Night Sky Photography: 5 Essential Tips - Pretty Presets Tutorial

Tips for Photographing the Night Sky and Northern Lights

A little over a year ago I moved to Alaska where the Northern Lights are often visible from September to March.  I will never forget the first time I saw them “dancing” in the sky. Night photography has since become a favorite! I knew very little about night sky photography before moving here, but quickly found myself out in the middle of the night every chance I could! 

Night Sky Photography Gear 

  • Canon 6D or camera that handles higher ISO well 
  • Sigma 35mm or similar wide angle lens (35mm or wider is ideal)  
  • Memory Cards 
  • Sturdy Tripod 
  • Extra Batteries 
  • Headlamp 
  • Hand warmers  

Tip 1. Scout Your Night Sky Photography Location Ahead of Time 

Finding a location is just as important as the gear in your bag. The last thing you want to be doing is trying to explore a new location a night when it is pitch black out! It is not uncommon for me to scope out many different locations during the day before heading out at night. I also check the weather forecast before deciding to go out to shoot. If it is cloudy or snowing, the chances of getting a great shoot are very low. I also suggest taking a friend or two along at night!  

Night Sky Pictures

Tip 2. Dress for the Night Time Weather 

This one might be slightly obvious, but the last thing you want is to be cold after setting up for your night time photoshoot! In the summer, during Milky Way season, this may not be an issue but the coldest I have gone out up here has been minus 40 degrees!  Now that is cold!!

Layers and good cold weather gear are a must!  As far as my camera goes, it has held up very well in the colder temperatures.  Once I am out in the cold, my camera stays out on my tripod. I may go back to my vehicle to warm up, but do not bring my camera with me back to the car. When you bring in your camera from cold to hot, hot to cold, the chances are higher that there will be condensation build up - and the last thing you want is a fogged up lens!

Even after I am done shooting for the night I leave my camera bag in my entry way or garage to warm up slowly. I also have a handful of Silica Gel Packets at the bottom of my camera bag if there is any moisture. 

I keep an extra battery in my inner coat pocket along with a hand warmer in case I need to change it out. The cold and longer exposures tend to drain batteries faster then normal. If you plan on shooting in the cold be sure to invest in a name brand back up battery instead of a cheaper knock off battery as the cheaper versions do not last nearly as long in comparison.  

Night Sky Photos

Tip 3. Camera Settings for Night Sky Photography

For shooting the Northern Lights, my settings change depending on the night. I always start out by turning my camera dial to M (Manual mode) then adjust the rest of my settings accordingly.

I set my first exposure or test shot at a 5 second exposure at 1600 ISO at f/2.8 and adjust from there.  If the lights are moving “faster” my exposure time will be less (such as 3 seconds) with a higher ISO (such as 2000 or higher). If they are “slower” my exposure will be longer (up to 30 seconds) and I will keep my ISO around 1000-2000 to avoid lots of noise. 

For Milky Way shots, your settings will be slightly different then what I use for the Northern Lights.  I would suggest starting out at 3200 ISO and a longer shutter speed such as 15 or 30 seconds. 

A remote for you camera is also a plus. When you touch your shutter button, even on a tripod, you move your camera slightly which can show in your photo.  If you do not have a remote, most cameras allow you to do a delayed shutter.  On my Canon there is an option to delay the shutter by 2 seconds giving me plenty of time to press the shutter and not have to worry about bumping my camera.

For longer time lapses, you will need a remote to take advantage of the bulb mode setting that allows you to keep your camera’s shutter open for much longer periods of time.  This is key to being able to catch star trails! 

pictures of the moon

Tip 4. Choosing a Lens for Night Sky Photography

While a wide angle lens is a plus for night photography it is not a necessity.  By using the widest aperture it will let in more light, therefore shortening the time you need to have your shutter open. Another favorite lens is my Tokina 11-20mm 2.8 that I still use on my older crop sensor. 

If you are just testing the waters of night photography I highly suggest using what you have before upgrading.  There are lots of great choices when it comes to wide angle lenses, but for the beginner I would suggest renting something first before making an investment. I used a kit lens for 6+ months before upgrading to something faster with a wider aperture.   

Pictures of the northern lights

5. Finding Focus for Night Sky Photography

Finding focus at night can be a bit tricky! You need to have your lens on manual focus to be able to take photos at night but the last thing you want is to get home and have a ton of blurry stars (trust me)! 

The first way you can be sure you have great focus is by testing it out during the day. You can use your autofocus during the day at infinity then mark it with tape or mark your lens with a permanent marker that you can use your headlamp to find at night. 

I personally prefer using the Live View mode on my camera then zoom in.  I switch my lens to manual focus, turn it to infinity (if possible), then zoom on a bright star and adjust accordingly. I usually take a few test shots to double check.  I prefer this method because I can check my focus in live view by simply zooming in!  If you are worried about accidentally moving your lens, a little bit of tape can be placed around the barrel of your lens to keep it in place.   

Happy night shooting!  And if you get the chance to see the Northern Lights it is so worth it!   

Do you have any questions or comments about my Night Sky Photography?  Leave me a comment below - I would love to hear from you! And please share this post using the social sharing buttons (I really appreciate it)!

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Danielle GundlachI am a mother to two wonderful boys, a wife to my amazing husband, and lover all animals including our two dogs! I was the little girl who wanted a camera for Christmas! I have always had a love for all things photography, but it was shortly after my oldest was born I bought my first DSLR camera. Flash forward seven years, a few upgrades in my gear, and THOUSANDS of pictures later I am now sharing my love for photography through my landscape and outdoor sessions. I specialize in Landscapes, Outdoor Family, Couple, Maternity, and Senior sessions in Interior Alaska. I look forward to capturing your memories forever!