Creating jaw-dropping images of the Milky Way screaming down towards the horizon is the preserve of professional photographers, right? They might like you to think that, but once you’ve got a handle on what's required and the settings you need, you will soon discover that night sky photography – like any form of landscape photography – is mostly about you, not your camera equipment (that said, even the best camera phone isn't going to cut it here, we're afraid).
Finding Dark Sky Parks and dark skies around the world, and getting yourself to them, is half the job, but once you're there, you will need a basic level of equipment to take advantage of any clear nights; a DSLR camera, wide-angle (fish-eye) lens, and a tripod. You'll probably also want a good camera bag, too. None of this gear is particularly complicated, and it needn't be expensive, though like any photographic niche, you can spend as little or as much as you want. Here are some tips on great products for beginners to night sky photography, plus a few step-up products so you can see where your future may lie. We've also outlined some tips on how to get started in astrophotography (skip straight to the tips here).
Do you need a really expensive camera to start taking photographs of the night sky? No, you absolutely don't, and this entry-level Canon DSLR is an excellent place to start your experiments. Known in the UK and Europe as the EOS 800D and in the US as the Rebel T7i, this reasonably lightweight camera has a 24.2MP APS-C CMOS sensor and a DIGIC 6 processor, which helps deliver decent high-ISO noise performance during long exposure shots.
Okay so it's not a full-frame sensor, but it does the job if you are starting out, and the vari-angle touchscreen is both easy to manipulate and navigate. Your future may involve having to purchase a full-frame DSLR for its better ISO capabilities, but for now, concentrate on getting outside and taking photographs at night.
If there's one thing that every night sky photographer needs, it's an excellent tripod that's both reliable and quick to set up/collapse. This aluminium tripod from Manfrotto is hefty enough to serve its purpose without being too heavy to carry, and has some nice touches. The ball head is easy to use, allowing quick and precise placement as well as a quick-release for your camera. The three legs use a lever locking mechanism that's easy to lock down and lift, while the central column extends at the touch of a button.
Many astrophotographers and nightscape shooters will tell you that you must have a full frame DSLR, but that's not true. What is true is that by using an entry-level DSLR like the Nikon D5600 you will see more picture noise within long exposure photographs. If you're just starting out, that's not a huge issue.
This entry-level camera's lightweight build makes it easy to travel with, while its tiltable LCD screen makes it simple to frame shots, and makes it possible to rely on a small tripod. Capable of 24.2-megapixel pictures, you'll eventually grow-out of its APS-C-sized CMOS sensor, but the Nikon D5600 is nevertheless a great camera to start getting out and about at night with.
If you're going to take pictures of the night sky, you need a wide-angle lens. That way, you can fit a lot of landscape and sky in each image. However, such lenses often come at a premium price if you stick to buying from the camera manufacturers. So it's worth looking for a third-party lens, one of the best value being this Korean-made 14 mm wide angle lens from Samyang/Rokinon (the brand name changes between Europe and the US).
Not only is this one of the most affordable wide-angle lenses around, but it's also excellent quality, and produced to fit all major brands of camera, such as Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Fujifilm and Sony. However, it is a manual lens, so you have to be comfortable with manual mode to use it away from night photography. A pricier auto-focus version, the Samyang AF 14 f/2.8 lens, is also available, but its auto-focus brings no benefit for night photography.
If you're after a DSLR camera with a full frame sensor for astrophotography, it's a three-way fight between Canon (its 5D and 6D cameras), the Sony A7 Mk III, and this, the Nikon D850. At the heart of the D850 is a full-frame CMOS sensor that achieves an incredible 45.7MP, and it also allows 4K video capture. For easily lining-up shots there's a viewfinder and a tilt-angle LCD screen, though at 840g this is a pretty heavy camera. If you want to save some money, but stay with a full-frame sensor, consider finding a cheap deal on the camera the D850 replaces, the Nikon D750, which will serve you almost as well for half the money.
Most photographers use exposure times of around 20 to 30 seconds to capture the night sky. Although that might seem like a long time, it can take much longer than that to gather enough light from distant star clusters and galaxies, and if you want great pictures of galaxies and our own Milky Way, you need to open the shutter for a few minutes. The only problem is that Earth rotates quickly, meaning any exposure time over about 30 seconds will feature visibly blurred stars.
Cue this simple equatorial mount, which is placed between camera and tripod, and moves the camera in-sync with the Earth's rotation. That means you can use both wide-angle and zoom lenses, and expose for a few minutes without trailing stars. This one is relatively simple to use, thought it needs to be aligned to the Northstar, Polaris, using a small built-in polar scope. Another similar product is the iOptron SkyTracker Pro.
Although any crop sensor DSLR camera can be used to take images of the night sky, only a full frame sensor is sensitive enough to produce images containing a bright Milky Way. The Canon EOS 6D Mark II's 26.2 megapixel dual pixel CMOS AF sensor and a huge range of ISO settings makes it ideal for capturing detailed RAW images of our galaxy – best photographed in summer in the northern hemisphere – as well as faint displays of the Northern Lights.
However, the Canon 6D Mk II is a fine step-up camera for nightscapes for another reason; it weighs just 765g, which makes it much easier to travel with than most full-frame DSLR cameras. This Mk II version also has an articulating touchscreen LCD, which the first incarnation, the Canon 6D, lacks. However, if you want to save some money, go for that first version, which sells for around half the price second-hand.
5 tips on how to get started in astrophotography
01. Choose a camera
Your smartphone? Forget it. To get decent pictures of the night sky, you need a large sensor, something you only get with a DSLR or mirrorless camera. There are two types of DSLR; crop sensor, and full frame. The latter has much better ISO capabilities, and produces a much cleaner image from long exposures. That said, full frame cameras are very expensive, and it's fine to start out with a crop-sensor, entry-level DSLR. Some mirrorless cameras are also now being used for nightscapes, such as the Sony A7 III.
02. Get a wide-angle lens
To photograph the night sky in all of its glory, you need the widest view possible. This means finding a wide angle lens, most of which are fisheye lenses of some kind. Aperture – how much light the lens lets into your camera – is critical, and the lower the F number of a lens, the better. Although it is possible to get down to F1.8 with some expensive lenses, most wide-angle lenses while get you to about F2.8, which is fine. Don't be afraid of buying third-party manual lenses, which are often cheaper and/or better than big brand lenses.
03. Keep everything stable and still
A tripod is essential for night sky photography. The bigger your tripod, and the heavier it is, the more stable your setup will be. However, if you are travelling light, a small tripod will just about do as long as you don't mind kneeling on the floor to line up your photo. A shutter release cable is also very useful for opening your camera's shutter without touching the camera, an so introducing a vibration that will cause blur.
04. Get your timing right
It's pretty obvious that you need a clear night sky to take photographs of stars, so don't bother going outside if it's cloudy or raining. You should always avoid full moon. The best time to go on a night sky shoot is from six days before new moon through until four days after new moon. That's the ‘stargazing window’ when the early evening night skies will always be moonless.
05. Sort your settings
Think this is the magic part? Actually, apart from having to do everything in manual mode – which may be something new for you – the settings required for night sky photography are not complicated. First, put your camera into manual mode. Now turn the focus dial on your lens to infinity focus (if your picture turns out slightly blurred, you can tweak this slightly inwards). Turn the aperture dial (f number) to the lowest setting, probably F2.8, and set the ISO on your camera to 1600. Set the exposure to 25 seconds and … go! Of course, you can play around with a higher ISO, and a shorter exposure, but with these basic settings you will get more or less what you need from the night sky.
06. Compose the shot
Pictures of stars are boring. The first time you take an image of the Milky Way can be exciting, but any picture of the night sky is more impressive if the photo is properly composed with something in the foreground. Try an old barn, an interesting tree, or something unusual, like a rusty old car. Since you are taking the picture at night, your subject will help produce an ethereal look that the presence of stars will only add to.