How to Photograph the Night Sky

After sharing some photos from a recent stargazing adventure, I’ve been asked by a number of people how to achieve a great night photo of the stars. I am by no means an expert (if you want to see some really amazing shots, check out Brian Spencer!), but I am happy to share what I know.

The Milky Way over Silverton, Colorado.

The Milky Way over Silverton, Colorado.

The good news is that you can get some pretty great shots with fairly basic equipment. You’ll need a DSLR, a tripod, and a nice wide angle lens (I use a 24mm f/2.8). Oh, and you’ll need a night sky free of clouds and light pollution. Added bonus if there’s something you can add to your shot’s composition like rocks, mountains, or a cabin.

Start with your camera secured on your tripod and position it to where you want to get your shot. It’s kind of hard to see what you’re pointing at sometimes (because, of course, it’s super dark), so I usually take several test shots and recompose until I’ve got the shot I want. If your camera has a self timer or remote function, definitely use that to avoid any camera shake from your hand pressing the shutter.

Desert rocks frame the Milky Way in Moab, Utah.

Desert rocks frame the Milky Way in Moab, Utah.

Set your aperture to be wide open - f/2.8 or whatever the lowest number your lens will do. You want as much light as possible to come in! It’s okay that you have a shallow depth of field because your subject is so far away that it will all be in focus. Also set your lens to manual focus and set it to the infinity setting (focusing as far out as possible).

When it comes to shutter speed and ISO, you’ll want to experiment a bit since the ambient light will be different for each night and location. High ISO’s are going to give you more grain in your photo. If you can keep the number down that’s awesome, but if you really need to bump it up, you can remove some of the grain in post production. I’m usually using ISO 2000 - 4000 depending on the situation.

A composite of images to show star trails.

A composite of images to show star trails.

You want your shutter speed to be long enough to bring in plenty of light, but not so long that you start to get star trails. The trails occur when your shutter speed is long enough to capture the subtle movement of the stars. Star trail photos can be stacked to make stunning images, but you need some special equipment for those types of images. If you’re wanting the stars to look like pin points rather than arches, stick to a shutter speed of 15 or 20 seconds. I find that when I go to 30 seconds, I have a bit of trails.

So your setup will look something like this: a 24mm lens set at f/2.8 with a shutter speed of 20 seconds and ISO 2500. Manual focus set to infinity and your self-timer on. I should note that while a wide lens like 24mm is ideal, you can still do these photos with other lenses. You’ll just see a lot less of the sky in your shot, so you’ll have to pick your spot wisely.

Ouray, Colorado's night sky with a full moon.

Ouray, Colorado's night sky with a full moon.

Experiment with your shots and have some fun! Find the Milky Way or your favorite constellation. Add some interest to the photo by including surrounding scenery. Just have fun with it and enjoy the view!

PS - I do my post production in Lightroom and Photoshop. I start with basic edits in Lightroom: cropping/horizon straightening, color correction if needed, exposure, and contrast. And plenty of noise reduction by adding luminance. Then if I think the photo could use a little extra “pop,” I’ll pull it up in Photoshop and play with the curves and contrast to add crispness and vibrance.

Coastal California Elopement | Shark Fin Cove

One of my favorite things about all the traveling I do is getting to photograph couples in the beautiful places I visit. The California coast has been on my bucket list ever since I explored San Diego on our honeymoon a few years ago. Actually, Big Sur has been calling my name for years. It’s such a dreamy location with incredibly beautiful redwood forests paired with the rugged rocky coastline that California is so famous for. I had picked out the perfect place in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, but as I started planning with Nathan + Cassandra, I found out the the park was closed due to landslides and heavy erosion. So sad!

 So I began cruising down California’s coastal Highway 1 on Google Maps, in search of the perfect spot for the photo shoot. There were so many great places to choose from - redwood forests, picturesque hills to hike, and beautiful beaches. But as soon as I saw Shark Fin Cove, I knew I had found the perfect location! Rocky cliffs envelope this beautiful hidden cove. The distinctive “shark fin” rock in the middle of the cove’s waters is the main attraction, but the rock tunnel that the ocean water rushes through is pretty awesome too. While location scouting earlier in the day, we even saw a sea otter playing in the waves along the cliffs!

 Nathan + Cassandra drove down from the San Francisco Bay area for our afternoon at the cove. It was definitely chilly and windy, but well worth it for such a beautiful location. I could photograph elopements in northern California all day every day! If you have suggestions on more beautiful places to elope in California, send them my way!

Hair + Makeup | Iyanna at Cassandra McClure Mobile Beauty

Florals | A Bit of Earth

Dress | Modcloth

 Are you eloping in northern California? I’d love to be your photographer and help you plan the perfect intimate wedding at Shark Fin Cove! Email me, and we can chat about your awesome elopement!

Brandon + Morgan | ABQ Botanic Gardens + Natural History Museum Wedding

As guests arrived, they were greeted by ancient creatures and the sounds of the Jurassic Park theme song. In every detail of Morgan + Brandon's wedding day, their personalities and quirks shone through. The couple have been visiting museums together for years, so it made sense to celebrate their love at Albuquerque's Natural History Museum. And I think Morgan's love of dinosaurs and Jurassic Park sealed the deal. Brandon sported custom made cuff links with pictures of their beloved cats, and Morgan's gorgeous gown included whimsical pockets. Even in Brandon's vows to Morgan he started with lines from one of her favorite books, "you must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you..." (From Pride and Prejudice, if you didn't guess.) And did I mention that the reception included a gelato cart and delicious pies? So fun! Everything about this wedding spoke to the thoughtful and fun relationship that Brandon + Morgan share. What a wonderful day!


First Look Location | Albuquerque Bio Park Botanic Gardens

Ceremony + Reception Venue | New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science

Bride's Dress | Oleg Cassini at David's Bridal

Groom's Suit | Kenneth Cole

Cufflinks | Time Monogram

Hair + Makeup | AMPM Salon

Florals | Shelley Kleinschmidt

Catering | Savory Fare Cafe

Gelato | Frost Gelato

Pies | Savory Fare Cafe

Custom Sign | Hello Jori

Photography | Julie Haider Photography + Design