Astrophotography for beginners: How to shoot the night sky
This astrophotography for beginners guide is designed to help you get started photographing the night sky. The subject of astrophotography — taking photographs of the night sky — is such a broad one with so many subcategories that it’s hard to know where to begin. In this guide, we’ve concentrated our knowledge into a beginner’s guide to astrophotography that will equip you with both basic techniques and creative ways to capture the night sky.
As a hobby, astrophotography requires two types of investment. The first is financial: you’ll need a camera, at least one lens, and a few accessories, as well as a warm coat for cold nights spent under the stars. Take a look at our guide to the best cameras for astrophotography and best lenses for astro to help get you started with this aspect of astrophotography.
The second investment is time and patience — though these are things you sadly cannot purchase. Astrophotography is a photographic style that’s tricky to get right the first time and will take many attempts, iterating on the same ideas until you can finally provide an image that’s got some real ‘wow’ factor.
In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to get started — the equipment you’ll need, as well as planning your astro shoot and the camera settings you’ll need to effectively photograph the night sky. We also include some tips on getting the most out of the images you capture, including editing them in some of the best photo editing apps available.
The first bit of advice, though, is a simple one: have a go. Even if you don’t own a flashy camera, use what you have. You can even use your smartphone for astrophotography if necessary. You’ll be surprised what they’re capable of, particularly using the night modes on more recent models. Thinking of dabbling in astrophotography? You may want to check out our guides to the best cameras for photos and videos or the best cameras for beginners.
Astrophotography for beginners 2023
Camera bodies and lenses
If you’re using a DSLR or mirrorless camera, the first step is to put it in Manual mode — this applies to both exposure and focus. We always recommend using manual focusing when shooting astro, as most sensors simply won’t be able to focus on the night sky because it’s so dark. Use the screen on the back of the camera (having one that flips out makes this easier) to focus carefully so the stars appear as points and not circles. Stopping the lens at infinity isn’t enough, so zoom in if you can using the screen’s controls to get your focus as accurate as possible.
Full frame cameras generally perform the best in low light situations as they have a larger sensor and can have larger individual photosites that capture more light. However, as megapixel counts increase (and photosites, therefore, become smaller) this advantage is becoming slimmer, and modern crop-sensor cameras are very capable for astrophotography. They are also a more affordable option than full-frame cameras.
As a rough guide, a good full-frame mirrorless or DSLR with the ability to take sharp images at higher ISO settings will set you back between $2000-3000 — more on that later. Crop-sensor or APS-C cameras are usually $400 and up, and are more than capable of capturing the night sky.
When it comes to lenses, a wide or super-wide angle ‘fast’ lens somewhere in the 12-35mm range is best suited to landscape photography and astrophotography. Wide-angle focal lengths allow you to capture a good portion of the night sky as well as some of the landscape for foreground interest. A ‘fast’ lens is one that has a large maximum aperture — in other words, a small f-stop number. A lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or lower is considered to be a fast lens, though many astrophotographers opt for prime lenses with apertures of f/1.8 or lower as they tend to be sharper and better for astrophotography.
A lens like the Rokinon (Samyang) 14mm f/2.8 is a great lens to get started with and is very affordable. If you’re ready to spend a little more, the Sigma f/1.4 14mm ART or the Sony FE 14mm f/1.8 GM lens would both be great options. If you don’t have a fast lens just yet, you can still use the kit lens that came with your camera, even if it’s just to practice with to get your technique and settings right. Just make sure you operate at the maximum available aperture size (typically around f/4 on stock kit lenses).
When it comes to accessories, a tripod is essential for astrophotography as you simply won’t be able to hold the camera still enough by yourself for the long exposures required, and resting it on a wall isn’t always possible. The tripod’s smoothly tilting head also allows you to position your camera perfectly to capture the bit of the sky you want. We have a guide to the best tripods for night sky photos if you’re in the market for one.
Additional equipment for astro
Remote Shutter Release (recommended)
This is a button on a cable that will allow you to trigger your shutter to minimize the risk of introducing vibrations in the camera. You just plug it into the appropriate port in your camera, and press the button on the cable instead of the button on the camera. These are very inexpensive, although, you can get wireless ones that cost a little more. If you don’t have a remote shutter release, you can instead use the timer delay on your camera to ensure there is no movement of the camera when taking a shot. Some DSLRs have a mirror lockup function that prevents the movement of the mirror inside the camera body from inducing vibrations, but this isn’t necessary for mirrorless cameras.
If you’re shooting star trails and need to take sequences of shots, then an intervalometer of some kind is an essential accessory. However, this is quite an advanced form of astrophotography, so we wouldn’t necessarily suggest you head out to get one right away if you’re more of a beginner. When you feel you’re ready for star trails, we have a guide on how to photograph star trails and the best intervalometers which you may find useful. Many modern cameras have interval shooting built-in, so spend some time with your camera’s manual to figure out how it works.
Keep your hands free to operate your camera by using a headlamp at night and, if possible, use the red light mode (if it has one) to preserve your night vision. A headlamp is also helpful for ‘light painting’ objects in the foreground of your images — either creatively or just to improve the exposure. Alternatively, a flashlight with a bit of red plastic over the end can achieve the same thing.
Finally, if you’re going to be shooting in cold temperatures, it might be worth investing in some kind of lens heater. These can prevent condensation from creeping into your lens and ruining your shot.
Planning your astro shoot
Light pollution is a serious problem that astrophotographers often have to overcome. You’ll need to be in a dark sky area to be able to capture really detailed images of the night sky, so make sure you head away from urban areas and street lights. There are some really useful websites such as Dark Site Finder and Light Pollution Map that will help you to find a suitable location to shoot. You’ll also want to get weather reports and guidance on where to point your camera when you shoot. The best stargazing apps only cost a few dollars/pounds, and they’re extremely helpful when it comes to selecting your location and knowing the best time to shoot.
The night sky changes constantly throughout the year, and knowing what you are likely to see and be able to photograph in the sky is a key component of astrophotography. There are some excellent apps like Stellarium and Starwalk 2 which allow you to visualize how the night sky will look at any time and date for a specific location. But remember, things like meteor showers and comets are unpredictable, and the weather can easily close in and spoil everything — remember when we said you’ll need patience?
Astrophotography settings for your camera
There are no one-size-fits-all settings that will give you a perfect exposure for every situation. Sadly, photography just doesn’t work like that. However, there are a handful of basic rules you can follow to maximize your chances of nailing that astro shot.
Camera Shooting Mode
Put the camera into M, or Manual mode using the mode dial on the top of the camera. This will give you the ability to alter the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO manually rather than having the camera do it for you. Never shot in manual before? Don’t worry, read on to find out what you need to do.
You want your aperture as wide as possible in almost all astro situations, so set it to an f-number of f/4 or lower. We usually recommend f/2.8 or lower but use the maximum your lens is capable of. Many DSLRs and mirrorless cameras use a wheel on the camera body to set the aperture, but manual lenses and some made for Sony mirrorless cameras have an aperture ring on the lens itself.
Lower F numbers always mean wider apertures and greater light-gathering ability — this is why prime lenses with apertures of f/1.8 and lower are generally favored for astrophotography.
Image File Type
Set your camera to record RAW image files. Astrophotography can be broadly split into two separate areas — photography and post-processing. In order to process your newly acquired astro images back at home, you will need to shoot in RAW so that you capture and retain as much data as possible. A RAW file is the information from the camera’s sensor with no processing applied.
Recording JPEG images will give you smaller files, but the compression process throws away important data you could use. If necessary, buy a larger memory card that can handle RAW files rather than shoot JPEG.
The aim of astrophotography is to capture as much light as you can while minimizing the movement of the stars in the image — unless you’re deliberately trying to create star trails. The longer the focal length of your lens, the shorter the shutter speed will need to be in order to avoid capturing star trails.
There’s a simple formula to calculate the correct shutter speed for any given lens, called the ‘500-rule’. In its simplest form, this is 500 divided by the focal length of your lens. For example, if you are using a 20mm lens, this would be 500 / 20mm = 25 seconds. This, however, only applies to full-frame cameras. For a crop sensor camera, the crop factor needs to be taken into account, so in this instance, we would recommend using a base value of 300 for APS-C cameras, and 250 for Micro Four Thirds cameras.
Start with an exposure of 20 seconds, which is about the longest you can leave the shutter open before stars begin to trail and see how that looks. You can then adjust as needed.
The higher the ISO, the more amplified the light signal captured by your camera’s sensor will be. You will need to shoot at a high ISO for astrophotography, but there’s a trade-off — the higher the ISO, the more noise (a type of digital degradation) you will begin to see in the image, and every camera increases noise in a different way. Some slowly ramp it up, others make a big jump after a particular setting — check out our guide to the best cameras for low light photography to see which ones do this better than others.
Focusing in the dark
First, set your lens to manual focus using the AF/MF switch on the lens — autofocus will not work in the dark. Then use the ‘Live View’ feature of your camera to display an image preview on the camera’s LCD screen. Identify a bright star or distant light source and digitally zoom in on that point of light. Once you’ve done this, adjust the focus ring until the star or distant light source becomes as small and sharp as possible.
Once you’re focus is set, now all you have to do is take the shot and wait for the image to pop up on the LCD display — it may take some time before you see the image on the LCD screen, as the camera can take a while to write the file to the memory card. If your foreground is looking a bit dark, try light painting your subject with a flashlight or your smartphone light during the exposure to help brighten the scene. You may need to adjust the ISO or aperture slightly to find what works best for your location, but you are now firmly on your way to capturing your own images of the beautiful night sky.
Tips and advice
If you’re trying to balance the light and focus between the foreground and the night sky, we suggest you take multiple exposures of each element and merge the images together when you edit them, as they will require different settings to get the best of each. You may even find that getting your foreground shots an hour or so earlier during blue hour will help, as there is more light to work with for your foreground objects without having to crank the ISO up. This isn’t always possible, though.
If you’re shooting the night sky near a lake, and the weather is still, there’s a great opportunity to try capturing the reflection of the stars in the water. There are several ways to do this, depending on the conditions. We prefer to do the hard work during the shoot, so would suggest changing your focal point to the water and taking an exposure, then setting your focus back to the night sky and taking the exact same shot — you can merge them later in the edit.
You may find you need to balance your shutter speed a little here, depending on the conditions — a 20-second exposure will capture the reflection of the stars, but you may pick up movement on the water that reduces the clarity. You could try shorter exposures for your reflection shot but may have to work harder to bring out the stars in the edit. Lightroom’s linear-gradient edits are perfect for bringing out the clarity and sharpness of reflections, so give that a go.
While we’d usually recommend setting your white balance to a slightly cooler temperature for astro shots, you can experiment with either the manual WB settings or the presets, to create interesting tints and variations to your shots.
If you’re getting a little light pollution, adjusting the white balance can actually make it look like a feature of the photo (we recommend cooling it right down and seeing the effect that has), although you’d need a gradient filter to reduce noise if you’re closer to an urban area. Though to start out with, you can just use the ‘Auto White Balance’ setting and experiment with cooler and warmer adjustments when you edit to see which effect you prefer.