Great nighttime shots—the ones with crystal-clear stars and the Milky Way practically jumping off the screen—are always a big hit on Instagram. But how do you capture one for yourself? You can’t just point your camera at the stars and hope to get lucky. A great starscape captures more than the eye can see, and you have to let the camera do the heavy lifting.
1. Get the Right Tools
First, the camera. Get one that can handle an ISO—the camera's sensitivity to light—of 3200 to 6400, which means it will perform well in low light. Sony’s new a7s, which can crank to an ISO of 400,000, is one of the best I’ve ever used, but a Canon 6D will also do the trick.
Your lens is important too. Look for something fast and with a relatively wide angle. 16mm is a great focal length, but a more traditional 24mm prime lens can work as well. My glass of choice is a Canon 16-35 f2.8 and occasionally a 50mm prime. They are sharp lenses that work well to capture the night sky. Once your camera kit is set, you’ll need a solid tripod and remote—called an intervalometer—that can trigger the camera.
Pro Tip: I always bring a headlamp with a red light, which won't ruin your night vision. It's also handy to have an app on your phone to show you where the Milky Way will be late at night so you can plan the shot during the day. I like the Star Walk app because it has a ton of information but isn't too complex.
2. Find the Perfect Location
You can get a great nighttime shot almost anywhere, but location will affect your final shot and composition.
I try to pick spots with an eye-catching landscape (think a rock formation or mountain range) that has decent, predictable weather. Clouds are your enemy. Think about places you love photographing during the day and see what they look like at night. And the farther away from the city they are, the better: you don't want to have to contend with light pollution. Some of my favorites spots are the forests of Alberta and the deserts in Oregon.
3. Make the Choice: Star Trail or Milky Way
Capturing a star trail—or the movement of the stars across the sky—is best when you have a full, or close-to-full moon because fewer stars appear in the sky, which can make for a less busy image. And I like to compose the shot: I'll center the North Star in the arch, or another natural feature, and watch the sky rotate around it. The northern sky rotates around Polaris (North Star), so it makes a great central point for any photo.
If you're capturing shots with no star movement, you'll want much less moonlight. Go on a night with a quarter moon, which lets you capture some detail in the landscape, but it’s not too bright. I like composing a Milky Way shot when it’s vertical on the horizon, which in the U.S. usually happens in the middle of summer.
Pro Tip: The Milky Way looks different depending on your location and the time of year. Track its movement and plan a trip using the app or other sky maps on the web.
4. Take the Perfect Shot
A great shot is inspired by something, and it evokes a feeling that you can relate to. A frame that includes your campsite or some sense of action is always more interesting than just the Milky Way.
When it comes to technique, I get sharp focus on the stars by switching to video mode and cranking the ISO as high as it goes. Then I point it at the brightest star in the sky, set focus, tape my lens so I don't accidentally adjust anything, and then switch back to photo mode and my desired settings—try f/2.8, 25-30 seconds, and ISO 6400 to start.
Once I've framed up my desired shot, made sure my tripod is solid, and plugged in the settings on my camera, I'll use the remote or the timer on my camera to fire the shutter so I avoid adding any vibration to the shot.
Want to test your nighttime photo skills? Read about The Darkest Parks in the U.S.