Night Sky Season :: Be Prepared

Night sky photography is becoming ever more popular these days.  The night sky has fascinated man for millennia.  Vincent Van Gough wrote about his fascination with the night sky, writing: “It often seems to me that the night is much more alive and richly colored than the day.”  Certainly his fascination with the stars was the inspiration of his painting, “Starry Night”.  No less today when we venture out to the dark countryside, with our without camera in hand, we cannot help but look up on a dark night, allowing the stars and planets to captivate our attention and imaginations, allowing us to speculate about the vastness of our galaxy and the universe.

Vincent Van Gough wrote about his fascination with the night sky, writing: “It often seems to me that the night is much more alive and richly colored than the day.”

Without a doubt the advancement of technology in camera sensors has opened up a whole new area of photography largely unavailable to us 15 years ago.  With each new camera generation, which seems to span only about 18 -24 months,  low light capture capabilities continue to advance.  It’s no wonder that nighty sky photography is one of the fastest growing segments of landscape photography.  So if you are ready to venture out into the dark night, be prepared.  If you are, you can come away with some amazing images.  Here are some things to consider


Camera:  First I will assume that most realize you are not going to be taking a smart phone to a dark sky area to shoot Milky Way pictures.  However, there are a wide variety of digital SLRs all of which are not best suited for night sky photography.  That said, if you understand what features are important and the limitations of your equipment, it  can help in making decisions to get the most out of your night photography event.

Full-frame cameras a best suited because the tend to have a higher dynamic range and usually perform better than cropped sensor cameras for night photography.  Which full-frame camera is best?  The one you have.  Seriously, there are a number of models/makes that have proven performance in low light.  Probably one of the best is the Sony A7RIII, Sony’s latest flagship model.  It’s sensor is simply a level above others in my opinion.  But there are others that do quite well including Canon’s 5D Mark IV, as well as it predecessor the 5D Mark III.  The Canon entry level full-frame the 6D also does well.  Nikon’s 810 and 850 are also great, as are some of the earlier full frame versions.  The Olympus OPM-D E-M5 Mark II and the Panasonic Lumix are also great performers. There are others as well.  However, do not despair if your camera has a crop sensor.  You can still get some good images and as important have some fun in the learning process.

Lenses:  One thing that is important regardless of camera format is the speed of your lens.  Really you should have a lens of f/2.8 or faster.  While you can get by with one with f/3.5 if you have to, realize you are losing a half stop of light and will have to compensate by pushing your ISO even higher, resulting likely in  additional noise.  I will save a more in-depth discussion of lenses for another post but will say that Rokinon/Samyang lenses are excellent lenses for night photography, although they are all manual and may take a little getting used to.  The good side is because they are manual they are less expensive than other prime lenses.


FocusingNow focusing will be one of your biggest problems.  Here’s why.  For the Milky Way you will likely be shooting during a New Moon phase.  It will be quite dark and your camera cannot detect the contrast of elements enough to find focus.  You must have the stars sharp so focusing on infinity is paramount.  Now you can try using a hyper focal distance but this does not always work and I find it better to focus on infinity and rely either on ensuring appropriate distance is maintained from any foreground or taking two exposures: one for the foreground and one for the stars, then blend them later in Photoshop or other software.  Here are a couple of focus tips: 1) Focus on something beyond 30 meters to approximate infinity.  This can be a distant light or even something illuminated with a flashlight or green laser pointer.  2) Pre-focus while you still have light to see and verify infinity focus; then, tape down  your focus ring and turn off auto focus. 3) Use Live View on your camera and zoom in on a distant light or bright star and focus, again remembering to tape your focus ring down with some gaffers tape after verifying focus.

The best way to determine this is to use the 500 Rule as a guide (500/focal length = max time for exposure).

Exposure:  Your ISO setting for Milky Way photography will likely be between 3200 – 12800, depending on your camera’s capabilities.  In most cases you will likely be around 6400.  You want your stars to appear as points of light in your image with little or no star trailing so to ensure this you should keep your exposure times appropriate for the lens focal length in use.  The best way to determine this is to use the 500 Rule as a guide (500/focal length = max time for exposure).  For example:  24mm lens would be ~21 sec (500/24 = 20.8333).  This is based on a full-frame sensor so if you have a cropped sensor you should do the math to convert the focal length it to full-frame equivalent before applying the 500 rule.  Good news is you only have to do this once to determine your max exposure time, then you will always have it for future sessions.  But reasonably, if you keep your exposures 25 sec or below you should be fine.

I will be posting more on this subject in future blogs.  For now just go out and have fun with it and explore how the night sky can captivate your imagination.  + We are in the middle of Milky Way season and regardless of the equipment you currently have get out and practice the technique and you might be surprised at your results while having a blast doing it.  In future posts I will go deeper into focusing, composing, best times to photograph the Milky Way, white balance settings, light painting, star trail techniques and more.

Comments and questions are welcomed.  I will always get back to answer any questions.

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3 Comments on “Night Sky Season :: Be Prepared

  1. Night sky photography is my obsession since I’ve started my way in the photography niche. Be careful with ISO – that’s it. I highly appreciate your pieces of advice concerning the camera models, as I’m looking for a new stuff and they will come in handy for those who are in doubts.

    • Hi Stacy. Night sky photog can easily become an obsession. You are right about ISO; however, I have found that many err on the side of ISO being too low. They are often fooled by the LCD thinking they have a good exposure when in fact they don’t. I preach two rules: Rule 1) Trust your histogram. Rule 2) When in doubt, refer to rule #1. In most cases you are going to need an ISO of 3200 or even 6400. Some cameras like the Soney A7RIII can handle a push to 12800 in some cases. It’s sensor can handle noise pretty well. It is very difficult to bring an under exposed image up in post without introducing a lot of noise issues, even worse than the higher ISO. But everything is a compromise that we have to decide on based on limitations of our own equipment. Thanks for your comments and I hope you visit often.

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