I’m happy to have teamed up with UCO Gear to share these tips on night sky photography. For this project, I used three different UCO LED lanterns. Check out their website for more killer products and sign up below for a chance to win your own Madrona+ lantern.
Ever since picking up a camera, I’ve been drawn to night sky photography. Night images are truly unique, often capturing scenes our eyes cannot see.
Because I live near Banff National Park, it’s often difficult to photograph known landmarks in a creative way. Consider the classic image of Mt Rundle from Vermilion Lakes. There isn’t a composition we aren’t familiar with, so it’s difficult to shoot such a well-known landmark and it’s nearly impossible to enjoy those locations without a crowd. Photographing these same locations throughout the night not only allows me to have the entire place to myself, but also makes it possible to capture these classic scenes in a new way.
Another plus to shooting at night? The light lasts a lot longer and it’s consistent throughout the night, which makes it possible to shoot multiple images of the same location to fine-tune a composition tp that I truly land the image I want.
It’s relatively easy to get started, too, as night sky photography requires minimal gear and specific camera settings. Here’s how to get started:
Night sky photography essentials & my preferred equipment choices
dSLR or Mirrorless Camera | Sony A7Rii
Fast-aperture lens | Sigma 24mm f/1.4 lens
Tripod | Benro Mach3 Carbon Fibre
Headlamp/lights | Uco Gear Rhody+, Mardrona+, and Sitka+
7 Tips for getting started with night sky photography
It’s more about composition than camera settings.
Night sky photography carries an infinite amount of possibly yet its camera settings vary only slightly. Because of the minimal ambient light, look to use high ISO’s (800-3200), fast apertures (f/1.4-2.8), and longer shutter speeds (1″ – 30″). Once I have the exposure figured out, I find it essential to sketch through the scene to find the right composition.
2. Understanding the 500 Rule
Shutter speed is a vital part of the exposure triangle and it’s also used to create or eliminate motion within an image. For night sky photography, there are really two styles of images people capture: static stars or star trails. To freeze stars in place, we use the 500 rule, which is simple math:
500/focal length = maximum shutter speed before the stars move.
Ie: 500/24mm lens = 20.8333″.
I can shoot a 20″ shutter speed and the stars will appear static in my image. Anything longer and they’ll slowly begin to track through the sky.
3. Nailing the Focus
For a typical landscape image, we learn to focus approximately 1/3rd into the scene. That’s an ideal situation when shooting a standard aperture between f/8 and f/11; however, it simply doesn’t work when photographing the night sky with a wide open aperture. Instead, focus the lens on infinity. This will be far easier on manual focus lenses, but it’s possible with any lens.
4. Add light (but not too much) to the image
As there is minimal ambient light, it can be very difficult to include an interesting foreground in night sky photography. Simply adding a light source will quickly change how an image looks. For this image, I used the Madrona+ LED lantern. It was the perfect light source, as it has adjustable brightness from 10-300 lumens. Because I was shooting an 8″ shutter speed, I opted for the 10 lumen setting. Anything more powerful and I’d have truly blown highlights throughout the forest rather than just at the light source itself.
5. Tell a larger story
Night sky photography tends to focus on epic landscapes, but it’s a great opportunity to create a detailed photograph that tells a larger story, too, simply by moving closer to the scene. In this image, I set up a cooking scene on a picnic table, using the UCO Sitka+ Lantern on it’s dimmest (30 lumens) setting to illuminate the scene. While it isn’t the most technically perfect image, it tells a story that holds the viewer’s attention.
6. Shoot a Variety of Images with Timelapse Mode
With any scene, it’s critical to not settle with the first image. After settling into a composition I liked, I used my camera’s timelapse mode to shoot an image every five seconds. that allowed me to wander through the frame and capture a variety of different self portraits. I carried the UCO Rhody+ with me, again set to its dimmest setting, to add some light to the scene. If you scroll back to the top of the post, you’ll see a slightly different variation of this same scene.
7. Get outside and explore (with some props)
As with any form of photography, it’s important to get out and explore with the camera. Whenever I shoot at night, I leave the majority of my camera equipment at home, as I know I’ll primarily be shooting a single lens. I always make sure to carry a few different light sources, to provide some variation as I shoot. As a minimum, I carry the UCO Rhody+ and UCO Mardona LED lanterns with me.
That’s more than enough to help any photographer get started with night sky photography! I hope you’ll give it a try!