Astrophotography Settings: A Beginner’s Guide to Photographing the Night Sky

Learn how to capture beautiful night sky imagery, even as a beginner, with these astrophotography settings and helpful tips. This guide will help you find success whilst shooting the stars – even on your first night photography outing.

Whilst we look at astrophotography through a Kiwi lens, the astrophotography settings and tips shared here can be used all around the world.

So, grab your gear, set your camera up, and be prepared for the time of your life under a blanket of stars!

Photo by Grant Birley

The Ultimate Guide to Milkyway Photography: Astrophotography Settings and Tips

Have you ever noticed how on a clear, moonless night – particularly away from the lights of the city centres – how vivid the night sky can be?

Perhaps you’ve wondered how people capture the amazing astrophotos that you see posted on social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook?

Surprisingly, it’s not as difficult to capture the night sky as you might think and we’re here to help step you through the process.

With DSLR and mirrorless cameras now much more affordable than they were 5-10 years ago you can also take those amazing night sky photos as well.

We recommend you use this beginners guide (including suggested astrophotography settings) to take the guesswork out of this striking artform.

Welcome to the Wonderful World of Astrophotography

Before we introduce the recommended astro kit, there’s one thing you’ll need… dark skies.

Successful astrophotography calls for clear skies, away from the light pollution of cities.

In this sense, we are incredibly lucky in New Zealand – you never need to travel too far to escape the light pollution of cities.

You’ll also want to shoot around the time of the new moon (when the moon is either hidden or barely visible).

When the moon is bright in the sky its light competes with the stars, making it incredibly difficult to effectively capture the Milky Way.

Essential Astro App Download: There are several apps that track the moon phases during the year. We recommend ‘Lunar Phase’ – download it on Android or iPhone to help you plan your astro adventure in advance. Remember, you’re looking for the moon to be hidden from view.

Though the moon is beautiful to photograph in itself, having it present in a photograph hides the surrounding stars.Photo by Grant Birley.

Essential Camera Equipment

The following equipment is recommended for taking beautiful astrophotos.

In addition, we recommend packing a warm jacket and plenty of snacks, as you’ll be out late at night during the chilliest parts of the year.

A Manual Camera

To take beautiful astrophotos you will need a DSLR or mirrorless camera. Most entry-level cameras released in the last couple of years will do the job well.

When taking photos of the stars, you will be using a technique called a long exposure; this forces your camera shutter to stay open longer, allowing it to capture the light from the stars.

You’ll need to set your camera settings manually in order to get the shot you’re after – the exact astrophotography settings you need are listed shortly.

Pro Tip:Even though some of the latest smart phones can capture photos of the stars, to get the best results we really do recommend a decent camera that can be operated on manual.

A Decent Lens

The night sky is vast so to capture as much of it as possible we recommended that you use a wide-angle lens with the widest aperture possible.

Focal Length

An ideal focal length for astrophotography is anywhere from 14mm to 35mm.

Don’t worry though – if you’re starting off with astro and don’t have a wide lens, there’s no need to race out and buy one. You’ll still be able to take gorgeous photos with a narrower lens – you just won’t fit as much of the scene in.

Aperture

To take striking astrophotos, you’ll want a lens that can achieve a low f-stop. f/1.4 – f/2.8 is recommended if possible.

The f-stop relates to the amount of light being let into the sensor. The lower the f-stop, the larger the aperture opens – this allows your camera to pick up more of the light from the night sky.

Unfortunately, lenses with a low f-stop come at a cost. Luckily though, here are some great third party lenses (which are available at a much more affordable price) and it’s also possible to pick up quality second-hand lenses.

Again though, don’t let having the wrong lens put you off getting out there to experiment – even with a slightly narrower aperture, you should still be able to capture some stars.

Just remember though, the lower the f-stop, the better.

Mt Cook in all its glory. Photo by Adrian Fong.

Tripod

As mentioned before, taking photos of the stars require long exposures. Long exposures for astrophotography typically range from 15-30 seconds (to ensure you get nice crisp and photos of the stars). Because of this, it’s critical that you have a nice sturdy tripod.

If you don’t, even the slightest movement in the camera whilst the shutter is open will result in a blurry photo.

It really is impossible to hold a camera perfectly still for up to 30 seconds, making a tripod an essential piece of kit.

Remote Shutter/Shutter Release

A remote shutter allows you to trigger the camera to take a photo without needing to physically touch the shutter button on the camera.

Doing so removes any chance of the camera being nudged or moved, resulting in clear, blur-free images.

Pro Tip: If you don’t have a remote shutter, you can set your camera to operate on a timer… that way you’ll avoid the dreaded camera shake for free.

Torch/Head Lamp

It goes without saying that a torch and/or headlamp is essential if you’re heading out to shoot in the dark.

White lights, however, are difficult for your eyes to adjust to and can ruin the shot of other astrophotographers that are out at the same time as you.

Instead, we recommend using a red light torch if possible – they’re much gentler on your eyes in the dark.

Spare Batteries

Finally, we recommend heading out with a spare battery or two.

Shooting in cold weather puts significant strain on batteries so you’ll burn through them faster than you would during the day.

Photo by Adrian Fong

Astrophotography Settings

One of the biggest challenges when starting with astro is knowing exactly what settings to use.

To make life easy for you, we’ve detailed the most common settings below.

It’s important to note though that there is no ‘right’ setting and that different settings can achieve different results (with equally great outcomes).

Tweaks may need to be made due toa number of factors, such as the equipment itself, chosen focal length and the amount of ambient light in your location.

With all of that said, we suggest starting with these settings and making tweaks from there…

First of all, flick your camera into manual mode before we look to adjust 3 key settings – ISO, aperture and shutter speed. Before shooting, you will also need to flick your camera off of auto-focus.

Now it’s time for the fun stuff – let’s get your camera set up and get out there shooting!

ISO

This is the setting that adjusts your camera’s sensitivity to light.

In order to get as much light as possible from the night sky, you’ll need to increase your ISO.

We recommended that you start in the range of 3,200 to 6,400.

Some higher-end cameras will even let you push the ISO to 10,000 but be careful in going too far as higher ISO settings can result in grainy photographs.

Photo by Grant Birley

Aperture

The aperture relates to the size of the gap in the lens that lets in light – this is also known as the f-stop.

Again, you’ll want to let in as much light as possible so drop this setting as low as possible.

If you have got a lens that can go to f2.8 or lower, then great! If not, set the aperture (f-stop) as low as you possibly can.

Though it feels a little counterintuitive, the lower the f-stop, the larger the gap in your lens and the more light your sensor will receive.

Shutter Speed

The shuttler speed dictates the length of time that the camera shutter will stay open.

If you set it too short, the camera won’t have time to capture the night sky effectively. If you set the shutter to stay open for too long, the rotation of the earth will impact your photo, causing the stars to blur.

For sharp, clear photos, we suggest setting your shutter speed between 10 and 25 seconds.

As with all of these settings, you’re welcome to tweak them based on your own setup.

Manual Focus

Finally, you’ll need to switch your camera from autofocus to manual focus.

Auto focus struggles to function properly in the dark as there isn’t enough light for the camera to determine the point of focus. Because of this, you’ll need to manually set the focus yourself.

This may take some practice but one of the best techniques to use is to use the ‘live view’ function on your camera to find a bright star/planet in the sky. Once you’ve done that, magnify it and manually focus your lens until that star/planet is as small and as sharp as possible. As you adjust the focus on your lens, you’ll notice that the star/planet will get bigger as you move more out of focus.

If you’re unable to find the perfect focus on your camera, we suggest turning it to infinity (as the stars are obviously way in the distance anyway). This is a great fall-back option for beginners.

Choosing Your Astro Location & Timing

Last but not least on your newbie astro journey is the location – it’s time to decide where you’d like to shoot and when.

Theoretically, you can just point your camera up at the sky and take photos, but if you want to take memorable astrophotos, you’ll want to put a little more thought in than that.

First of all, you’ll need to ensure that your location is free of any light pollution.

In addition, we suggest you find a location with an interesting foreground. This will ensure that your astrophotography snaps really stand out.

If you’re keen to take your astrophotography to the next level, we recommend you spend some time researching your shoot in advance. Ideally, you’ll want to scope the area out during the day so you can check for any obstacles or particular points of interest.

When it comes to heading out on your nighttime shoot, we always recommended that you let others know where and when you are going and what time to expect to be back.

Or, if you can, take a buddy with you – photography is always more fun with company!

The Best Astro Spots in New Zealand

New Zealand has some of the best stargazing in the world, so it is not surprising that it is also home to some of the best astrophotography opportunities in the world too. In fact, in Aotearoa, you will find both a Dark Sky Reserve and Dark Sky Sanctuaries.

What is the Difference Between a Dark Sky Reserve and a Dark Sky Sanctuary?

A Dark Sky Sanctuary is typically located in a particularly remote location with few (if any) nearby light pollution threats.

By comparison, a Dark Sky Reserve is more accessible (whilst still maintaining spectacularly dark skies).

Both are incredible locations for stargazing and shooting astrophotography.

Where to Take Astrophotos in New Zealand

Astrophotography can be undertaken anywhere in New Zealand but the following locations are our favourite spots.

  • Great Barrier Island Dark Sky Sanctuary
  • Taranaki
  • Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve (including Tekapo, Mt Cook and Twizel)
  • Queenstown
  • Milford Sound in Fiordland
  • The Otago Peninsula
  • The Catlins
  • Stewart Island/Rakiura Dark Sky Sanctuary
Photo by Adrian Fong

When to Capture the Milky Way in New Zealand

To really add the ‘wow’ factor to your astrophotography, there are a couple of celestial objects you can keep your eye out for. Including these in your photos can really take them to the next level.

One of the most obvious points of interest is the Milky Way. The Milky Way is our galaxy and it includes our Solar System.

The name ‘Milky Way’ describes the galaxy’s appearance from Earth – it appears as a hazy band of light seen in the night sky. It is made up of countless stars that cannot be individually distinguished by the naked eye.

The Milky Way can’t be seen at all times of the year so it’s important that you understand when you can expect to see it.

In New Zealand, you can generally expect to see the Milky Way from late February to October. It initially rises vertically facing east and as the year goes on (and the earth orbits the Milky Way), it starts to shift horizontally over to the west.

The core of the Milky Way is at its brightest in Aotearoa during June and July so it’s worth rugging up in the middle of winter and getting out there!

Essential Astro App Download: We recommend you check the location and best time to see the Milky Way on these apps. Stellarium and PhotoPills.

A beautiful night out in Tekapo, without the Milky Way present. Photo by Grant Birley.
The Milky Way can add an incredible focal point to astrophotography.Photo by Grant Birley.

When all is said and done, the best way to improve your astrophotography skills are to get out there with an idea of what to do and to learn on the spot.

We encourage you to load up with snacks, grab the required equipment and have a buddy join you on a nighttime adventure.

New Zealand has some of the best night skies in the world – it would be a pity not to make the most of them!


This post was brought to you by Adrian Fong. Based in Auckland, Adrian is an accomplished photographer – check him out on Instagram!

Thank you also to Grant Birley for his beautiful photography.

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