How to photograph the stars, moon, and Milky Way: a beginner’s guide to night landscape & astrophotography

In this five chapter guide, you’ll learn everything you need to take great pictures at night. By using proper camera settings, gear, composition, and focal points, you will learn how to create properly exposed pictures of stars, nighttime landscapes, and the Milky Way.

5 chapters
6672 words

How to Prepare for a Successful Night Photography Trip

Light pollution & weather

Night photography requires a bit more planning and strategic supplies than daytime photography. Unless you’re shooting a cityscape, you’ll need to venture beyond the realms of light pollution to get a clear view of the sky. The following six steps will be a good starting point for your next (or first) long exposure photography trip.

Step 1: Check out weather and sky conditions first

Picking a day with the right weather conditions for your shot is paramount. Unlike daytime photography, surprises (like clouds and rain) don’t usually produce good results in night photography.

If the sky is full of clouds, know that the chance of getting a good shot of the stars (or a clear one of the moon) is slim. And, if you want to shoot under the ambient light of the moon, know that clearly exposed constellations will be sacrificed for a nicely lit landscape.

Moon light above a frozen bayMoonlight provides gorgeous ambient light, but also hides the stars from your camera’s view. Photo by rhiannon0320

To avoid surprises, start by reviewing your local weather report. Phrases like “passing clouds” or “mostly clear” are a sign that good shots are within your grasp. If you see “mostly cloudly” or “overcast”, however, you’re better off picking a clearer night.

Step 2: Find a location free of light pollution

“Light pollution” is, essentially, a reflection of excessive artificial light into the atmosphere that washes out your view of stars, planets, and constellations.

Unlike the blinding glare from the sun that you can avoid by putting your hand over your eyes or putting on sunglasses, light pollution doesn’t disappear when you “block” the artificial light.

In other words, if you stand in front of a tree or find a valley with mountains that “block” your view of the city lights, the light pollution will remain because the light source still exists and is still creating the same effect even when you can’t see it doing so.

Light pollution of the skyLight pollution obscures your view of the night sky. Photo by Timo Newton-Syms

So, unless you’re shooting cityscapes, you’ll get the best results by avoiding areas with light pollution—that means steering 30-50 miles clear of cities, suburbs, and well-traveled or lighted roads.

Don’t be afraid to be a pioneer in rural areas: finding hidden ruins, small forest lakes, and interesting mountain-scapes off the beaten path can net you some seriously unique and eye-catching images.

Utilize light pollution maps

Light pollution map dark site finderPhoto by shannonpatrick17

Before you head out to find your next nighttime subject, use an interactive light pollution map like Dark Site Finder to find the best locations for star-centric long exposure photography. The darker the sky, the better chance you have of capturing the intricate details of stars, planets, and moonlight.

Step 3: Find constellations with a sky or astronomy simulator

Find stars and constellations with tools like stellariumScreenshot from Stellarium. Photo by Richard Due

If your photo relies on a clearly exposed constellation like the one below, a simulation tool called Stellarium (available for both desktop and mobile) will help you pinpoint which stars and planets you’ll see from your chosen vantage point on a particular day.

Galatic core of the milky wayThe Milky Way doesn’t look like this to the human eye—you have to use camera settings like long shutter speeds to expose these hidden colors. Photo by dylan_odonnell

Step 4: Pick an eye-catching location, focal point, and angle to shoot from

For the best results, scope out locations in advance during daytime. Find interesting focal points like intricate trees, rolling mountains, or a lake that will reflect the light of the stars nicely on a clear night (chapter four will help you train your eyes to find them).

Experiment and find the best position to shoot those subjects from to save yourself the trouble of stumbling around in the dark and relying on guesswork.

Step 5: Take daytime and nighttime test shots

You’ve found your ideal location, found the best vantage point to highlight the stars in the sky, and fallen in love with a set of rolling mountains or an interesting old barn in an abandoned field. Awesome! If you’re serious about making that shot work, it’s important to take the time for a round of test shots.

Daytime test shots

First, make the most of your daytime visit and experiment to find the angles, foreground and background features, and general composition that creates the effect you’re looking for.

Want to highlight the starkness of an abandoned field against one lone building?

Play around to see whether that effect is best created by positioning the building front and center in your frame or positioning it in the lower-right corner with a wide expanse of faded grass around it.

Continue to chapters four and five to learn more about the importance of focal points and composition in night & astrophotography.

It’s nearly impossible to make these kinds of adjustments efficiently when it’s pitch-black and difficult to see (and you’re exposing each photo for 30-60 seconds due to the darkness), so sorting out the creative details ahead of time will help you make the most of your time when it’s time to pursue that final shot.

Underexposed vs overexposed photosExample of an overexposed photo. Even slight changes in camera settings can make or break your results. Making test shots can help ensure you get good results on the night of your shoot. Photo by Michael Cory

Nighttime test shots

If your location is nearby or you’re committed to a very particular image, take a “dry run” at night to take a second round of photos that will help you zero in on the exact vantage point, camera settings (like ISO, aperture, and shutter speed), and gear that will do your subject the most justice. Use the guidelines in chapter three to get a firm grasp on the settings you’ll need to make the milky way glow, expose the brilliance in a sea of stars, or illuminate interesting subjects by the light of the moon.

Sorting out the specifics of your camera’s relationship to your subject matter ahead of time will help you have the smoothest possible experience when you’re ready to create that photograph.

Step 6: Pack provisions

By now, you’ve probably noticed that physical discomfort makes it hard to focus on getting a good shot. Use the tips below to put together a practical provision pack and you’ll be prepared for common distractions (like unexpected chilly nights on warm days).

  1. Pack snacks to fuel your concentration.
  2. Dress in layers—long johns and insulated gloves are must-haves for spring, fall, and winter shoots.
  3. Bring hand and boot warmers. Bonus: a hand warmer rubber-banded to your lens in cold temperatures keeps the lens’s glass from fogging up.

Picture taking with fog on the lensExample of lens fog. A warming device on your lens can help avoid lens fog on cold nights. Photo by Timothy Vogel

Pick the right camera equipment

A little preparation goes a long way on your journey to the perfect long exposure photograph. Before you set out, continue to chapter two to make sure you have the right camera gear (including lenses, tripods, and ample batteries) to handle your location and deliver on your vision.

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