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4 Tips for Night Sky Photography by Ken Hubbard

New to night sky and Milky Way photography? Start with these concepts to get started on the right foot.

To capture a good night sky image, you’ll need proper equipment. To start, you’ll want a nice wide-to-ultrawide angle lens. The goal is to capture as much of the night sky as possible, so the wider angle of view you have, the more sky you’ll get in your frame. Second, be sure to have a steady tripod for long exposures into the seconds and longer. A good tripod will allow you to keep your images nice and sharp.

The above image was captured in the overnight hours at the Tunnel View parking lot, which overlooks the Yosemite Valley, just after midnight on Oct. 18, 2018. Image details: Nikon D850 with Tamron 17-35mm f/2.8-4 Fi OSD, f/2.8, 20 seconds, ISO 1600 at 17mm.

Ken Hubbard’s Tips:

1. Set your shutter speed. 

If you’re looking to get pinpointed stars, you have to pay close attention to your shutter speed. If it’s too long, you’ll start to get oval-shaped stars instead of points. Try using the 500 rule: this is when you divide the focal length into 500. The resulting number is where you set your shutter speed. This may not be the exact speed necessary, but it is a starting point to get you close to where you need to be.

Stars over El Capitan in Yosemite
Stars over El Capitan in Yosemite National ParkKen Hubbard

2. Pay attention to the moon. 

If you’re looking for the darkest skies possible, research new moon dates (no moon). If you can’t go out on a new moon night, research moon rise/set times, so the moon is not in the sky. As in this image, do not be afraid to go out and capture nights skies when the moon is up. Use it to paint your subject in light.

3. Use apps on your phone. 

There are a number of great night sky apps that will help you find the right location and times to capture the images you’re looking for. With some of them, you can even scout locations during the day while using the app. The app will identify star and Milky Way positions later that night or months into the future. This will allow you to come back to that location and know which direction you want to shoot and when.

4. Take time for star trails. 

Capturing star trails takes time. You’re no longer exposing for seconds. You are exposing for minutes and hours. The longer you keep the shutter open, the longer the trail will be. Also, pay attention to the direction you’re facing. If you point directly to the North Star, you will get stars circling around it. If you face east or west, you will get diagonal trails. Facing south, you with get multi-directional trails.

Star trails in Yosemite Valley by Ken Hubbard
Star Trails in Yosemite ValleyKen Hubbard

Above image was captured in Yosemite Valley along the Merced River at approximately 11 p.m.

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Learn more night sky photography skills by attending one or our National Park Photography Workshops in America’s favorite national parks.