How to take photos of the night sky

How to take photos of the night sky

Is seeing the northern lights on your travel list?

Most people have this as a must-see in their lifetime. But did you know that you can see an aurora in the southern hemisphere? The aurora australis (southern lights) can sometimes be spotted from southern tip of South America, New Zealand’s south island, and Tasmania.

My parents let me know that was going to be an aurora one night during my time in Hobart, so we made it our mission to seek out a nearby spot to take photos.

This was my first time ever photographing the aurora, so before we departed on our epic mission I did some research as to the best way to go about it. And it was worth it – my photos came out looking fairly good (though there’s definitely room for improvement)! Here’s what I learnt in a step by step guide on how to take photos of the night sky.

How to take photos of stars

1. Track when an aurora will appear

There’s no point going out into the night and twiddling your thumbs waiting for an aurora to appear. There are numerous websites you can use to track auroras. I used this Aurora Service to track the southern lights in Australia and New Zealand, but you can use something like this site for the northern lights.

It’s quite normal for the lights to be brightest at some un-godly hour in the middle of the night, so take a thermos of strong coffee for your 2am sleep deprivation.

2. Scout the perfect spot

You should choose somewhere with very little light pollution, away from city lights and overlooking an area without many lights in it. As you can see, I could have chosen a better spot if I’d been willing to drive a little further out of the city!

It’s also good to have an object in foreground for scale. A line of trees or a hill/mountain top will do the job.

How to take photos of an aurora

3. Take the right gear

A point and shoot is just not going to do the trick here as you will need to manually adjust your camera settings to catch the right amount of light, so a DSLR or Mirrorless Camera with manual mode is essential. Also, a wide-angle lens (I use a 15-85mm zoom lens) is essential for capturing a large expanse of sky in the frame.

A tripod is also essential. You’ll need the camera to stay very still when you’re taking the photo. I use a Joby GorillaPod, which is a super versatile and lightweight tripod for travellers.

A camera remote might also come in handy as you’ll need to take the photo without moving the camera, though I just used a 2 second timer setting on my camera to get around this.

How to take photos of the night sky

4. Get into manual mode

It might sound scary if you haven’t used manual mode before, but don’t worry, it’s not so bad! Take the instruction manual for your camera if you haven’t used manual mode before. You might need to refer to it when you change settings.

Set your camera to manual focus instead of auto focus, and choose a distant object to focus on (you can use the moon if there’s not much around).

Now you need to set your ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. Your settings will vary depending on how much light you have around you, whether the moon is out, and what type of camera and lens you have. Here’s a rough guide:

ISO – A low ISO of 400-800 would be best, but I ended up using an ISO of 1600 as it worked better for my surroundings. Generally, a higher ISO number will result in grainier photos.

Aperture – You want to let in as much light as you can into your camera sensor, so a low aperture is best. My lens can go down to f3.5, so this is what I used for my photos. Most lenses will go down to somewhere between f2-f5 so just choose the lowest setting.

Shutter speed – depending on your ISO, you’ll need a shutter speed of between 5 and 30 seconds. A lengthy shutter speed might seem like a better option, but it means the stars might move in the time that you take the photo. You might need to reduce it a little to avoid star trails.

How to take photos of an aurora

5. Tweak your settings

Once you’ve taken a test photo (remembering to use the remote/2 second delay), have a look at the result and see what needs to be changed. Is it too dark? If so, increase the ISO or lengthen the shutter speed, or do the opposite if it’s too light.

The best thing to do is to keep taking photos and tweaking your settings bit by bit until you have something that looks super amazing! Don’t delete the underexposed/overexposed photos, you may need them later.

6. Edit your photos

Once you’ve taken a few good shots and moved them onto your computer, you can edit them to improve the colours and brightness.

The aurora was not nearly as vibrant in real life as it is in my photos, so I’ve used HDR techniques to layer a few of my photos. HDR basically means you have a few photos taken of the same scene with different levels of brightness, and you combine them all to get one perfectly exposed photo. Not having used HDR before, I skimmed through this HDR tutorial to layer my photos.

If you don’t want to go down the HDR path, then just play with the exposure/brightness/saturation settings. I’ve put together a tutorial on photo editing in Lightroom that might come in handy for this!

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11 Responses to “How to take photos of the night sky”

  1. Erika

    These photos turned out really cool! I actually think the lights from the city add a little something you don’t normally see. I would love to take aurora pictures one day!

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Thanks Erika! The city lights weren’t too bad, luckily Hobart is not overly bright haha. I hope you’re able to get a chance to see an aurora one day 😀

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      You’re welcome Isis! I’m glad you found it useful, would love to see the photos you get when you try night photography 😀

    • Robert

      I lived in Britsh Columbia and have seen very disti c.f. and very bright auroras.

  2. David

    A tripod is definitely a must. With the low shutter speed, using one’s hands to hold the camera will result to blurry images. Great tips Ashlea, very very helpful.

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Absolutely – without a tripod, there’s no point even trying to take night sky photos! Thanks David!

  3. Gowtham

    The above pics u have clicked came out beautifully and edited perfectly . . . And thank u for the tips .

  4. Lee Wieden

    I wish I had have known all this 6 months ago. I went 350 kilometres north of the Artic Circle to capture and Aurora Borialis, and all my photos were grainy. I took my point and shoot Camera set on Auto, stupid me, as I just got so excited seeing the Northern Lights I didn’t think. Some photos were were blurred, some were passable and some were shocking. I was devestated that I went all this way to the other side of the world to see this and I buggered up the photos and took the wrong Camera with me. I should have taken my big Nikon Camera and Tripod which takes amazing photos, but I wanted to carry as least as possible trudging through thick snow and Snow Storms. I’m going again this time with my big Camera to do it all again.

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Oh, that sounds so disappointing, Lee! I’m glad you’re giving it an other go – do let us know how your photos turn out this time around. I would love to see them 🙂


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