Astrophotography is the art of photographing the night sky, and while once upon a time it was a hobby reserved for astrophysicists and professional photographers, nowadays it’s more accessible or amateur photographers and stargazing enthusiasts to try.
Armed with the right equipment, a patient mindset, and the knowledge of the best spots and times of year to get out with your camera, you’ll soon be snapping iconic shots of the night sky – from the moon and stars to meteor showers and the Milky Way. You won’t achieve the mind-blowing and sharp deep space images that the James Webb telescope can capture, but mesmerizing photos of glittering stars taken from the Earth are within reach.
In this guide we’ll cover all of the basics – think of this as the where, when, and how of astrophotography. Grab your camera or smartphone, wrap up in a warm jacket, and let’s get started!
When to take photos of the night sky
For the best night sky photographs, you’ll need clear skies and darkness. Pay attention to the lunar calendar, as this will dictate the best time of the month to get out with your camera, depending on what astral phenomena you’re wanting to photograph.
If you want to photograph the stars and anything other than the moon, plan to go on a night-sky shoot from one week before the new moon to a few days afterwards. During a full moon and the days immediately before and after, the light from the moon will overpower stars and other phenomena, so the subject of your photographs on these nights will have to be the moon itself.
The best time of night to head out with your camera depends on both the moon phase and the time of year. The best time to shoot the Milky Way is from May to July, around midnight. If you’re wanting to get out in autumn, then shooting right after sunset is the best time to capture stars, while in the early days of spring, the early hours of the morning are best.
This calendar, created by Canton Becker, highlights key lunar and astronomical events:
Popular lunar and astronomical events to capture on camera
Perseid meteor shower, August 11-12, 2022
The Perseid meteor shower is one of the most celebrated annual showers in the Northern Hemisphere. This year, the predicted peak of the shower falls near to the full moon, which will make photographing it trickier.
But fear not, the shower ranges all the way from July 14 to September 1, so you’ll have other opportunities to capture it. Start watching for these meteors at the start of August in the early hours of the morning when the moon is waxing, or try again later in August after sunset, as the moon rises.
Jupiter at opposition, September 26-27, 2022
On the night of September 26, Jupiter will be directly opposite the sun (with Earth in the middle). This is when the planet is at its brightest and most visible, so it’s the best time of year to get a good shot of it.
In 2022, Jupiter is in opposition at the time of the new moon, and it’s will also be closer to Earth than it has been for 70 years! You’ll see it rising in the east at sunset and, so long as the skies are clear, it will remain visible all night.
Orionids meteor shower, October 21-22, 2022
The Orionids meteor shower in 2022 takes place when the moon is a thin, waning crescent, so the visibility and photo opportunity should be good! Watch for the meteors in the early hours before dawn on the night of October 21. There will be a maximum of 10 to 20 fast-moving meteors per hour, and they sometimes produce bright fireballs that you might be lucky (and skilled) enough to capture on camera.
Total lunar eclipse, November 8, 2022
The next lunar eclipse will take place on the night of November 8, and will last from 02:09 – 05:49 (CST). The total eclipse begins at 04:16 and ends at 05:41, with the Earth’s shadow completely covering the moon at 04:59.
Where to take night sky photos
When scouting locations for your night sky photography, the most important factor to consider is darkness. Light pollution will interfere with your astrophotography, so find a location away from city lights to make your images clearer.
Do your research to find out if there is an International Dark Sky Place near you. Dark Sky Places – which include Dark Sky Reserves and Dark Sky Parks – are areas where light pollution is restricted and dark skies are preserved and protected, meaning you’ll get the clearest skies and the very best display of stars!
We’ve pinned some of the best stargazing locations around the world on this map:
Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah, USA
The world’s first International Dark -Sky Park, the Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah gives astrophotographers an incredible opportunity to photograph the Milky Way. Set up your tripod, mount your camera and get set to capture the Milky Way as it rises above the Owachomo Bridge – a natural rock formation that’ll be the perfect foreground in your photos.
Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania, USA
Cherry Springs was granted Dark Sky Park status in 2008, and it’s best known for its two annual star parties, which attract astronomers from around the world! Its stargazing field offers an unobstructed, 360-degree view of the night sky, and an impressive 60 to 85 nights a year have ideal conditions for astrophotography.
Parc National du Mont Mégantic, Quebec, Canada
The Parc National du Mont Mégantic is the world’s first – and largest – International Dark Sky Reserve. It’s an astronomy-lover’s paradise, with the clearest of skies and an observatory and museum that host an array of tours, activities and exhibitions. It’s a great spot if you want to mingle with and learn from fellow astrophotographers.
South Downs National Park, UK
The South Downs National Park was awarded International Dark Sky Reserve status in 2016. The skies are impressively dark here, and there are 10 recognized ‘discovery sites’ dotted across the region that’ll give you excellent opportunities to capture the starry skies above.
How to take the best photos of the night sky
You’ve set the date and chosen your location, now you just need to make sure you’ve got the right equipment – and know how to use it. Later on we’ll take a look at the best cameras and smartphones for astrophotography, but first things first, here are some tips and tricks to help you get the money shot.
You should always shoot in manual mode, and the exact settings you go for will depend on a range of factors, including what you’re aiming to capture and the conditions on the night, but here are some general rules to get you started:
Invest in a tripod
A tripod is essential for capturing photographs of the night sky. Typical exposure times at night can range from five to 30 seconds, and your camera needs to remain completely still for the duration. Invest in a sturdy tripod to keep your camera as still as can be and to get the sharpest possible image.
Choose your lens
The right lens will make all the difference when it comes to astrophotography, and you’ll want to choose the fastest and widest lens that you can. Opt for a 14-24mm wide-angle lens with a maximum aperture of at least ƒ/2.8.
Use a larger aperture
The trick to getting the best night sky photographs (so long as the moon isn’t too bright) is to let as much light in as possible from the sky. Use a ‘large’ aperture of ƒ/2.8 – ƒ/4 to maximize the amount of light entering your lens. This will improve the amount of detail and the amount of stars you’re able to capture.
Calculate your shutter speed/exposure time
A typical astrophotography shutter speed is five to 30 seconds (you’re aiming for the maximum length of time you can expose while keeping the stars sharp), and the exact time you can expose for is generally based on the focal length of your lens and the camera you use.
One of the most common ways of calculating exposure time is the 500 rule. Start with 500, and divide it by the focal length of your lens. The number you’re left with is the longest exposure time you can go for (in seconds) before stars will start to trail and blur.
Use a high ISO
The best ISO for astrophotography is typically at the higher end of the spectrum, between 1600 and 6400. Using a higher ISO means that the camera sensor is more sensitive to light, and more noise and grain is introduced to the image, preventing a pitch-black image.
The exact ISO will vary between cameras and situations, so experiment by taking a set of images while increasing the ISO each time to determine which setting results in the best photographs.
These are the basic rules of thumb when it comes to astrophotography, but your ideal camera settings may vary depending on what you’re wanting to photograph. We’ve outlined some tips below for different types of astral phenomena:
How to photograph a full moon
Since the moon – especially a full moon – is so bright, it’s important not to overexpose. To get a great shot of a full moon, set your camera to its base ISO, which is usually ISO 100. Set the aperture to ƒ/11, and adjust your shutter speed to 1/100. Start with these settings, then have a play around, adjusting them based on the brightness of the moon.
If the image comes out too bright, set a faster shutter speed like 1/200, or if it’s too dim, set a longer shutter speed like 1/60. You can also use a wider aperture like ƒ/8 or ƒ/5.6 to capture more light, or increase the ISO to ISO 200 or 400.
How to photograph a solar eclipse
Astrophotography might not be considered a particularly dare-devil hobby, but that all changes when a solar eclipse is involved! When photographing a solar eclipse, it’s important to take precautions for both your eyes and your equipment. Mounting a solar filter in front of your lens will limit how much light passes through the lens, protecting your camera sensor.
In terms of settings, you’ll need to adjust these at different stages of the eclipse, but it’s a good idea to start with the lowest ISO, like ISO 100, your camera’s fastest shutter speed, like 1/4000 or 1/8000, and an aperture of between ƒ/5.6 and ƒ/8. You’ll then need to adjust the settings depending on how dark it gets.
How to photograph a lunar eclipse
When shooting a lunar eclipse, start at ISO 100 during the partial eclipse and then increase the ISO as necessary. The aperture will need to be between ƒ/4 and ƒ/8 at the start, then you’ll want to open the lens to the widest aperture during the total eclipse. Use the 500 rule to determine the best shutter speed, and adjust as needed.
How to photograph the Northern Lights
If you’re lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the magnificent Aurora Borealis, then you’re inevitably going to be desperate to get that perfect photograph. Set the widest aperture in your lens (ƒ/2.8 or lower) to capture as much light as possible and get the highest quality shot.
Raise your camera’s ISO as high as possible, ideally between 3200 and 6400, although if the moon is bright or if there are other forms of light pollution then you’ll want to set a lower ISO.
Setting the exposure time is the most challenging part of shooting the Northern Lights, since the shape and brightness of the Aurora constantly changes. As such, you’ll need to keep adjusting the shutter speed. As a general rule, the quicker the Aurora moves, the faster your shutter speed should be.
How to photograph a meteor shower
Your camera settings for capturing a meteor shower will vary depending on the specific conditions that night, but you should start by opening the lens to the widest aperture and setting a high ISO (though not too high or the images may start to appear noisy and washed out). Use the 500 rule to calculate your shutter speed, then you can manually adjust aperture and ISO to improve your images.
How to photograph the Milky Way
To capture the cloudy wonder of the Milky Way, set the maximum aperture, an ISO of 1600, then use the 500 rule to calculate the shutter speed. If the Milky Way isn’t clear and sharp in your first shot, try raising the ISO to 3200-6400.
How to photograph constellations
Photographing constellations is a popular starting point for astrophotography, and you can either go about it in a similar way to if you were photographing the Milky Way, with a high ISO, to capture the constellation and surrounding stars, or you can choose a much lower ISO, like 400, to focus on the brighter stars from the constellation.
Best cameras for astrophotography
For this section, it’s important to note that Pixsy hasn’t personally tested or reviewed these products for astrophotography, nor do we endorse any specific product. We have scoured the web for reputable reviews and roundups, cross-referenced them, and pulled out some of the best cameras and smartphones available on the market to help you get started in the world of astrophotography.
Nikon D850 DSLR
The Nikon D850’s wide-ranging ISO sensitivity makes it ideal for astrophotography and low-light shooting. It has backlit illuminated buttons and a tilting touchscreen which make it easy to use in the dark, and it’s lightweight and super sturdy too.
Sony A7 III
The Sony A7 III is a brilliant astrophotography camera with great low-light performance. Its ‘Bright Monitoring’ functionality makes it easy to see a live view in dark conditions.
Canon EOS 6D Mark II
The Canon EOS 6D Mark II has a reputation as a brilliant yet affordable full-frame camera. It’s a firm favorite in the world of night sky photography, and it was the most commonly used model by entrants in 2020’s Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition.
A great value option, the Fujifilm X-T4 is easy to use, has an excellent ISO range and has a swivel head screen that makes night photography easier to achieve. It’s also compact and lightweight, making it easy to take with you wherever your astrophotography ambitions take you.
Canon EOS Ra
Designed specifically for astrophotographers, the Canon EOS Ra is a great choice for deep space astrophotography – give this one a go once you’ve got to grips with the basics and are ready to move things up a gear.
The Nikon Z6 offers a brilliant backlit sensor, market-leading image stabilization, and a vast ISO range for amazing clarity on even the darkest of nights – and all at a good price.
Best smartphones for astrophotography
Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus / Ultra
What makes the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra ideal for astrophotography is its incredible 108-megapixel image sensor, which improves images taken in low-light by losing ‘noisy’ pixels to create a cleaner and more detailed image. The Plus may not have the same superpowers, but it’s a more affordable version, with a clean and bright Night Mode that still produces decent night time images.
Apple iPhone 13 Pro / Pro Max
Apple’s latest iPhones are well-equipped for astrophotography. The 13 Pro boasts wide and ultra-wide lenses with large apertures, plus a telephoto lens with 3x optical zoom. The 13 Pro Max has bigger sensors than any iPhone before it, with an excellent Night Mode that makes good images of the night sky possible.
Google Pixel 6 Pro
The Google Pixel 6 Pro has a wide lens, an ultra-wide lens and a telephoto lens with 4x optical zoom. It also comes with a low-light mode called ‘Night Sight’ and another mode called ‘Motion’ for creative, long-exposure shots.
OnePlus 9 Pro
When it comes to astrophotography brands, Hasselblad is pretty iconic. Why? The brand built the camera that Neil Armstrong used on his voyage to the moon! Hasselblad has co-developed the 9 Pro camera with OnePlus, with four lenses, laser autofocus, and Hasselblad-calibrated colors.
Apple iPhone 12 Pro
It may no longer be the latest model, but the iPhone 12 Pro has still got it. It has wide, ultra-wide and telephoto lenses, plus Night Mode, and fast autofocus in low light.
Huawei P40 Pro Plus
The Huawei P40 Pro+ has a lot to offer when it comes to astrophotography. It has seven lenses, 10x optical zoom, and a Night Mode that produces clean, sharp, and colorful images.
Google Pixel 5 / 5a
Despite being an older model, the Google Pixel 5 has some great features for nighttime photography, including a wide-angle lens and Night Sight mode for low-light photography. The 5a goes one step further, with a specific astro mode for high-quality, long-exposure photography.
And there you have it, everything you need to know to get started in the world of astrophotography! You’ll be capturing epic photos of the night sky in no time – just be sure to brush up on your photo rights as the owner of your images to ensure your photos are protected online.
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