Photographing the Night Sky Using Your Digital SLR

6 of 8 in Series: The Essentials of Photographing Nature Using Your Digital SLR

Although sunset photos are attention-getters, you and your digital SLR can get great shots of the night sky after the sun goes down. The trick is to find a great spot with next to no ambient light from cities. And, unless you’re in a tropical paradise, the lower-humidity of the fall and winter makes for clearer pictures.

To capture a photograph of a scene complete with stars, you need to use a long exposure. You also need a tripod or some other means of steadying the camera, as well as a remote trigger to operate the shutter.

Setting up your digital SLR to shoot the night

When you photograph a scene that includes starry skies, you want a huge depth of field to keep everything in focus, so use a small aperture that has an f/stop of f/16. If you rely on the camera to expose the scene, you don’t see any stars at all. Therefore, shoot this type of picture by using the B (Bulb) shooting mode so that the shutter stays open until you decide to close it, which you do remotely.

The lowest ISO setting on some older cameras and Nikons is ISO 200. But if your camera has a lower setting, use it. A focal-length range of 28mm to 50mm lets you either capture a wide expanse of landscape and stars, or zoom in for a tighter view.

Taking pictures of the night sky

You won’t get good star shots if there’s much ambient light, so travel as far as you need to a dark, remote spot. The place doesn’t have to be an open field — a scene that includes mountains or tall trees can add interest to a night-sky shot.

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Mount your camera on a tripod and get it set up, including attaching the remote shutter trigger. Set the lens to manual focus and the lens focus to Infinity. This setting, combined with the small aperture, gives you a huge depth of field.

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Attach a hood to your lens to prevent any ambient sidelight from washing out the image.

After you compose the picture, press and hold the remote release. Experiment with different exposure times. Start out with an exposure of about 30 seconds. Release the remote trigger and review the image:

  • If the sky is too bright, the image is overexposed. Decrease the exposure by about five seconds.

  • If the image has bright areas, find an area that has no ambient light at all. A car turning a corner and illuminating nearby trees makes a bright spot in your picture.

  • If silhouettes of trees are blurry, either appreciate the role the wind is playing or try again on a calm night.

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The Essentials of Photographing Nature Using Your Digital SLR

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