Photographing the night sky

February 28, 2024

For thousands of years we have looked up at the night sky and wondered about the vastness of space. We have imagined the patterns of the stars as constellations and named the wandering planets after the gods. In the not so distant past most people could see the majesty of the Milky Way from the their own backyard. Now with light pollution from cities and urban sprawl many people have not experienced the infinite stars that light the sky on a moonless night. Getting out and seeing the Milky Way Galaxy, watching shooting stars and comets, and photographing the night sky in all its glory is not as difficult as it used to be. With modern digital cameras and basic editing software you too can capture images of the night sky and connect with the ancients who named the constellations and told stories under starlit skies.

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Let there be Light

Finding Dark Skies

If you want to photograph the night sky in all its wonder you must first get away from the city lights. The Rocky Mountain states have some of the best viewing of the night sky. Dark sky areas can also be found in other locations around the country that have a southern view with no cities or large towns in the distance. Finding these remote locations where the fulness of the Milky Way Galaxy can be seen takes research, scouting and planning. Scout your locations during the daytime hours to find your compositions and use apps like PhotoPills or SkyGuide to know where the moon and the Milky Way will be. The best time of year to view the Milky Way is spring through fall with summer being the height of Milky Way season. If you are in a dark sky area away from the city lights on a summer night, go out on a clear night where you have an open view of the southern sky. The Milky Way will be a faint milky white cloud directly overhead running north to south around midnight. What your naked eye sees and what the camera sees will be two different things but just viewing the Milky Way with your own eyes is a sight to behold!

I captured the image below while camping in the Uinta Mountains of Utah. The orange glow on the horizon is actually the city lights of Duschense, Utah almost 50 miles away. This image is one single exposure of 20 seconds at ISO 6400 and f/2.8. Most modern digital cameras have the ability to change the ISO to 6400 and higher making it possible to record the night sky in one exposure. Having a lens with a maximum aperture of 2.8 or greater is a plus but not a must as you can increase your exposure time or ISO to compensate for a smaller aperture. Understand that the longer the shutter speed the more star blurring or trails will be seen when the image is enlarged. A good starting point is to set your ISO to 6400, your shutter speed to 30 seconds, and open your lens all the way to the smallest aperture number. Set your focus to infinity, and with your camera on a tripod, use the self-timer feature to start the exposure. It really is that easy... well almost.

Framed photograph of milky way galaxy over mountain lake.
Galactic Fire

Four Steps For Great Astrophotography

The first step in getting great astrophotography is to know your camera gear. Learn how to work your camera in manual mode so you are comfortable setting the ISO, shutter speed, and aperture to achieve the desired exposure. Become so comfortable working your camera settings you can do it in the dark. Also become very comfortable with your tripod so you can adjust the knobs by touch without seeing what you are doing.

The second step is to learn how to manually focus your lens on the stars. The best practice is to use the 'live view' feature on your camera. Find the brightest star in the sky and zoom in using the 'live view' zoom and then focus on the star. If you do not have a 'live view' feature you can set your focus to infinity and then back it off just a little. Take the photograph and then in 'image preview' zoom in on the stars and check the focus. This procedure can be trial and error but it is best to get your focus right rather than finding your stars are soft when you get home.

comet Neowise over lake Uinta Mountains Utah
Psalm 19:1

The third step is to control camera shake while the exposure is happening. Many times images are soft because of camera movement during the exposure. Having a good sturdy tripod is a must for doing night sky photography. My favorite tripod is the IFootage TC7 with the Acratech Long Lens Head. This combination is expensive but it is my go-to combo for all my photography. If you are using the shutter release button to fire the camera without the self-timer feature your images will most assuredly be soft because of the camera movement. Use the self-timer feature and set it to at least a five second delay. This way the camera will no longer be moving when the shutter fires. Better yet, get an electronic release so you can fire the camera at will without having to touch the camera body. This practice will minimize any camera shake and help improve the sharpness of your images.

The fourth step for getting great night sky photographs is finding clear skies. Watch the weather and the fazes of the moon. Hazy skies from summer fires can ruin the chance to photograph the night sky. Watch for changing weather patterns when the haze and smoke will be blown out and the sky will be as clear as possible. Also watch for a new moon, when the moon is down during the night, or smaller than a quarter phase because a bright moonlight will washout the sky.

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Space Odyssey 2202

Lighting The Foreground

Once you have mastered the basics of photographing the night sky you can start getting creative by finding interesting foregrounds to help give some depth and character to your photographs. You can also learn more advance techniques of lighting the foreground, stacking multiple exposures, and using a star tracker. Let us first talk about lighting foregrounds.

It is not always necessary to light the foreground as you can see in the first three images in this post. Sometimes lighting the foreground can make all the difference. In the above image of the barn, I actually waited for a car to drive by and took the exposure just as the lights flashed across the barn. It was total luck but the exposure of the barn was nicely balanced with the night sky once I did a little editing.

In the below image I used a single Lume Cube light attached to the guard rail to light the scene. The trick to lighting scenes with portable lights is to use low level lights so they do not overpower the foreground. Having lights that can be lowered to 1% or 2% is a must and the Lume Cube 2.0 lights are perfect for this technique.

milky way night sky over geyser Yellowstone National Park
Night Fire

For the next image I placed a single Lume Cube 2.0 on my GorrillaPod tripod just out of view on the left hillside. I adjusted the light on a higher power to see where it was lighting the foreground because my naked eye could not see the light at 1 or 2%, then I lowered it to 2% for the exposure. I took a 20 second exposure at ISO 6400 and f/2.8. I did some more adjusting of brightening the foreground and overall contrast adjustments in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, which we will get to later.

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Intergalactic Sign Language

In the below image, I waited for the perfect weather conditions and when the crescent moon would be in the western sky. I spent the night camping on location to capture this and other images. My plan for this image was to have the setting moon combined with what sunset light was left to light the peaks in the distance. The moon was at 9% waxing and set about 11:00 p.m. There was just enough light hitting the peaks to pull this image off the way I envisioned. The sky that night was one of the clearest I have ever seen and the green and red airglow were almost overpowering, but spectacular.

milky way stars reflecting in water Christmas Meadows, Uinta Mountains, Utah
Ghost Rider

Controlling Image Noise

One of the issues you will see when photographing the night sky is image noise. This problem is caused by photographing at high ISO. There are different programs you can use to de-noise your images, and my favorite is Topaz Labs Denoise AI. I process all my astrophotography images with Topaz Labs Denoise AI.

Another technique for photographing the night sky to minimize noise is called image stacking. The process is taking multiple dark images with the lens cap on for reference and then numerous exposures with a shorter duration. For the above image, I took two dark images and then seven, 10 second exposures. Shorter exposures help reduce star trails. I then used Sequator, a free stacking program, to stack the nine exposures into what equates to a 70 second exposure that had a lot less noise than one normal exposure. The reason stacking lowers the noise in the image is because every time an exposure is made the noise structure shifts. When multiple images are stacked the changing noise structure cancels each other out creating a less noisy image.

Night sky photograph with mountains and lake
Andromeda Sky

Using A Star Tracker

A more advanced technique for doing astrophotography is using a star tracker. A tracker will compensate for the rotation of the earth so you can do long exposures for minutes rather than just seconds. I use the Move Shoot Move Tracker, which is a fairly inexpensive small unit perfect for wide angle astrophotography. The setup with a star tracker I like is having a gear head used for precise movements attached to the tripod. The star tracker is then attached to the gear head. Then I attach my ball head or other style head to the tracker and my camera is attached to this head. A star tracker first needs to be polar aligned. This procedure is where you use a laser pointer or a polar scope to aim the unit at Polaris the north star. Once the unit is polar aligned it will track the rotation of the earth preventing the stars from blurring during a 2-3 minute exposure. If you do not want to use a star tracker you can still get good photographs of the night sky by keeping your exposure under 30 seconds. Of course, this technique depends on what lens you are using. Remember the higher the magnification of the sky the more star movement will be noticeable without a tracker. For best results without a tracker use a wide angle lens of 12-24 mm.

The biggest problem with using a star tracker for astrophotography with a foreground is that the foreground will blur as the tracker moves. To compensate for this issue, you must take one photograph for the foreground and another for the sky. In my above image, Andromeda Sky, I took the foreground photograph of the mountain and lake scene just after sunset. I then left my camera in the exact same location and returned a few hours later to take another photograph of night sky with the star tracker. This way I had a very sharp image of the foreground with the lighting I wanted. I replaced the sky in the foreground image with the night sky photograph I had taken with the star tracker. You can use Photoshop or any other number of programs for sky replacements.

photograph showing Move Shoot Move star tracker on tripod
My setup using the Wedge Head, Move Shoot Move tracker, Laser Pointer and Polar Scope.
Milky Way Galaxy over Kodachrome Basin State Park, Utah
Kodachrome Sky

Editing Your Images

If you do not have a tracker you can still take two photographs, one of the foreground and one of the night sky, by just leaving your camera in place between exposures. I used this technique for the above image, Kodachrome Sky. I photographed the foreground image just after sunset at about 8:00 p.m. I then left my camera in place until 1:00 a.m. when I took the second photograph when the Milky Way had risen. Once I returned home I blended the two images in Photoshop. This concept is perfect for those times where you cannot light the foreground because it is two large but want to capture the scene in a somewhat realistic image.

Editing your photographs using programs such as Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop is a must if you are going to do astrophotography. Even with the proper exposure your night sky photographs will not have the contrast and color to really bring the image to life. While I feel many people overdo their night skies making it look surreal, it really is just a matter of taste. Remember what the human eye sees is just a thin cloud of stars when looking at the Milky Way so getting creative with the saturation and contrast is acceptable. I personally try to keep it in the realm of reality but sometimes I just let my imagination run wild. For instance my below image, Night Watchman, is an impossible one. The Milky Way will never be in this position in the autumn when the trees are yellow. I photographed the foreground in Zion National Park on November 11, 2020 hoping to have a great sunset. What I got was a washed out sky with no color. I sat on that image for over two years until one day I got playing with it and decided to try replacing the sky with a Milky Way image I had taken hundreds of miles away in the mountains. After some trial and error I liked how it turned out, but it is almost all editing techniques and is more digital art than a photograph.

My basic editing work flow for night sky photography is to darken the blacks in the sky, and brighten the whites as needed. I am not to concerned with the highlights getting blown out as long as it is not too much near the center of the Milky Way. I will brighten specific areas and darken others if needed until I find the sky pleasing to my eyes. Another photographer I know once said, "A lot of Milky Way images look like fried bacon in the sky." I try to avoid this problem and keep my images more natural looking.

composite of the Watchman and Virgin River at night in Zion National Park
Night Watchman

Solar Eclipse Photography

One last type of astrophotography that I think needs mentioning is photographing a solar eclipse. In Utah, we were lucky to have a full annular eclipse of the sun pass through on October 14, 2023. An annular eclipse is a little different in that the moon does not totally block the sun but leaves a "ring of fire" around the moon. This phenomenon was an amazing experience to witness and one I had to photograph.

The first step in photographing a solar eclipse is getting a solar filter to protect your camera's CCD. I purchased a Solar Filter Sheet and cut it down to fit in my filter holder. There are more expensive options using higher quality optics but for my purpose this inexpensive filter worked fine. Also, do not look at the sun without solar rated filtering glasses, which can also be purchased at low cost.

With the filter in place and my camera on my tripod I focused on the sun with my 300 mm lens. After getting the exposure right by checking the histogram I took photographs of the various fazes of the eclipse. We got lucky that day and what clouds were in the sky were thin and did not cause too many problems.

One of the things I found was that at lower magnification the cheap filter did not work well so if you decide to do as I did keep the magnification high around 300 mm to prevent image degradation.

The image below is a composite of 5 photographs taken that day and I love how it looks.

five fazes of the annular eclipse of 2023
Ring of Fire- annular eclipse fazes

This last image below is a composite of two photographs. The first one I took of the dunes at the Little Sahara Recreational Area, Utah just a few hours before the eclipse. The second one is one of my eclipse images taken at full annularity. Creating this image without photo editing skills would be impossible because of the dark filter on the lens. With the filter all you see is the sun and none of the foreground is visible. I hiked onto the dunes looking for compositions with the sun in the clouds so I could later add the eclipsed sun. The lighting was very eerie that morning as the moon neared the sun while the thin clouds helped soften the shadows creating an otherworldly effect. This image is exactly what I had imagined doing when I planned my trip to photograph this eclipse. I knew it was just a matter of finding a composition I liked and getting lucky with the light. My planning and pre-scouting the area paid off and I think this single image made the whole trip worth while!

Solar annular eclipse over Little Sahara Sand Dunes, Utah

So if you are interested in doing astrophotography and capturing amazing images of the night sky, find a dark sky area, learn to use your camera in manual mode, have a sturdy tripod, use the self-timer or an electronic cable release, and learn to focus on the stars (pun intended). A whole universe of sky awaits as your creative muse, and at the worst, you will just lose a little sleep!

Posted in Articles and tagged Night Sky, Milky Way, Eclipse, .