I simply love photographing the night sky and it is easier to do than ever


above, the milky way seen last month over KwaZulu-Natal, SA Canon 5D MK III iso 1600 8 seconds @ f1.8

Winter always gets me thinking about the night sky. Winter nights are long and give us some of the clearest skies. I simply love being outside at night shooting the stars. Like so many things in photography the newer generations of cameras make photographing the night much easier than it used to be. When I made my first night sky images for National Geographic my cameras only operated well up to iso 200. So to make this image I needed a 6 minute exposure. It took a special telescope head that tracks the earth’s movement to keep the milky way sharp. The image below took a ten minute exposure on a custom built equatorial mount.

The Milky Way rises into the night sky on a clear evening outside of Flagstaff, AZ.

above, the milky way near Flagstaff, AZ iso 200 10 minutes @ f 2.0 on an equatorial telescope mount

Now the process is much easier. The newer model dslr cameras operate comfortable at iso 1600 and above so exposure times -even without fast lenses- can be reasonably short.

Luke Padgett looks for crocodiles durring a trip up the Manambolo River to the junction of the Andranofakatia.

above looking for crocodiles on the Manambolo River, Madagascar Canon 5D MK II iso 1250 30 seconds @ f1.4

To photograph the night sky you will need a good tripod and a dark, clear sky. Find someplace far away from city lights on a night with no moon. Set your camera to focus on infinity. Focusing an auto-focus camera on faint stars in the dark can often be the hardest part. If I am in a really dark place I’ll walk a couple hundred feet from the camera, place a lit flashlight on the ground to set a focus point. Use the auto-focus on the flashlight, once it is sharp, turn auto-focus off and recompose on the stars. 

Exposure is really the easiest part. A good starting point is iso 2000, f 2.8 @ 20 seconds. Shoot one of those and see how it looks on the back of the camera. But remember that your eye will be accustomed to complete darkness so the image on the camera will seem really bright. To make certain you have a good exposure check your histogram.

Stars over the Manambolo River at the junction of the Andranofakatia.

above, the milky way over Tsingy de Bemaraha, Madagascar

Bring extra batteries as cold and long exposures eat electricity. 

Good luck, stay warm and have fun.

Stephen Alvarez

About the author

Stephen Alvarez is a photographer and frequent commentator on the role technology and photography play in our interconnected world. He is founder and director of the Ancient Art Archive (https://ancientartarchive.org).