Astrophotography: night sky and star photography tips

A guide to photographing stellar shots of the night sky, from the best time to capture the Milky Way to recommended settings, cameras and lenses.
A landscape image of pine trees, a lake and snow-dusted mountains under a starry sky.

Standing outdoors at night and gazing up at the stars is a truly magical experience. Nowadays, thanks to advances in camera technology, it's easier than ever to get out there and capture the wonder of the night sky.

Here, we explore how astrophotography works, the equipment needed for night photography, including time-lapse and star-trail images, and the best night photography techniques and camera settings.

1. Check the weather forecast

Before you go out to shoot, don't forget to check the forecast, as you'll need a clear night sky to achieve the cleanest star photography. That said, partial cloud cover can actually add atmosphere to your night sky pictures, so be creative and use the weather to your advantage. Keep an eye on the wind: if the clouds are relatively still, they won't look too blurry in shots where you're using a long exposure.

Pack spare batteries and memory cards, a head torch and warm clothing. Remember to keep batteries in your pockets as they drain more quickly when exposed to the cold.

2. Find the right location and choose the right time

A starry night sky, the horizon streaked with orange and a fir tree just visible in the left foreground.

Astrophotography requires patience and a bit of research. To achieve the best results, you want to find the perfect combination of weather, location, time and date. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 22mm, 8 sec, f/3.5 and ISO1250. © Ulla Lohmann

The Milky Way in the night sky with a silhouette of a dead tree in the foreground.

Stars, and the beautiful Milky Way in particular, are hard to see in places with light pollution. Travelling to nearby countryside or wilderness areas will give you an enormous advantage when photographing the night sky. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens at 28mm, 30 sec, f/2 and ISO3200.

To get the best night sky pictures, you'll need to head out into nature and away from any light pollution. Look for a quiet spot with no artificial lighting. City lights will overpower stars, but so will a full or even a half moon, so check your lunar calendar when planning your star photography shoot.

The best time to photograph the Milky Way in the northern hemisphere is between March and September, when it appears highest in the sky. Aim to shoot between midnight and 5am, ideally on nights with a new moon. The Milky Way season lasts longer in the southern hemisphere, from February to late October.

3. Try different camera settings

Craggy orange rock formations silhouetted against a starry night sky.

You'll need to get to grips with your camera's settings to succeed in shooting stars at night. Don't be afraid to experiment and try out different setting combinations to see what effects these have on your night sky pictures. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 15 sec, f/2.8 and ISO3200.

To shoot starry skies, you'll need to take control of your camera, so select Manual (M) mode and try out some of the different settings detailed below:

  • Shutter speed: Stars move as the Earth spins, so if you want to capture precise pinpricks of light, set your shutter speed to a maximum of 20 seconds. Extending it beyond this will result in star trails.
  • Aperture: You'll also need to use a wider aperture setting. This will allow you to let as much light as possible into the camera while keeping the exposure time relatively short. Remember that a wide aperture will result in a shallow depth of field, meaning anything in the immediate foreground will be out of focus.
  • ISO: The third factor affecting the exposure of your photos is your ISO setting. The higher your ISO number, the more sensitive your sensor will be to the light entering through the aperture. Go too far, though, and your images will start to look grainy. Make sure you're happy with your aperture and shutter speed before experimenting with your ISO settings. Try an ISO of 1600 at first and adjust from there to see how this affects your results.

A starry night sky with an orange rock formation in the foreground.

Stepping up to a full-frame sensor enables you to capture excellent images in low light. The high maximum ISOs of the Canon EOS RP and the EOS R6 make it possible to retain detail and colour with minimal noise. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens at 28mm, 15 sec, f/2 and ISO3200.

4. Stay focused when shooting stars at night

Night sky photography can challenge the autofocus capabilities of any camera. Consider switching to manual focusing by flipping the AF/MF switch on the barrel of your Canon lens. Mirrorless cameras such as the Canon EOS R6 and EOS RP offer a magnified preview of the scene both in the electronic viewfinder and on the rear screen, enabling ultra-precise manual focusing. Another bonus is that the brightness of the viewfinder image is automatically boosted. You can enjoy the same benefits with DSLRs such as the Canon EOS 90D by composing your shots in Live View mode using the rear LCD screen.

Cameras that boast high megapixel counts, such as the Canon EOS R5, can have a huge impact on night sky photography, enabling you to retain ultra-fine detail when photographing the stars. It can mean the difference between the smallest, faintest stars being clearly visible, or missing altogether. This level of detail is especially important if you want to produce prints of your starry night sky images*.

5. Select the best astro lens

Trees silhouetted against a starry night sky.

A magical lens for astrophotography, the Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM has a supremely fast aperture rating throughout its entire zoom range, rivalling that of many 'fast' prime lenses. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens at 28mm, 75 sec, f/2 and ISO1600.

Tall palm trees silhouetted against the Milky Way in the night sky.

An ultra-wide viewing angle and a fast aperture is required for capturing the broad expanse of the Milky Way on camera. This generally equates to the need for a big, heavy and very expensive lens, but the Canon RF 16mm F2.8 STM is relatively lightweight, compact and affordable, making it ideal for cost-effective astrophotography. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 16mm F2.8 STM lens at 25 sec, f/2.8 and ISO6400.

Lenses with a 'fast' aperture rating are always preferable for star photography, and they don't need to cost a fortune. The Canon RF 35mm F1.8 Macro IS STM makes a superb astrophotography lens, for example. The moderately wide field of view of this lens takes in a large swathe of the night sky, while the fast aperture pulls in lots of light, and optical image stabilisation enables handheld night shots. For capturing even more expansive shots of the Milky Way, the Canon RF 16mm F2.8 STM is ideal, combining an ultra-wide field of view and fast aperture with a compact build.

If you prefer the added versatility of a zoom lens, the Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM stretches from a generously wide field of view to a telephoto focal length, meaning this lens can double as a portrait and wildlife lens. It also features image stabilisation, allowing you to slow your shutter while shooting handheld. For photographers wanting even higher quality at this focal range, the Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM offers professional-grade L-Series optics and full weather sealing.

The Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM is a spectacular standard zoom for astrophotography, with an incredibly fast f/2 maximum aperture. For extra width at the wider end, where a few millimetres go a long way, try the Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM.

The Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM, an ultra-wide-angle zoom, enables you to capture vast amounts of the night sky, while still enjoying a fast aperture rating and flexible zoom range. The more compact Canon RF 14-35mm F4L IS USM is a good alternative – only an f/stop slower and providing an even greater maximum field of view. Find out more about why RF lenses can give you the edge when shooting at night in our guide to the best Canon kit for low-light photography*.  

If you're in the market for a budget-friendly zoom to fit your APS-C format DSLR, the Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM delivers impeccable image quality and a constant fast aperture rating of f/2.8, unusual in this class.

6. Improve night sky composition

The Milky Way arcs across the sky above the rocky shores of a lake.

A star-filled sky can often be enhanced by including the surrounding landscape in your photograph. This adds a unique element to your images and makes your work stand out from other night sky photography. Taken on a Canon EOS 6D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 6D Mark II) at 20mm, 30 sec, f/2.8 and ISO5000.

A spiky tree silhouetted against a starry night sky.

Try framing your shot so that while the camera is pointed skywards, a tall foreground element, such as a rock formation or this tree, looms into the frame. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens at 28mm, 30 sec, f/2 and ISO3200.

Elevate your night sky photography by including other elements to bring more visual interest – buildings, trees, mountains, or reflective lakes are all good options. Sometimes stars photographed on their own can result in images that lack perspective or personality, so always look for something unique that you can shoot to add to your image.

A traditional technique for retaining sharpness in a scene from the foreground to the background is to set the lens to its hyperfocal distance, but this is impractical with many modern lenses that lack a focus distance scale. Checking different areas on the camera's rear screen with a magnified preview enables accurate manual focusing but, given the shallow depth of field at wide apertures, it can be impossible to get the whole scene in focus. An alternative is to take two or more shots at different focus and exposure settings, separately tailored to foreground areas and the distant starry sky, and then to merge them into a single image with an editing program that features layer masks, such as Adobe Photoshop.

If you'd rather capture everything in a single shot, but foreground areas are very dark, try illuminating them with a flashgun such as the Canon Speedlite 430EX III-RT, firing one or more pulses of light during a long exposure. You can also get creative by sweeping light over specific foreground objects and areas of interest during a long exposure with a torch, or even the headlights of your car if you've driven to a shooting location.

7. Capture star-trail images

Capturing fantastic lines of light showing the movement of the stars is a challenge, but mastering the technique is possible by following a few simple steps. Start by locating the North Pole, which is easily achieved using a star chart app on your smartphone. Positioning yourself so that the North Pole (or the South Pole if you're in the southern hemisphere) is the focal point of your photo and using a long exposure will result in the circular pattern forming around a central location. Remember, for any long exposure shot, it's important to use a tripod to avoid motion blur.

Stars don't give off much light, so use a high ISO (800, 1600 or higher) to produce clear star trails. Take a few experimental snaps before attempting a long exposure, as the higher the ISO, the more likely you are to encounter 'noise' in your image.

Although it takes 24 hours for the stars to complete a full revolution in the sky, the appearance of a full-circle star-trail effect can be achieved with a long exposure of around 60 to 90 minutes. If you're shooting in the northern hemisphere, locating the Polaris star in the night sky will give you a reference point around which the stars will appear to rotate.

The slowest shutter speed available on many cameras is 30 seconds, so you'll need to use the Bulb exposure setting in Manual (M) mode. This allows you to keep the shutter open for as long as you want to. Set your focus to infinity, and once you're ready, try an exposure of around 30 minutes. Then review your shot again. It may take a few tries – and some patience – but eventually you'll achieve results you're happy with.

Another option is to create a night sky time-lapse video. Many Canon cameras, including the Canon EOS R6, EOS R5 and EOS 90D, feature a Timelapse Movie shooting mode, utilising a built-in intervalometer. Mount your camera on a tripod and set a shutter speed of around 20 seconds or faster, setting your aperture and ISO accordingly (f/4 and ISO640 tends to work well). Take a test shot and review the results, making any necessary changes to your exposure settings. Next, set up the intervalometer to take successive shots every couple of minutes or so.

The total shooting time for the sequence will depend on how long you want your night sky time-lapse video to be, as well as your frame rate. For example, a sequence totalling 60 shots at a frame rate of 30fps will result in a two-second time-lapse video.

A well-made star time-lapse can be astounding, with the heavens appearing to gradually spin before your eyes. If you're lucky, or plan your shoot to line up with a meteor shower, shooting stars will dart across your frame, adding to the galactic wonder. Find out how the pros capture this stunning celestial display in our guide to photographing meteor showers*.

Written by Matthew Richards

*Available in selected languages.
Adobe and Photoshop are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Adobe in the United States and/or other countries.

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