Photographing the night sky–getting that ‘pro’ touch.

Jansenville - PWs Windmill 2

A pleasing night image with the milky way doing its thing over a windmill in the Karoo, South Africa.

Getting those amazing star-filled night shots is easier than you think. No, it’s not as easy as shooting on Auto but [quiet you, in the back there] I reckon the extra little effort is worth it. If you’ve been looking for an easy ‘how to’ on this subject, you’ve come to the right corner of the interweb.

In the time-honoured tradition of one of my photographic heroes, Scott Kelby – here’s the recipe.


  • 1 camera – (no Schmidt, Sherlock)
  • 1 wide angle lens – as wide as you can get it with an aperture of f2.8 or better. If your lens will open to f4.5 or f5.6 don’t stress – still try. You’ll still get a neat shot, and a strong motivation to save up for that nice lens.
  • 1 Sturdy tripod
  • 1 Torch
  • Some gels (that’s a posh photographic term for coloured cellophane)
  • 1 Starry, starry night (Paint your palette……Ok, ok. You get the picture.)
  • No Moon. Also try to avoid light pollution from nearby towns/houses etc.
  • Find something nice to photograph. Obviously it needs to be something stationary, like a fence, gate, ou windpomp etc.
  • NB Because you’re shooting at f2.8 (shallow depth of focus – DOF), your subject mustn’t be too close
  • Compose your pic and set camera up on tripod.
Jansenville - PWs Windmill 1

Take a few test shots to experiment with your torch. Yyou can get quite creative, but remember, with a 30 second exposure, your camera is very sensitive to light – so don’t over expose


  • Switch auto-focus off and pre-focus on infinity. (On some Canon lenses, that is infinity minus a smidgeon) *.
  • Switch to manual.
  • Set ISO to 8000 (more than that, and the image becomes grainy. Less than that and you might not pick up as many stars).
  • Set aperture to its widest – f2.8 or or wider if your lens can do it.
  • If your lens is a zoom lens, ensure it is zoomed out to its widest angle.
  • Set your shutter speed to max 30 seconds. Longer than that and you start getting star trails.
  • For pin-sharp pics. Lock your shutter up. (Some cameras can’t do this. If not, no worries, you’ll still get a great pic).
  • During the 30 second exposure, paint your subject with a very dim light from your torch…. No, dimmer than that… Even dimmer.
  • Use the cellophane to create interesting effects.
  • After the shoot. In Photoshop, Lightroom or Picasa (or your editing software of choice)…
  • Adjust exposure and contrast to suit.
  • Push up your shadows and/or play with ‘fill-light’ until a satisfactory result appears.
  • Serve and enjoy.

* For the purposes of this article and scientific pragmatics: One Smidgeon = 2.935 iotas

Beaufort West - KNP - Stars2 w

It’s not essential to use a torch. A dark skyline is just as good.

NOTE: Shooting these kind of images means the chances are pretty good that you’ll be lying on the ground in order to get that special shot. If you’re shooting in rural areas where where there might be nocturnally active creepy crawlies with a propensity to inflict pain and misery, do take along an ultra-violet torch with you. Scorpions will fluoresce most attractively under this light and you can take the appropriate avoiding action.

I have been tagged by a scorpion and it’s not the kind of experience most normal people want to repeat. If you don’t have an ultra violet light, just use your torch to locate their holes. BUT WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T KILL/MAIM THEM…I’m sorry for shouting in Caps lock. Scorpions only maliciously attack humans in the drug/alcohol addled minds of Hollywood film makers.

But it’s worth remembering, a scorpion is one part of this infinitely wonderful system we call Creation or Nature and you’re in his/her territory and it is only doing what comes naturally when it feels under threat.

Happy shooting folks.

[Legal stuff] As usual. Copyright for these images resides with the owner and these images may not be copied, stored or transferred by any means whatsoever, or used in any way without the prior written consent of the owner.

About Freud Fission Chips

Despite the banality of the name, FFC has led an intensely varied life. Grateful for surviving almost three years as a 'troepie' (soldier for non-South African Readers) in the Angolan war, he determined to wring as much out of life as possible. Currently providing Business Analysis services, trading on the stock market and developing web pages to pay the bills, FFC also dabbles in wildlife, landscape and people photography, writing, and far too many interests for his own good. He has also travelled extensively in southern Africa (working on the sound theory that a moving target is more dificult to hit). These peregrinations also include over 1500kms on foot through some of the worlds most spectacular scenery. It hasn't all been plain sailing, beer and skittles, and endless beds of roses... Chief amongst the prerequisites for surviving Africa, with its mind-bending characteristics, is an appropriate sense of humour.... So, for now, he will be recounting the amusing among the annoying, the frustrating wrapped in the funny and extracting the mirth from the melancholy... Oh yes, there might be some alliteration too.
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2 Responses to Photographing the night sky–getting that ‘pro’ touch.

  1. Matthew Byron says:

    thanks for the lesson – will try it soon.

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