photo might not be quite bright enough to look stunning, and that’s where a high ISO comes into play.

You’ll need to bump up that ISO, and I’ve found that on full-frame DSLRs, I can bump the ISO up to around 2000 without seeing much noise. On full-frame mirrorless cameras, you can go even higher; if you use a camera like the Canon EOS R5 or the Sony a7R V, for instance, you can get away with ISOs of 3200 and beyond without too much noise.

This is where you may want to consider capturing some test shots at different ISOs with your camera, then see what you think. Different cameras offer very different results, so it pays to understand the type of high-ISO images you can expect. (You don’t have to try this while photographing the stars. However, the more realistic the scenario, the more easily you’ll be able to understand how your files will look when you do a “serious” night-sky photoshoot.)

Plus, everyone disagrees about what level of noise is “acceptable,” so this will give you a chance to determine what looks good to you, rather than working purely off of my advice.

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How to edit your star photos

I do extensive retouching in Lightroom after I take my night-sky images. I encourage you to do the same, though you don’t have to use Lightroom; any RAW editor (e.g., Capture One, ON1 Photo RAW, ACDSee Photo Studio, Skylum Luminar NEO) will offer similar capabilities.

I’ll generally check whether I have plenty of detail in the sky, and possibly in the foreground, depending on the type of image I’m trying to create. If needed, I’ll boost the exposure to bring out the details more fully. (If you nailed the exposure in-camera, this shouldn’t be necessary!)

I’ll then apply noise reduction to reduce unwanted noise (those pesky pixels that show up when you push the ISO too high).

I’ll also make a variety of other adjustments. Here is a standard star photo of mine after editing:

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Shot at f/2.8, 25 seconds at ISO 1600.

And here are the Lightroom settings I used to edit the image:

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My basic tonal, color, and Clarity edits in Lightroom.
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My sharpening and noise reduction settings in Lightroom.

Some notes on my edits:

You can see in the first panel that I bumped the whites up to +46 and brought the blacks down to -52. I wanted to emphasize the stars against the dark sky, and I’ve found a whites boost combined with a blacks reduction to be a very effective way to achieve that result. Pushing the clarity up to +55 also helped define the stars against the sky, making them nice and crispy. And I boosted the saturation to bring out the blue colors in the sky.

In the second panel, you can see that I sharpened the image a bit; this was to further emphasize the stars. At the same time, I boosted the Luminance slider to 33 to smooth out some of the noise, and I brought up the Color slider to 25 for the same reason.

A few more tips for great night-sky and star photography

Once you understand the star photography basics, you can have fun with more advanced techniques!

I encourage you to enjoy the editing process and play around with different tools. For instance, if you experiment with color wheel and color grading sliders, you can make the colors in your sky appear magical! In my example photo, you can see a little bit of turquoise in the lower part of the sky, and that comes from adding that color to the image shadows using Lightroom’s Shadow color-grading option.

You can also affect the color of the sky by playing around with the white balance settings (i.e., the Temperature and Hue sliders in Lightroom). This can create some pretty magnificent star photos. Take a look at this one photo that I edited three different ways, using only the white balance sliders in Lightroom:

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Adjusting the temperature and tint of your night-sky photos can make a huge difference! Have fun with these color edits, and see what you can create.

Another pro tip – which I used in all of the photo examples that I shared – is to shoot your stars in context. In other words, don’t just capture the night sky surrounded by the photographic frame. If you can include the silhouette or a pine tree or a house in the background, it really tells a great story. Also, including an object in the foreground to compare to the stars shows the magnitude of the scene.

Finally, make sure you know where the Milky Way actually is relative to your position. You can use an app like The Photographer’s Ephemeris or PhotoPills to determine what stars are in the sky above you, where they’re located, and where they’ll be throughout the night (and at different times of the year!).

Go capture some amazing star shots!

I hope my tips and recommendations have been helpful to you! Like I said, I love capturing the night sky, and I really don’t think you need tons of fancy gear to get good results. If you use the basic equipment that I mentioned above, and you follow my settings and editing process, you’ll be well on your way to amazing photos.

Have fun shooting, and please share your pictures below!

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