How To Capture The Amazing Night Skies

Even though I am still learning many basics about night photography, I thought I would provide some information, based on what I am learning, to help share what I have learned to capture the stars, and even the Milky Way!

NOTE: Safety should be first and foremost in your shooting location selection!

There is nothing more solitary than a quiet night under the stars.


First things first….you will need a camera that gives you full manual control. You will need to adjust your settings so that your shutter will stay open for a long time, usually 20–30 seconds.

This is necessary since it takes time to capture the image (and the necessary light) on your exposure, so you can later adjust the light settings in Lightroom or Photoshop to highlight the information you have captured!

So in addition to a camera that will enable you to adjust the shutter and ISO manually, you will need the following:

Proper lens — a specific lens is necessary to allow you bring your aperture down to at least f/2.8, maybe even f/1.8. The smaller the aperture, the wider your lens will open up to let the light in (its the opposite of what you may think)!

Tripod — a good sturdy tripod is a must! You will need your camera completely still (even if its slightly windy out) to keep your stars nice and sharp during a 20–30 second exposure.

Dark, clear night sky — This is necessary to really capture the stars and Milky Way without being photobombed by residual sunlight or light pollution. Avoid this by planning your shooting at least 2 hours after sunset, and no later than 2 hours prior to sunrise. Also, keep in mind there is significant light pollution coming from our cities that will show up in our long exposure photos.

Good timing – Aim to shoot about 2 hours after sunset, and at least 2 hours before sunrise. This will make sure the sun will not give you too much light, preventing you from capturing detail.

This website below may be useful to help you find the darkest areas in your region that is ideal for shooting:

For my local friends, here are some of the darkest areas in Washington State:

“That’s no moon…….”

Let’s not forget about light pollution from our moon! A night photography shoot may not work on the nights with a full moon, or even more than a half moon.

Here is a website that will give you an idea how bright the night skies will be on the date you plan to shoot:

You can use the site above to tell you how much of the moon will be out on the night you plan to shoot….I aim for 25% or less, but the best shots will be on the times surrounding the New Moon.

This is a lot of information….so let’s just jump to some settings as a starting point, so you can try it and tweak your settings from there!

Mt. Rainier and the Milky Way, taken during a dark night near Sunrise Visitor Center.

In the shot above, the manual settings I had used were:

Aperture: f/2.8

ISO: 2500

Shutter Speed: 30 seconds

White Balance: Tungsten (gives a bluish hue to your exposure, matching more what you are currently seeing)

You can start here, and tweak your settings to see which results you like the best.

Don’t forget to shoot in RAW format….you will want to add light and contrast to these captures in Lightroom and/or Photoshop.

TIP: Start at the lowest ISO you can (try 1600), and only increase it if a 30 second shutter will not get you the exposure that you want. Start increasing your ISO only when you feel you need longer than a 30 second shutter, since a speed longer than 30 seconds may make your stars start to blur.

Hope this information is helpful, let me know in the comments…..have fun!

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