Camera Settings to Start With for Star, Moon, Milky Way & Night Sky Photography

Settings to start with
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Once you’re comfortable creating communication between yourself, your camera, and the universe at night, it’s time to bring those technical and creative skills together to create an interesting nighttime image. The settings and tools you’ll need for each image will be different, though; whether you’re inspired by the Milky Way or the moon’s intricate shadows, you’ll find everything you need to know to make those images a reality in this final chapter.

1. How to capture a clear image of the moon

Full, new, waxing and waning moon phasesDifferent phases of the moon. Photo by Stephen Rahn

A successful lunar shot requires a few basic pieces of gear and the right balance of settings like aperture and ISO. First, however, you’ll need to plan your photoshoot by identifying the moon phase that you’d like to capture.

There are four moon phases:

  1. Full moons happen about once per month and are completely round.
  2. A moon is waning when it moves away from its full state and becomes a sliver smaller each day.
  3. The new moon is not visible (except during a solar eclipse as a silhouette).
  4. A moon is a waxing moon when it moves out of its new moon state and moves toward becoming a full moon.

To identify the best time to shoot your chosen moon phase in your area, use Time and Date’s moonrise and moonset calculator, which helps finding the moon phase you’ll see on a given date and time.

Camera settings and gear

Now for the hard part. Remember that your eyes are able to adjust to changes in light and space easily, but digital cameras have a harder time unless you tell them exactly what they’re seeing. That said, the moon looks much brighter to your camera than it looks to you: so, generally, you’ll want to start by exposing your photo as if it were a bright and sunny day. For photos with little to no foreground imagery (just a shot of the moon):

  1. Start with an aperture of f/8,
  2. an ISO of 100-200,
  3. and a shutter speed of 1/125.

If your photo looks blurry, adjust your shutter speed. If it looks underexposed (not enough light), go down a stop in aperture from f/8 to f/5.6 or so.

Manual mode will also be your friend for close-ups of celestial bodies, as you’ll need to make very slight adjustments to get everything just right.

Gear-wise, you’ll also need your trusty tripod, although you can do without a remote shutter release for these shots. Also employ the help of a good zoom lens—it’ll be the only way to capture all the close-up details of the moon’s surface that make lunar shots so impressive.

2. How to photograph night skylines and stars

Night sky with starsPhoto by Greta Ferrari

The vast array of stars and constellations in the night sky can be as captivating as the moon and allow for an awesome amount of creativity in composition.

Camera settings

If you’re after a star-centric photo with little to no landscape (or if you want your landscape to be dark), start with the following settings:

  1. An aperture of f/5.6,
  2. a shutter speed of about 15 seconds,
  3. and an ISO of 100-400. Start at 100 and work your way up as needed to minimize noise.

Shutter speed in particular is crucial for star shots, as the earth is always moving. For photos without a foreground landscape element, you’ll only be able to get away with about a 20 second shutter speed before your stars start blurring.

Tools and gear

The Dark Skies app saves a lot of frustration for newbie astrophotographers—just input your camera’s specs and the app will tell you approximately how long your exposure can be before your stars start blurring.

You’ll also want to bring along your favorite wide-angle lens for shots of the stars—otherwise, your image will leave out half of the available majesty of the night sky (and make it look smaller than it really is).

What if you want to create star trails?

Star trails occur when your shutter speed is long enough that your camera actually captures the movement of the stars, creating a trail-like affect like in the image below.

Creating star trailsA photo of star trails is produced by using an unusually long shutter speed. Photo by Brian Tomlinson

To capture star trails, take test shots as if you were trying to correctly expose a still-star shot. When your aperture and ISO are at their sweet spots, you’ll want to employ your remote shutter release and set your shutter speed to at least 30-45 minutes. Do this and you’ll capture the normally invisible, continuous paths that stars take through the sky as glowing circles of light—pretty stellar!

Remember that, even when your image consists entirely of stars, you still need a focal point — an especially bright star or the silhouette of a tree in the foreground (like in the photo above) will make your photo stand out.

3. How to capture the Milky Way and other bright constellations

For intricate astro-attractions like the Milky Way, you want to capture as much light as possible to record as much of the beauty of your subject as possible. So, because the Milky Way has a wide array of colors and levels of brightness to capture, you’ll want to start by using the highest ISO setting that your camera will allow without creating excessive noise. That’s because much of the color and light of the Milky Way (and constellations in general) isn’t viewable to the human eye, so you often need longer shutter speeds, a wider aperture, and a higher ISO in order to bring out those colors in your photograph.

Earth and sky combinedThe Milky Way can provide an array of dazzling colors for astrophotographers. Photo by Anne Dirkse

A good starting place for Milky Way photography is:

  1. ISO 1600-3200,
  2. a shutter speed of 15-20 seconds,
  3. and the lowest (most wide open) aperture that your camera allows.

As with most astrophotography, a good wide angle lens is a must for Milky Way photography. You’ll also want to employ your camera’s noise reduction function to compensate for the high ISO.

Finally, don’t forget about Stellarium when you’re after a clear shot of a specific cosmic feature like the Milky Way. It’ll help you pinpoint the right time and place to immortalize that view.

Night landscape picturePhoto by Olli Henze

4. How to capture nighttime landscapes

Landscapes can be both the easiest and most fulfilling images to capture. When you want to add interesting features to a dazzling shot of the night sky (with or without stars, constellations, or the moon), start with the following settings:

  1. An aperture of f/5.6,
  2. a shutter speed of 15-25 seconds for a well-lit scene, or 3-4 minutes for a very dark landscape,
  3. and an ISO between 100 and 400 (always strive to stay as close to 100 as you can).

Keep in mind what’s most important to you in framing these shots: If you need the stars to stay sharp and clear, err toward a conservative shutter speed. If an unlit old building or interesting set of mountains is front and center in your shot, experiment with minutes-long shutter speeds.

Adding artificial light

If you use artificial light on your focal point (like a barn or colorful tree, for example), you may need to adjust your aperture to allow less light in to compensate. Let your camera focus on the sky as you adjust your settings, too: otherwise, your camera may underexpose the dark sky as it tries to compensate for the artificial light.

Campfire under the Milky WayShots that combine earth and sky are often the most striking. Photo by Piotr Szczepankiewicz

Whether you use artificial light or natural, you really can’t go without a tripod, and the huge array of textures and colors will make noise reduction an invaluable tool for night time landscapes.

5. How to photograph a city skyline at night

You might be curious whether photographing a city skyline is anything like capturing the stars. In short…nope.

Sure, some things will stay the same:

  1. You’ll still need a wide-angle lens to capture the city in all its sprawling glory.
  2. You really need a tripod and a remote shutter release.
  3. You’ll (usually) still keep your ISO at around 100.

Night city skyline settingsSkyline of Singapore at night. Photo by aotaro

But, instead of natural light, you’ll be working with artificial light. You’ll generally also want to set your camera to aperture priority mode and shoot at an aperture of f/8 or higher to keep the majority of your frame in focus. Your shutter speed will also often need to be comparatively small to avoid blurring or flaring of the lights. To get started on creating that classic cityscape image, adjust your settings to:

  1. An aperture of f/8 or higher,
  2. a shutter speed of 1/5 or less,
  3. and an ISO of 100-200.

Then, adjust your aperture higher and your shutter speed lower until you find the sweet spot that allows the lights to illuminate your photo of a skyline perfectly.

Conclusion

The nighttime offers an array of colors, textures, and scenes that lend themselves to excellent imagery, but it also lends itself to different creative challenges. Master settings like aperture and ISO, pack must-have gear like tripods and remote shutter releases, learn how to spot and frame a focal point, and utilize apps and weather tools to find the perfect conditions, and you’ll be armed with everything you need for a perfectly exposed nighttime photo.

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