Over the last year or two my interest in night sky photography has really evolved. From the first little try on the beach in North Carolina to a surprise glimpse of a faint milky way in the dark abyss of Bryce Canyon, the elusive universe has slowly wrapped it tentacles around me. As my camera equipment improved and my knowledge and ability increased, I was finally able to understand all the critical aspects that converge to make a night perfect for capturing stars. I’ve had several people inquire after what equipment and settings I use so I decided a blog post was the best way to lay it out step by step.

Cherry Springs Dark Sky Reserve

Cherry Springs Dark Sky Reserve


For any night time photography you’d like to try your hand at, there are a few musts. First: a tripod (which is non-negotiable). I also find it extremely helpful to have a remote that releases the shutter for me so I don’t have to mess with the camera’s timer in the dark. I prefer to use a wide-angle lens (Nikon 14-24mm) so I can fit a large area of the sky in my photograph. When I know I’m heading out for night sky photography, I always set the focus of my camera during the day while there is still plenty of light in the sky and then tape up the sides of the lens to ensure that the focus is ready to go when all the light is gone and I won’t accidentally move it!

When it comes to camera settings, it is always best to go with a wide aperture to let in the most amount of light. 2.8 is more than adequate for some great night time photos! As for ISO, 2500 – 3200 is a comfortable range that doesn’t allow too much noise to clog up your shot. The shutter should be kept to a max of 30 seconds, after which I start to see some movement in the stars which makes the shot look less clear. I’ve come to believe that 25 seconds is the sweet spot for my equipment and it guarantees the starts don’t look out of focus!

Once you have your equipment and settings ready to go, the last thing you need to consider are the natural factors and conditions. When I first began shooting, I had no idea how crucial atmospheric conditions are to getting those great night sky photos you see! The first rule of photographing stars is to leave all that city light behind and head out into the rural parts of the country to see a truly stunning display of stars. The US has a fantastic national park system that offers plenty of spots for star-gazing all over the country, in addition to the special ‘dark sky preserves’ where the night sky is fastidiously protected just as any other endangered species. Another key element in star photography is to wait for a night with zero cloud cover and a small to non-existent moon. Even if the cloud cover is mild or sporadic and you can still see tons of stars, those clouds will easily pick up ANY AND ALL light from nearby cities during a long exposure and throw strange colors everywhere! And the moon, however dim it seems, is suddenly bright enough to overpower the stars during a long exposure. Seems obvious, right??? Except the first few times I tried photographing the night sky I seriously had no clue that I should be considering this stuff!

Nice enough, but can't see the stars for the moon!

Nice enough, but can’t see the stars for the moon!

Some parks, like Cherry Springs State Park in northern Pennsylvania, will offer Clear Sky Charts to aid in predicting when to go for perfect sky conditions. You can also rely on this handy Dark Sky Finder to help steer you in the right direction… i.e. away from cities!

All of the above details will get you ready to capture some great star photos but, if you’re after the Milky Way or some northern lights, the season and time of year becomes important as well. Northern Lights are only visible from October – March and the Milky Way can only be seen in the Northern Hemisphere from February – September.  With a little planning and research, it’s possible to set up a successful night sky excursion and bring home a slice of the universe. 🙂

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