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How to take photos of the night sky

How to take photos of the night sky

Is seeing the northern lights on your travel list?

Most people have this as a must-see in their lifetime. But did you know that you can see an aurora in the southern hemisphere? The aurora australis (southern lights) can sometimes be spotted from southern tip of South America, New Zealand’s south island, and Tasmania.

My parents let me know that was going to be an aurora one night during my time in Hobart, so we made it our mission to seek out a nearby spot to take photos.

This was my first time ever photographing the aurora, so before we departed on our epic mission I did some research as to the best way to go about it. And it was worth it – my photos came out looking fairly good (though there’s definitely room for improvement). Here’s what I learnt in a step by step guide on how to take photos of the night sky.

Mount Wellington, Hobart, Tasmania
Mount Wellington, Hobart, Tasmania

1. Track when an aurora will appear

There’s no point going out into the night and twiddling your thumbs waiting for an aurora to appear. There are numerous websites you can use to track auroras. I used this Aurora Service to track the southern lights in Australia and New Zealand, but you can use something like this site for the northern lights.

It’s quite normal for the lights to be brightest at some un-godly hour in the middle of the night, so take a thermos of strong coffee for your 2am sleep deprivation.

2. Scout the perfect spot

You should choose somewhere with very little light pollution, away from city lights and overlooking an area without many lights in it. As you can see, I could have chosen a better spot if I’d been willing to drive a little further out of the city!

It’s also good to have an object in foreground for scale. A line of trees or a hill/mountain top will do the job.

Aurora over Hobart, Tasmania
Aurora over Hobart, Tasmania

3. Take the right gear

A point and shoot is just not going to do the trick here as you will need to manually adjust your camera settings to catch the right amount of light, so a DSLR or Mirrorless Camera with manual mode is essential. Also, a wide-angle lens (I used a 15-85mm zoom lens) is essential for capturing a large expanse of sky in the frame.

A tripod is also essential. You’ll need the camera to stay very still when you’re taking the photo. I use a Joby GorillaPod, which is a super versatile and lightweight tripod for travellers.

A camera remote might also come in handy as you’ll need to take the photo without moving the camera, though I just used a 2 second timer setting on my camera to get around this.

Night sky over Hobart, Tasmania
Night sky over Hobart, Tasmania

4. Get into manual mode

It might sound scary if you haven’t used manual mode before, but don’t worry, it’s not so bad! It might be worth doing some online training at websites like Courses to become more familiar with manual mode and photography techniques. You should also take a good look through the instruction manual for your camera as might need to refer to it when you change settings.

Set your camera to manual focus instead of auto focus, and choose a distant object to focus on (you can use the moon if there’s not much else around).

Now you need to set your ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. Your settings will vary depending on how much light you have around you, whether the moon is out, and what type of camera and lens you have. Here’s a rough guide:

ISO – A low ISO of 400-800 would be best, but I ended up using an ISO of 1600 as it worked better for my surroundings.

Aperture – You want to let in as much light as you can into your camera sensor, so a low aperture is best. My lens can go down to f3.5, so this is what I used for my photos. Most lenses will go down to somewhere between f2-f5 so just choose the lowest setting.

Shutter speed – depending on your ISO, you’ll need a shutter speed of between 5 and 30 seconds. A lengthy shutter speed might seem like a better option, but it means the stars might move in the time that you take the photo. You might need to reduce it a little to avoid star trails.

Aurora over Hobart, Tasmania
Faint aurora over Hobart, Tasmania

5. Tweak your settings

Once you’ve taken a test photo (remembering to use the remote/2 second delay), have a look at the result and see what needs to be changed. Is it too dark? If so, increase the ISO or lengthen the shutter speed, or do the opposite if it’s too light.

The best thing to do is to keep taking photos and tweaking your settings bit by bit until you have something that looks super amazing! Don’t delete the underexposed/overexposed photos, you may need them later.

Lightning in Ballina, NSW, Australia
Lightning storm that I captured in Ballina, New South Wales

6. Edit your photos

Once you’ve taken a few good shots and moved them onto your computer, you can edit them to improve the colours, brightness, and contrast.

I used HDR techniques to layer a few of my photos. HDR basically means you have a few photos taken of the same scene with different levels of brightness, and you combine them all to get one perfectly exposed photo. If you don’t want to go down the HDR path, then just play with the exposure/brightness/saturation settings. I’ve put together a tutorial on photo editing in Lightroom that might come in handy for this.

This tutorial on photographing the night sky is also relevant for other types of night shots, such as lightning storms and fireworks. The key is to just continue tweaking your settings until you get something that works!

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