How to take better night photos with Pixel 6 Pro, iPhone 13 Pro or digital camera

I’ve always thought that photographing the night sky meant mounting expensive cameras on heavy telescopes and gaining in-depth knowledge of the stars. But for the last episode of my YouTube video series the whole frame Flying 2,000 miles from NYC’s big city lights, I met Bettymaya Foott, astrophotographer and director of engagement for the International Dark Sky Association, who taught me how to take incredible pictures of the stars using cameras I already have. What once seemed like a monumental task involving deep knowledge of the cosmos quickly turned into an incredibly peaceful yet incredibly cold night under the stars.

Everything I’ve learned about taking a great photo of the night sky:

Dark Place, Clear Sky

First you need to find a dark place and be there on a clear night. The ideal location is away from cities and towns that could pollute the sky with light. Payment lightpollutionmap.info or International Dark Sky Places program for some ideas. It’s also important to make sure you can access your location at night. Many parks close at night or require a campground to be reserved before you can enter the park after dark. It is also important to observe where you are during the day so that you can clearly see dangers such as a cliff or thorny plants that you might want to avoid at night. Also check the weather comprehensively: the fewer clouds, the better!

Next, it’s important to know what phase the moon will be in and when it will rise and set. In general, the brighter the moon, the less stars you will be able to see, and most people try to avoid it. But while the full moon can make the stars less visible, it can brighten your foreground, creating a truly unique photo. Controlling when the moon will rise and set is also useful, especially if you want to capture a dynamic set of moons time lapse. Below is the first and last frame of a timelapse I took as the moon was setting, but watch the video above to see the full timelapse.

The image on the left was taken as the moon was rising, and the image on the right was taken after the moon had set.

Gear and Settings

The most important piece of equipment you need is a tripod. Whatever camera (or phone) you use, the shutter will stay open for a long time and will need to be pressed firmly on the ground to prevent blurry photos. Make sure you have the appropriate mounts for attaching your camera to a tripod as well.

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As for the camera, newer phones like the iPhone 13 Pro or Pixel 6 Pro have built-in night modes that can take surprisingly good shots of the night sky without having to search for special settings. In these modes, the camera’s shutter stays open for a long time, allowing more light to be collected on the sensor. I was very impressed with the photos of the Pixel 6 Pro, which kept its shutter open for four minutes and provided a 2-second timelapse with the photo of the stars it took.

The Pixel 6 Pro’s night mode can keep the camera’s shutter open for up to four minutes.

When using a DSLR or mirrorless camera, a wider lens will allow you to keep the shutter open longer without noticing the trail of stars. This 500 Rules can help you determine exactly how long you can set the shutter with your particular lens before you see the star trails. If available, set your camera to shoot in RAW to have the most detailed and dynamic range for later editing. Next, switch the camera to manual mode and start with the following settings, then adjust the shutter speed or aperture for the perfect exposure for your scene.

  • White balance: Daylight (5600K)
  • Shutter speed: 10 seconds
  • Aperture: f/2.2
  • ISO: 3200

The final step in the field is to focus your lens. Start by setting your camera’s lens to manual focus and focusing at infinity. Next, open the live view on your camera and zoom in at least 10x magnification in the middle of your screen. Find a star and take it out of focus until it’s the smallest, sharpest point of light you can. Then take a photo and review your focus. When everything seems balanced and in focus, you are ready to photograph the sky!

Find a star in the middle of your screen to zoom in and focus.

arrangement

Editing your astrophotos is important to bring out the faint details of the night sky, such as air brightness. The air glow consists of particles in the Earth’s atmosphere that release energy as light in the night sky. This is what creates the orange and green bands that span the lower third of the photo below.

The air glow can be seen in the orange and green hues of this photo.

Foott recommends editing your photo so that when you look at it, it feels like you did when you took the photo there. It uses a mix of Photoshop, Lightroom, and an astrophotography-specific editing program. Starry Landscape Audience to create vivid portraits of our night sky. you can see more of his work on it Instagram. I’m not adept at photo editing and frankly I find it pretty boring, so I increased the contrast by brightening my highlights and darkening my shadows and blacks, then added some saturation and sharpness to Lightroom.

Watch the video above to see more of the photos I took while learning how to capture the night sky.

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