5 Night Sky Photography Tips from Professional Photographer Scott Sady
Nothing captures the imagination quite like the night sky. Sitting beneath its vast expanse leaves you feeling small in the midst of the universe. With the development of cameras and technology, it’s become easier to capture these scenes with only a few pieces of necessary gear.
Scott Sady, a fine art landscape photographer from Reno, Nevada is no stranger to photographing vistas like the night sky. He specializes in outdoor, action, and adventure photography with a focus on the landscapes around the West, the High Sierra, and Lake Tahoe. Sady began his career as a photojournalist with the Associated Press in Central America in the 1990’s and worked as a photographer for USA TODAY, covering two Olympics. An expert skier, whitewater kayaker, hiker, rock climber, and mountain biker, Sady’s love for the outdoors can be seen in each of his photographs, including in his images of starry skies.
In this article, Sady shares five tips for photographers who want to capture the night sky. His tips cover recommended gear, planning your shot, the best locations, camera settings, and post-process editing.
Each time a camera captures an image, it is doing so under a combination of settings that include ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. ISO refers to the camera’s sensitivity to light. The aperture is the size of the hole in the diaphragm of the lens through which light passes, controlling how much light enters each image by making the opening bigger or smaller. The smaller the aperture number, the larger the hole and the more light that hits the image sensor. If the aperture number is high, the opening is small and less light will be captured in the image. Shutter Speed controls how long the image sensor is exposed to light coming in through the aperture, allowing only a certain amount of light to be captured in each image.
The Camera’s Relationship to Light
Cameras need light in order to work with each of these controls. Photographing at night means the light available with which to shoot is greatly reduced. In order to capture images at night, a different set of parameters is needed than during the day. For example, during the day you have enough light to take a photo while holding the camera in your hands. If you were to try to take a photograph at night with the camera in your hands, the shot would come out blurry. This is because the camera settings call for a big aperture (more availability for light) and slower shutter speed (more time to let that light in). Any movement the camera experiences will be reflected in the image. In order to minimize this movement, put the camera on a tripod and set up either a self-timer or remote to take the photo. This way the camera can work without any movement disruption.
1. Choose the Right Gear
A variety of cameras may be used to take photographs at night, including smart phones. There are apps available to help you manipulate the settings of your phone’s camera to take photos at night. Photographing with your smart phone is a great place to start, however, expect limitations. The settings you can choose on your phone camera are smaller than that of a Digital Single-Lens Reflex camera (DSLR). Photographing with a DSLR improves the quality of your images due to the camera’s wide range of settings that it’s capable of working under.
Sady uses two set-ups for two different photography situations:
Being removed from cityscapes and light pollution allow for inspiring scenes where the stars cascade over the wilderness around you. When venturing out to capture these scenes in the backcountry, where weight matters, you may want lighter gear.
“When I backpack, I carry an ultra-light carbon fiber tripod and my mirror-less Sony camera. This is a lighter camera that works with a lighter tripod,” says Sady. But Sady admits that this lightweight set up has its disadvantages. “The drawbacks of this are the tripod is not as versatile (can’t go as high, legs don’t go as wide, etc.), and a lighter tripod is more affected by any wind or water movement.”
You don’t need to go on a backpacking trip to photograph the night sky. There are many places within driving reach where light pollution is low and the stars are bright. This may be right outside your door or a few hour’s drive away. In this situation, heavier camera gear won’t weigh you down.
“When I am shooting from my car, I carry a full-frame Nikon D850 and a heavy Induro carbon fiber tripod with a heavy-duty ball head,” Sady says. “This allows me to get sharp photos even if the wind is blowing, or if I decide I want to put my tripod legs in a river or the ocean for compositional reasons. This is a lesson I learned the hard way when I went out several years ago to photograph a lava waterfall at dawn as it dripped into the ocean. The scene was amazing but the wind was howling and, despite my best efforts, very few of those images were sharp enough to use.”
2. Plan Around the Moon Phases
Once you have the right gear, you’ll need to find out how much light to anticipate for your shoot. The main source of light in the night sky is the moon. In Sady’s experience, if the moon is more than a quarter full or if it is up when the core of the Milky Way is in the night sky, then it will wash the stars out.
“Do you know what I mean by the Milky Way core?” Sady asks. “If you look at night images, many of them will have this beautiful gaseous cloud of brilliant purple and green. Earth is out on one of the spiral arms of our galaxy. When you can compose so that you are looking back into the core of the Milky Way, that is when you will see the best stars.”
Sady suggests the apps ‘Go Sky Watch’ and ‘The Photographer’s Ephemeris’ as good resources for knowing where the core will be at any time in any given location.
Sady advises to look for a night with less than a quarter moon or when the moon won’t rise until after the core is where you want it.
“That sometimes makes for the best images because you can get a brilliant nebulous cloud of the Milky Way core in one exposure before the moon is up,” Sady says. “Then leave the camera on the tripod and don’t move anything, and when the moon comes up, take another exposure for the land now that the moon has cast a little light, and blend the two together.”
3. Find the Best Location
What makes for an interesting photograph goes hand in hand with your surroundings. Look for locations that have dark skies and a landmark in the foreground that draws the viewer in.
“I love a location that gives me something interesting in the foreground: mountains, an arch, cool tree, stream, lake, desert lines,” Sady says. “And I make sure that this foreground will line up with the core of the Milky Way once it gets dark, and that the moon helps me and doesn’t hinder me by washing out the night sky. It goes without saying that getting away from light pollution is a must.”
Keeping an eye on weather patterns, local wildfires, and air quality are all worth checking before you go. Any cloud cover will prevent access to photographing the night sky. A metropolitan city with an abundance of lights will drown out the brilliance of the night sky.
Before your shoot, assess how much light pollution an area has through the Light Pollution layer on Gaia GPS. This layer shows light levels measured by NASA. If the area immediately around you has high levels of light pollution, explore the map to find the closest location with a low amount of light pollution. You can also check the Air Quality layer to ensure you’re heading into clear skies.
Another resource is to check if there are any Dark Sky Parks and Sanctuaries around you. These are designated areas of land often found in remote locations, far from any source of light pollution. Living in Nevada, Sady has easy access to several of these designated areas. The Massacre Rim Wilderness Study Area is an hour north of Reno and was designated as an International Dark Sky Sanctuary in 2019. It is one of the darkest places in the contiguous United States. Also included in the list of Dark Sky Sanctuaries is Rainbow Bridge National Monument in Utah. Death Valley National Park is considered a Dark Sky Park.
If you’re unsure of the terrain around you or plan on traveling through a new location, Hike Search on Gaia GPS will help you discover what trails and landmarks are close by.
4. Get Out and Shoot
Taking a picture requires choosing a shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. When you take photographs during the day, your settings are tuned for the amount of light coming into the camera. The same goes for shooting at night, except your settings will need to be adjusted to accommodate the fact there is far less light available.
Set the ISO
One of these considerations is the ISO. “ISO is basically the camera’s sensitivity to light. Usually the higher it goes, the more digital noise (or gain) you see in the images.” Sady explains that photographing with a quality sensor can give you fairly clear images at around ISO 3200, “which is what you need to shoot at night”.
Adjust the Aperture
Shooting with a lens that allows for a larger aperture will help.
“The aperture, or f-stop, is a measure of the size of the hole in the lens that lets light into your camera,” Sady says. “The lower the number, the bigger the hole and thus the more light. I like to use wide angle prime lenses.”
Sady’s favorite lens for night photography is a 24mm f/1.4 lens.
“This lens allows about twice as much light into my camera as a normal lens,” Sady says, “thus making for brighter stars and clearer foregrounds.”
Once the tripod is set up, lens selected, and camera set to ISO 3200, you’ll want to set the lens to manual and find the focus yourself. You can start by opening your camera’s live view mode and focusing on a bright star.
Choose a Shutter Speed
There are many different approaches to setting up your shot. If you’d like to capture the milky way and have the stars crisp like pinpricks, set the shutter speed just long enough for the stars to show up in your photo. This could be anywhere from 15 to 30 seconds. To photograph the movement of the stars across the sky, or ‘star trails’, you’ll need an even longer shutter speed. The longer the shutter stays open, the longer the star trails will be.
From there be sure to set up the self-timer on your camera so you don’t accidentally move the camera when you engage the shutter. This process will require some trial and error as you find the right settings for the camera and environment you are in.
5. Post Processing
You’ve made a plan, composed your shot, found a dark location, and took your photos. Now it’s time for some fine tuning in post processing by correcting the color balance and reducing the noise or grain that comes up in these photos. You can do this on computer programs like Abode Lightroom or Adobe Photoshop.
“You do have to take care in processing the images,” Sady says. He points out that the sensor responsible for keeping the colors the camera can pick up on as true to what we see, also known as the White Balance, doesn’t work as well at night due to colors in the atmosphere and light pollution.
“First of all, the colors at night aren’t really what the eye sees,” Sady says. “There is a lot of green in the atmosphere that we don’t pick up.”
One way to correct this is by changing the temperature in post to be cooler, which brings out the blues in the image. The color temperature is designated on a Kelvin Temperature scale with lower numbers being cooler and high numbers being warmer. Sady finds adjusting the White Balance to a Kelvin temperature of 4000 is a good starting point.
Next, you’ll need to reduce the noise created by shooting in a high ISO. Finding a balance between sharp stars and soft grain takes careful editing. Many post-processing applications, including Adobe Lightroom, have functions to help with this.
“You will be amazed what a modern camera can see at night that you cannot.”
Find the Light Pollution Layer on Gaia GPS
You can access the Light Pollution Layer on GaiaGPS.com and on the app with a premium membership. If you’re using GaiaGPS.com, select the ‘Layers & Overlays’ icon on the left side of the screen to find the available Map Layers. If you’re using the app, tap the map layers icon on the top right corner of the screen. On both platforms, scroll to the bottom to select the ‘Add Map Layers’ button. The Light Pollution Layer is located under the ‘Feature/Weather Overlays’ category. Hit the green + button to add this layer to your map source.