It’s tough to know where to start with night sky photography. Our astrophotography for beginners guide is here to make things a little easier for you, and to demystify the process of shooting the stars. While astrophotography, as a hobby, can require both financial investment and plenty of patience, the results are often spectacular, and you can achieve great star photos with any camera (and even some smartphones). Also, once you know the basic techniques, there are so many ways to get creative with your astro images.
This astrophotography beginners guide aims to cover the following topics: the camera and lenses you need to get the best photos possible; the right way to plan an astro shoot; the astrophotography settings you’ll need to use when you’re on location; and our tips for getting the most out of your photos, from creative shoots to smarter editing in Lightroom and Photoshop.
We also have guides to more specific types of night sky photography, which we cover in depth via separate articles. There’s one on how to photograph the Milky Way, another on how to get photos of the moon, and another on how to shoot the aurora (if you’re lucky enough to see it).
While it can be time-consuming, the best advice we can give astrophotography beginners is to just do some research, have a go, and learn from your mistakes each time. Pretty soon you’ll have some spectacular night sky images to show your friends.
Camera bodies and lenses
Ideally, you’ll be using a DSLR or mirrorless camera in Manual mode. We always recommend manual focusing when shooting astro too, as most sensors – even in low light AF – simply won’t be able to focus on the night sky. Full frame cameras will perform the best in low light situations as they have a larger sensor and will therefore capture more light. However, modern crop-sensor cameras are very capable for astrophotography and are a more affordable option than full frame cameras.
As a rough guide, full frame cameras can cost upwards of $1000 and will likely set you back between $2000-3000 for a good mirrorless or DSLR with the ability to take sharp images at higher ISO settings. More on that later. Crop-sensor or APS-C cameras are usually $400 upwards, and are more than capable of capturing the night sky.
A wide or super-wide angle ‘fast’ lens in the 12-35mm range is best suited to landscape photography and astrophotography. Wide-angle focal lengths allow you to capture a good portion of the night sky as well as some of the landscape for foreground interest. A ‘fast’ lens is one that has a large maximum aperture – in other words, a small f-stop number. A lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or lower is considered to be a fast lens and is excellent for astrophotography.
A lens like the Rokinon (Samyang) 14mm f/2.8 is a great lens to get started with, and is very affordable. If you’re ready to spend a little more, the Sigma f/1.4 14mm ART lens is superb. If you don’t have a fast lens just yet, you can still use the kit lens that came with your camera. Just make sure you operate at the maximum available aperture size (typically around f/4 on stock kit lenses).
Additional equipment for astro
Astrophotography involves taking long exposures, so a sturdy tripod is one of the most important items of equipment. If your camera moves at any point during a long exposure, your image will not be sharp, or worse, blurry. Camera movement from the wind will quickly ruin an image so a solid base for your camera is a must. Something like the Manfrotto BeFree is a good place to start, as it’s relatively light and sturdy.
Keep your hands free to operate your camera by using a headlamp at night and, if possible, use the red light mode (if it has one) to preserve your night vision. A headlamp is also helpful for ‘light painting’ objects in the foreground of your images.
Remote Shutter Release (recommended)
This will allow you to trigger your shutter while minimizing the risk of introducing vibrations. If you don’t have a remote shutter release, use the timer delay on your camera to ensure there is no movement of the camera during an exposure.
If you’re shooting star trails, and need to take sequences of shots, then an intervalometer is an essential accessory. However, this is quite an advanced form of astrophotography, so we wouldn’t necessarily suggest you head out to get one right away. When you feel you’re ready for star trails, we have a guide to the best intervalometers on site.
Planning your astro shoot
It may sound obvious, but you’ll need to be in a dark sky area to be able to capture detailed images of the night sky. Head away from urban areas and find a dark sky location with minimal or no light pollution. There are useful websites like Dark Site Finder and Light Pollution Map, which will help you to find a suitable location to shoot. However, if you’re taking a lot of astrophotos and you want to get weather reports, and guidance on where to point your camera when you shoot, the best stargazing apps only cost a few dollars/pounds, and they’re so helpful when it comes to selecting your location, and letting you know when the best time to shoot is.
The night sky is constantly changing throughout the year and knowing what you are going to photograph is a key component of astrophotography. There are excellent apps like Stellarium and Starwalk 2 which allow you to visualize how the night sky will look at any time and date for a specific location.
Astrophotography settings for your camera
While there are no catch-all settings that will give you a perfect exposure for every situation, there are a handful of basic rules you can follow to maximize your chances of nailing that astro shot. Theses astrophotography settings
Camera Shooting Mode
Manual. You will need to set the shutter speed and ISO manually. And don’t forget that you want your aperture as wide as possible, in almost all situations, so set it to an f-number of f/4 or lower. We recommend f/2.8 or lower.
Image File Type
RAW! Astrophotography can be broadly split into two separate areas – photography and post-processing. In order to process your newly acquired astro images back at home, you will need to shoot in RAW so that you capture and retain as much data as possible.
The aim is to capture as much light as possible while at the same time avoiding noticeable star movement in the image, known as star trailing. The longer the focal length of your lens, the shorter the shutter speed will need to be in order to avoid star trails. We have a separate guide if you want to photograph star trails.
So, how do we calculate the correct shutter speed for any given lens? We use a formula called the ‘500-rule’. In its simplest form, this is 500 divided by the focal length of the lens you are using. For example, if you are using a 20mm lens, this would be 500 / 20mm = 25 seconds. This, however, only applies to full frame cameras. For a crop sensor camera, the crop factor needs to be taken into account, so in this instance I would recommend using a base value of 300 for your calculations (for APS-C type cameras).
What we recommend doing is starting with an exposure of 20 seconds, which is about the longest you can leave the shutter open before stars begin to trail, and see how that looks. You can adjust as needed.
Open your aperture to at least f/2.8 if your lens allows (or the lowest f-stop possible). You want to capture as much light as possible during your exposure.
The higher the ISO, the more the light signal is amplified from your camera sensor. You will need to shoot at a high ISO but there’s a trade-off. The higher the ISO, the more noise (a type of digital degradation) you will see in the image. ISO 3200 is a good starting point. You may need to adjust down to something like ISO 1600 if there is a lot of ambient light or light pollution. Very dark skies may require you to boost the ISO to 6400, but I wouldn’t recommend going higher than this.
Focusing in the dark
First, set your camera to manual focus – autofocus will not work in the dark. Then use the ‘Live View’ feature of your camera to display an image preview on the camera’s LCD screen. Identify a bright star or distant light source like a streetlight on the LCD display and digitally zoom in to that point of light. Once you have done this, adjust the focus ring until the star or light source becomes as small as possible. Your focus is set!
Now all you have to do is to compose the frame, take the shot and wait for the image to pop up on the LCD display! If your foreground is looking dark, try light ‘painting’ your subject with a headlamp or your smartphone light during the exposure to help brighten the scene. You may need to adjust the ISO or aperture slightly to find what works best for your location, but you are now firmly on your way to capturing your own images of the beautiful night sky.
Tips and advice
If you’re trying to balance light between the foreground and the night sky, we suggest you take multiple exposures and merge the images when you edit, as they will require different settings to get the best of each. You may even find that getting your foreground shots an hour or so earlier, during blue hour, will help as there is more light to work with for your foreground objects. This isn’t always possible, though.
If you’re shooting the night sky near a lake, and the weather is still, there’s a great opportunity to reflect the stars in the water. There are several ways to do this, depending on the conditions. We prefer to do the hard work in the shoot, so would suggest changing your focal point to the water and taking an exposure, then setting your focus back to the night sky and taking the exact same shot. You can merge them later in edit. You may find you need to balance your shutter speed a little here, depending on the conditions – a 20 second exposure will capture the reflection of the stars, but you may pick up movement on the water that reduces the clarity. You could try shorter exposures for your reflection shot, but may have to work harder to bring out the stars in edit. Something like Lightroom’s linear gradient edits are perfect for bringing out the clarity and sharpness of reflections, so give that a go.
While we’d usually recommend setting your white balance to a slightly cooler temperature for astro shots, you can experiment with either the manual WB settings, or the presets, to create interesting tints and variations to your shots. If you’re getting a little light pollution, adjusting the white balance can actually make it look like a feature of the photo (we recommend cooling it right down and seeing the effect that has), although you’d need a gradient filter to reduce noise if you’re closer to an urban area. Speaking of which…
If you’ve got plenty of cash and want to try shooting near a little light pollution, so you can get more urban foreground images, you could consider using a graduated ND filter, like these 0.3, 0.6, and 0.9 landscape filters from Lee. What these allow you to do is block out some of the light at the bottom of your image, so if you’re getting noise pollution from the ground upwards, applying a 0.6 grad filter (for example) allows you to essentially make the bottom of your image about 2-stops darker. It all depends on your location, and we’d always recommend shooting in dark skies for astro, but it is possible to photograph stars near urban areas with the right kit and a little experimentation.