5 Astoundingly Simple Tips That Will Make You an Expert at Photographing the Night Sky

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This spring, a new comet was discovered called Comet Neowise.  Of course, this meant I had a challenge in front of me.  Since I love to photograph the night sky, I had to capture this beauty with my lens.  Since we won’t get another opportunity for 6,800 years and I’ll likely be long gone by then, now’s the time!

Photograph of Neowise Comet in the night sky above Lake Michigan

Here are the 5 astoundingly simple steps I took to capture Comet Neowise!  If you begin practicing these techniques, you will definitely be one step closer to calling yourself a PRO.  Time to step up your game and stretch those pro legs!  Don’t worry – if you missed Neowise, you will surely have another opportunity to capture the next celestial event.  These techniques will work for any significant night sky event.

Pro Tip #1

RESEARCH AND CHOOSE YOUR LOCATION

A beginner shows up, shoots, and hopes for the best.  A pro does her research first!

I looked online to see where in the sky to look for Neowise.  Experts reported that she would be located in the sky N/NW and below the Big Dipper.  I also read that she would be low on the horizon, so I knew I would need an open space with a clear view of the horizon.  Because I live close to Lake Michigan’s shores, it made sense that this would be the perfect scenario for viewing and to photograph her in the night sky.  Another area that could have worked was a cornfield or any other giant open area.  Even better if there’s something in the foreground to give a little perspective.

Pro Tip #2

RESEARCH AND CHOOSE YOUR TIME

A beginner guesses about the time.  A professional uses the tools available to know what time is the best time for the shot.  There are so many cool tools you can get for free or low prices that will help you with timing your event.  I use a great little app called TPE (The Photographer’s Ephemeris).  Check it out HERE or on the app store.  TPE will help you plan for sunset and sunrise times and help you choose your shoot location.

When I researched for this shoot, I found that when Neowise was first visible, we could only see her with the naked eye during the pre-dawn sky in the morning.  Eventually, she became visible in the evening after sunset.  I chose to wait and venture out at night.  I know me, and setting my alarm and rising before dawn isn’t my favorite time of day, so in this case, nighttime made more sense.  Morning may work better for you if you like to jump up and photograph the night sky as a crack-of-dawn adventure.  Either way, make sure you know what time works for the event and you!

Pro Tip #3

PACK THE RIGHT GEAR

A beginner thinks she can predict without fail which lens will best capture the event she’s shooting.  A professional prepares for any scenario and packs more than one lens.

If I’ve learned one thing on my journey from beginner to professional, it is that you can never go wrong with packing an extra lens or two.  However, my first instinct was to bring a super close lens to capture all of that beautiful comet detail.  I figured I’d really want to zoom in to capture a closeup of the tail.  Even though the close lens was great for catching the detail, the fact is that most night skies are best captured with a super wide lens.  Had I brought only the close lens, I would have missed the opportunity to photograph Neowise with the beautiful night sky around her.

Like a Boyscout, BE PREPARED to photograph the night sky!

In the end, I was so happy that I had my 15-30mm to capture not only that night sky but also to get her with some of the beach and water in the foreground for perspective.  In the end, there’s nothing worse than showing up on sight with the wrong lens for the moment, so a pro knows how to be prepared!

Click below to see the lens I used for this shoot. This is one of my favorite lenses and I use it for almost all of my landscape shoots!

Case in point – On the second night of shooting, I ran across a photographer who was struggling because he only brought his super zoom lens.  He was having a terrible time finding her in the lens and grumbling about how he wished he had brought his wider lens.  Had we been shooting the same camera brand, I may have kindly let him borrow a lens, but since I shoot Canon and he was shooting Nikon, our equipment was not compatible.  Bummer for him.  If only he had thrown in a couple of extra lenses…  just in case.  He’s one step closer to being a pro because next time he goes to photograph the night sky, I bet he’ll happily schlep the extra lens to his location.

A closeup photograph of Neowise Comet in the night sky showing tail

Pro Tip #4

STACK YOUR IMAGES

A beginner takes a lovely photo and gives it a quick edit; maybe she even uses her favorite preset to get the photo to reflect her style.  A professional goes a step further and uses the tools available to her to push her image to the maximum quality.

One of the best tools for astrophotography is called stacking.  Stacking is an amazing and simple technique that uses multiple images layered atop one another to reduce noise.  This is a great technique and can be done using free software.  Stacking several photos that look similar will reduce the noise in your end photo.  Read all about Noise in Your Ultimate Guide to Shooting in Manual.

Below is an example of a stacked shot.  I took about 20 of the same shot one right after the other and then used stacking software to layer them.  Can you see how this technique helped reduce grain?  Grain comes from shooting with a high ISO.  Shooting with a high ISO allows for a faster shutter speed, which reduces star trails. Follow all of that?  Great!

My basic setup was with a Canon EOS R on a tripod at 15mm focal distance, f/2.8, ISO 6400, and 2-second shutter speed.

A grainy photograph of Neowise Comet in the night sky
See how grainy this image is? Using a high ISO causes grain, but allows a faster shutter speed.
A much smoother photograph of Neowise in the night sky as a result of stacked images
You can see how much smoother the image is after it has been stacked with many copies taken back-to-back.

Want more info about Neowise Comet?  No problem – click HERE!

Pro Tip #5

USE AN INTERVALOMETER

A beginner photographer lets her camera be the boss of what kind of shots she can take.  A pro knows that if her camera doesn’t have a particular feature that she will use, it’s time to upgrade, or it’s time to find a work-around.  An intervalometer is an inexpensive tool that will make a world of difference in your nighttime photography.

Some high-end DSLR and Mirrorless cameras have this feature built-in.  Don’t worry if yours doesn’t, though.  An intervalometer is an inexpensive add-on; you will find you use it plenty, so this is a great excuse to treat yourself.  Or if you’re like me, your family is always looking for a low-priced gift idea.  The one I use is no longer available, so HERE is a link to a comparable model.

Click HERE for a whole list of photography related items to treat yourself!  Good self-care is a must!

That’s great information, but are you wondering what this fancy gadget actually is?  In short, an intervalometer is a small device that you plug into your camera and allows you to take a series of photos at certain time intervals and shutter speeds.  You can read all the details from my friends at Digital Photography School HERE

If your camera doesn’t have this feature built-in, then you’re going to want to pick one of these babies up and add it to your camera bag.  You’ll be ready to shoot like a pro with a couple of quick adjustments.

BONUS Tip #6

HAVE FUN!

Because photographing the night sky should be an adventure!

A beginner photographer…  ah – scrap that.  Beginners and pros alike both need to remember to have fun when shooting.  After all, isn’t that what it’s all about?  

Father and son on the beach
Always take a little time to have some fun. My husband Dan and son Tucker hang out on the beach while I set up for the shoot.

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