7 Secrets for Improving Your Astrophotography & Night Sky Photography

While night sky or astrophotography may be one of the trickier genres of photography, it's also one of the most gratifying... perhaps, even one of the most magical.

Though technically, it isn't really that difficult once you learn its basics, it's tougher to pull off because there are a lot of other things involved. You have to shoot at night and in the dark, which makes things like setting up and adjusting your composition a lot harder. You also have to account for things like the Earth's rotation, the time of year, and Milky Way location.

Yet, even with everything it takes to get just a single great shot of the Milky Way or the star trails, night sky photography is rewarding, which is why many photographers pick it up. And so should you.

Before you start, here are our seven favorite tips for improving your astrophotography session.

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PLANNING IS KEY

Unless you're really, really lucky--like if you happen to be driving at night and you come across this gorgeous spot backdropped with a stunning astrophotography scene--you can't just pick a location to shoot in, drive there with your model, and start taking photos. There are many things to consider, and since night sky compositions take longer to shoot, these things all have to come together.

One of the secrets to night sky photography is proper and careful planning. Do your research. Find a dark sky you want to shoot in (light pollution is the main adversary of night sky photography) and set a date around a new moon so there's even less light. And that's just to start.

You must also do some scouting for a good foreground, arrive when there's still enough light so you can easily set-up, figure out things like the location of the North Star and placement of the Milky Way, and even whether or not it will be visible that time of the year, among other things.

Quick Tip: Photopills and Photographer's Ephemeris are useful apps for night sky photography planning.

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SO IS PATIENCE

You'll need a lot of patience shooting night sky photography, especially in the beginning. Not only does it take plenty of planning, which means you have to keep your shutter-happy fingers calm, but it also takes a bit of trial and error.

In fact, at least while you're still honing your skills, you'll most likely have to go through a number of bad photos before you end up with a decent one. Sometimes, you might even end up going home with nothing useable. This is extra frustrating given how long -- from a few seconds to a few hours -- each composition takes to capture and then process.

Patience, therefore, (and plenty of it!) is one of the secrets to night sky photography. After all the careful planning and you're finally ready to shoot, take your time. Check and double-check your settings before you click that shutter. Scrutinize every detail. Bring a comfortable chair, a warm drink, and a thick blanket so you can relax while waiting. Don't rush.

And remember, even if you fail the first time, it doesn't mean you should give up. Night sky photography is a marathon rather than a sprint.

GET COMFORTABLE IN BULB MODE

If you want long star trails or even those legendary star trail circles, then you don’t just need to get comfortable in your chair under a thick blanket. Most importantly, you’ll need to get comfortable shooting in Bulb mode, as you’ll need to open that shutter for minutes at a time for anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours. In fact, you could be there until shortly before sunrise.

Get to know your camera and learn how to operate its Interval Shooting function as well. You’ll need this to set your camera to automatically release the shutter at specific intervals for minutes at a time. Using this technique, as opposed to simply leaving your shutter open for hours, ensures that you don’t overexpose your final image. You could end up with 50 or more shots that you’ll need to stack later in Photoshop, but it’ll be worth it.

Oh, and invest in a wireless remote and a very sturdy tripod to minimize camera shake.

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CONSIDER YOUR COMPOSITION

Arrive early enough so that you still have light to work with when composing your shots. Trust us; you’ll be struggling to get that perfect composition after sundown. When composing your shots, don’t just point your lens to Polaris (the North Star). Just like when you’re taking landscape photos in the daytime, you need to add depth to your image and also make sure that your horizon line is straight.

Compose your photos so that adding earthly elements to the mix. Use interesting trees or geological formations as your foreground. To add a “human” element, maybe include that lone cabin, your softly lit tent or your friend with a headlamp standing on a boulder in your shot.

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT

Remember how we said astrophotography is a marathon? By that, we mean you might have to come out for several nights to shoot before you'll end up with a photograph decent enough to share with the world. That's because even when you have to get all the technical details right--exposure settings, white balance, etc--and you've set up your composition properly, it doesn't necessarily mean you'll yield a good shot.

There are so many things involved, and it takes time and some experience for things to line up for that perfect shot. Practice, practice, practice... and pretty soon, night sky photography will feel like second nature.

BE READY TO TRAVEL

Unless you live in the middle of the wilderness, you'll have to get away from those sparkling city lights. Towns and cities produce so much light pollution, and it would be impossible for you to properly expose the night sky so you're capturing the stars or the Milky Way the way they're meant to be captured.

For that, you have to find a place that isn't ruined with bright lights. Even city lights that are miles away can still ruin your shot. This means that you'll have to get in your car and drive, possibly for hours, to find a dark sky area.

Quick Tip: Both the Dark Sky Finder and the Dark Sky apps are useful apps for this purpose.

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LOW ISO IS A MUST (AS IS 2800°K-4000ºK WHITE BALANCE)

When you're adjusting your camera settings, make sure to use a low ISO (800 or below) and set your white balance between 2800°K-4000ºK. A low ISO keeps that distracting noise away and keeps your images clean. A cooler white balance, on the other hand, keeps your whites white and your night sky images more appealing.