How to Take Stunning Photos of Night Sky According to Award-Winning Astrophotographers

Astrophotography provides the perfect showcase for the spectacular beauty of our universe.

But while taking pictures of the night sky and celestial objects may seem like a daunting task for a photographer more used to snapping away in ideal light conditions, anyone can do it armed with the right techniques.

Newsweek spoke to three award-winning astrophotographers who were all shortlisted for this year's Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition held by the Royal Observatory Greenwich in London. The trio, Benjamin Barakat, Stefan Liebermann and Péter Feltóti, shared their top astrophotography tips.

How do you identify the best locations to take pictures of the sky from?

Benjamin Barakat: Locating the Milky Way isn't easy for everyone but it's almost visible on most of the latitudes of our beautiful planet. The easiest way to figure this out is to download an application for the phone called either "Photo Pills" or "Plan it Pro." These two applications make it possible to view the night sky during daytime through your camera and move through time to see where the Milky Way will be in the sky depending on the time of the night. It's also a great way to plan compositions and benefit from other additional night sky tools.

Stefan Liebermann: In general, the less light pollution there is, the better our Milky Way galaxy is visible. Places far away from big cities, on islands and at high altitude are very suitable for astrophotography because of their low light pollution. Furthermore, light pollution maps help to find places with low light pollution.

Bicolour Veil Nebul
The Veil Nebula complex is the remnant of a giant supernova explosion. This image shows only a part of the complex as the entire nebula is around six times the diameter of the full Moon. Péter Feltóti

Péter Feltóti: Choosing a good place and time is a key factor when it comes to astrophotography. The photo subject should always be chosen so that it is as high as possible above the horizon during the night. And of course always try to go as high as possible above sea level.

Can you offer any technical advice for budding astrophotographers?

Barakat: Taking pictures of the night sky can be confusing at first but it's really a lot easier than you would imagine. When I say easy I don't mean it's easy to get images like mine, what I do mean is it's possible for almost anyone to go out and get a picture of the Milky Way. My advice would be to get a tripod so your camera is stable to avoid any movement that might blur your image whilst doing a long exposure. I also recommend using a wide-angle lens, to begin with, like a 14mm, 20mm, or 24mm. We need to use manual settings for this to work and I will give you a rough example of settings you can use, to begin with.

The first thing we need to figure out is the exposure time, it varies depending on the lens we use and the way we figure this out is simple. We take a calculator and we divide 500 [or 300] by the focal length [depending on whether you are using a full frame or crop sensor camera respectively.] For example 300 divided by 14mm gives us an exposure time of 21 seconds then use the widest aperture your lens allows you to, whether it's an f/1.4 or f/2.8, and then input an ISO of 6400. Use a timer or remote control to avoid shake when pressing the shutter and wait and see what you get after the image is taken. You can always push the ISO up or decrease it depending on how bright or dark your images are but ideally, we want to keep the aperture wide-open and the exposure length correct to avoid star trailing.

Château de Chambord
This magnificent image shows a château in Chambord, Centre-Val de Loire, France. Benjamin Barakat

Liebermann: First of all, you need a low-noise and big (full-frame) sensor and a lens with a wide open aperture (lower than f/2.8) to capture as much light as possible. Exposure times in the range of 30 seconds are common to see the details of the Milky Way and thus a tripod is absolutely necessary. ISO values in the range of 1600-6400—depending on the exact camera model—are recommended.

Feltóti: Choosing the right shutter speed and ISO depends on several things. First, the brightness of the celestial background, which is determined by the degree of light pollution. If the sky is very bright, it is not worth choosing a shutter speed that is too long, because your photo will brighten up quickly. In a sufficiently dark sky, the choice of shutter speed is only affected by how accurately we can track the rotation of the sky. If you don't have a tracking mount, you should use a maximum exposure time of 30 seconds or less depending on the focal length of your lens. The optimal ISO is determined by your camera. Neither too high nor too low of a value is adequate. At low values, there will not be enough signal on the image, at high values, the photo will become noisy. We usually find the ideal value between 400 and 3200, depending on the camera's sensor and other conditions (like ambient temperature.)

Can you offer any advice when it comes to creating beautiful compositions?

Barakat: Creating beautiful compositions comes with time, experience, and having the eye for it. Don't focus too much in the beginning on the perfect image, rather focus on trying to get the knowledge and experience which will help out in the long run.

Liebermann: Use plan apps like PhotoPills to view the exact position of the Milky Way even during the day. This can be used to plan and implement interesting compositions of landscape and objects in the night sky. Otherwise, try out a lot during the night and let your creativity run free.

Feltóti: Remember that astrophotography is not only amateur astronomy but also photography. This is why it is worth considering the composition principles proven in traditional photography. It is not enough to simply compose the celestial object into the center of the view, but we should strive to create a pleasantly balanced or a tight, dynamic composition. In the case of an astro-landscape, where we also want to capture the landscape in front of the starry sky, it is worth paying attention to the fact that the landscape should be pleasing enough even without the sky.

Do you need specialist gear to take great pictures of the night sky?

Barakat: Don't worry about having the best camera to begin with as many cameras are capable of getting images of the Milky Way. It's even possible to use some smartphones these days, so chances are that old camera sitting in storage gathering dust actually still has some use and could possibly get you an image of the Milky Way.

Liebermann: Actually, it works with almost any digital camera and lens. Just hold it in the direction of the night sky and wait excitedly for the result. However, a tripod is indispensable so that nothing wobbles during long exposure times. Even current smartphones can take breathtaking pictures of the night sky! But if you want to perfect the image quality or look deeper into the universe, special equipment like a star tracker, telescope and infrared modified camera is necessary.

The image depicts a mesmerizing panorama of the Milky Way over lavender fields in Valensole, France. Stefan Liebermann

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