Photographing The Night Sky by Sean Bagshaw

Night photography certainly isn’t new, as David Cobb pointed out in his article on long exposure night photography. There have always been diehards willing wait hours to expose a single image for chance to reveal the magic light that only cameras can see at night. Night photography has long been the realm of the persistent, strong willed and sleep deprived few. But recently there has been an explosion of interest and participation in night photography largely due to the capabilities of the latest generation of digital SLR cameras.

Tell The Night - Oxbow Bend

One of the biggest challenges of photographing at night has been capturing the night sky. Traditional film photography required very long exposures to get anything to show up in the image. If the sky was part of the composition this meant that the stars would stretch out into long streaks (star trails) as the Earth rotated on its axis causing the stars to move across the sky. Star trails, when done well, can be a very visually interesting and artistic element of an image, giving a sense of motion and the passage of time. However, I don’t think star trails can match the amazing beauty and reality  of a stationary star field on a clear, dark night, the way that we experience it with our eyes.

Some intrepid night photographers, called astrophotographers, use special tripod mounts with elaborate computer guided motors that turn the camera to match the motion of the stars in the sky. Such an apparatus allows one to take long exposure images of the sky with sharp stars and no star trails. Astrophotography is only useful for taking images of the sky without the land, however. Due to the turning of the camera on the mount any fixed objects in the composition, such as land, buildings or trees, will be motion blurred while the stars remain sharp.

Solitude Camp

Enter the current generation of digital SLR cameras, which have completely changed the game when it comes to photographing the night sky. The ability to increase the ISO (sensitivity to light) of modern SLR cameras to very high settings has made it possible to take images of the night landscape with a sharp star field. By increasing the ISO setting between 1600 and 6400 the increased sensitivity to light allows an exposure of 15-30 seconds to capture what would have taken anywhere from many minutes to many hours using traditional methods. At 30 seconds, using a wide angle lens, there is only a very slight degree of star trailing visible. At 15 seconds star trailing is almost unnoticeable.

The ability to quickly and easily capture night images that include the night sky has caused night photography to become highly popular in the last couple of years. New and more amazing night sky images are showing up on photographer websites and photography sharing forums every day. I took all the images accompanying this article on early morning photo sessions during my recent trip to Grand Tetons National Park in Wyoming. I’m really just starting to learn about what is possible. There are many photographers out there who are doing some truly amazing and ground breaking night sky work.

Solitude Lake

Following are my basic tips for getting started taking high ISO photographs of the night sky and a list of photographers and resources you might want to check out for further inspiration and education.

Fly Before The Dawn - Oxbow Bend

Sean’s Basic Night Sky Photography Tips:

  • Look for a location with very clear atmosphere, few to no clouds and as little light pollution as possible. A bright moon will light the landscape but cause the stars to dim.
  • Use a sturdy tripod
  • Use a wide angle lens (12-30mm range). Apparent star motion and depth of field are less of an issue at wide angles, plus you want to include a nice wide view of the sky.
  • Open the aperture as wide as it will go. An f/2.8 or faster lens is really what you want.
  • Make sure there are no objects within about 10 or 15 feet of the lens, turn off auto focus and then set the focus to infinity. Everything will be beyond the hyperfocal distance so the entire image will be in focus.
  • Experiment with combinations of ISO between 1600 and 6400 (if your camera goes that high) and shutter speeds between 15 seconds and 30 seconds. Higher ISOs will have more noise but require less exposure time. Longer exposures will bring in more light making lower ISOs possible, but star trailing will be more noticeable. Remember that at 30 seconds, using a wide angle lens, there is only a very slight degree of star trailing visible. At 15 seconds star trailing is almost unnoticeable.
  • The Milky Way is a very bright and visually interesting feature of the night sky to include in your images. There are many websites and smart phone apps that will help you determine where the Milky Way will be in the sky on any given day and time.
  • Read up on and experiment with different techniques for controlling high ISO noise and processing night images for greatest artistic and visual impact. New techniques are being developed all the time and could fill several books. Some are fairly basic while others are seriously advanced.

Mormon Barn

My Favorite High ISO Night Sky Photographers:

Brad Goldpaint

Ben Canales

Grant Collier

Terje Sorgjerd

Arild Heitmann

Alister Benn

Schwabacher Landing

Night Sky Photography Resources:

I hope this has provided you with a starting point for your own night sky photography. If you have any of your own night sky photography tips or resources you’d like to share be sure to leave a comment.


~ by Sean Bagshaw on October 8, 2011.

14 Responses to “Photographing The Night Sky by Sean Bagshaw”

  1. Thank you for the great article and links. Wonderful images.

  2. Thanks for links Sean. One tip I can suggest for focusing at night, if your lens focuses past infinity is to use your live view. Zoom in to 100%, you’ll usually have a couple stars in the frame. Adjust your focus manually until you notice the stars become sharp pins on light. Once the focus is set compose and shoot away. Another tip to help compose is to set your camera in night vision mode. The crazy 100,000+ ISO’s are perfect for checking your comp. Thanks for the links, Ry

  3. Super cool and really helpful, thanks sean!

  4. I saw a nite photo recntly and it described it as a stack of 40 exposures. So did they mean a composite of layers? do you take one exposure or blend several?

    • Harry, was it a star trail image or a fixed star field image? In both cases there are developing techniques that involve stacking and blending multiple frames, although for different reasons.


  5. Awesome post and inspiring links to other great images. Kinda want to go to the desert and stay up all night now. Thanks!

  6. Thanks for the tips Sean. When I’ve shot at night, I’ve had trouble composing. Any suggestions if your camera doesn’t have night vision mode?

  7. Sean, Fly Before The Dawn and Solitude Camp are two of my favorites of yours that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. Great work!

  8. Nice shots! Alas, I have a Rebel Xsi only going to 1600 ISO. Somewhere out there is a video in which Ben Canales gives the math equation regarding shutter speed and lens mm so you can be sure to have stationary stars. May be worth an internet search for those interested. Can’t find where I wrote it down…

  9. Trying it this week! Tumalo Falls, Smith Rocks, and Elk Lake Lodge (nice reflection on the lake). Thanks for the tips and inspiration – they will be coming with me.

    • Krista – good luck. I was just doing quite a bit of night shooting down in the SW desert. It is really fun to experiment with night photography and it significantly extends the opporunities to shoot.

      • Thnx! I was just making that same comment to my husband. With two young children and a full-time plus job it is difficult to find the daylight hours to shoot. Plus, I’m a night owl so this suits my internal clock. : )

        BTW – Your photo displays in Bend are amazing! It’s good to see people doing well. Especially those as nice, talented and hardworking as you. Keep me in mind if you open a gallery in Bend. I work for photos……….and coffee.

  10. […] via Photographing The Night Sky by Sean Bagshaw | Photo Cascadia Blog. […]

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