Impress your Instagram followers with stunning starry night photos.

By Josh Laskin
February 09, 2016
Josh Laskin

Want to fill these long, winter nights with an activity that isn't binge-watching Netflix? Avid outdoor explorers know that when the sun goes down in the backcountry, there are few ways to keep busy—especially during solo camping trips. Whether you're in the wilderness or your own backyard, make the most of the the hours after sunset by practicing long exposure night photography.

Thanks to the season's long, clear nights, winter is as ideal for photography as it is for stargazing. All you need is a single-lens reflex (SLR) camera and a basic knowledge of how your camera operates—or at least the instruction manual. After reading these easy tips, you'll be taking stunning photos outside all night long.

Josh Laskin

Focus, Aperture, and Shutter Speed

For clear, well-lit pictures, aim for a shutter speed of 30 seconds, paired with the largest aperture available (remember that your camera expresses aperture in fractions: F3.5 is larger than F24, for example). It may also be necessary to turn the auto-focus setting off and to manually focus the lens to infinity. If the photograph is too dark, set the shutter speed to "bulb" and manually open and close the shutter with a shutter release remote, which can be purchased at any camera store.

ISO and White Balance

The higher the ISO (light sensitivity setting), the more responsive your camera is to light. You are, however, compromising the final image quality as the ISO is increased. Photos shot at a higher ISO will be grainier than those shot at a lower ISO. An ISO of 100 is a good starting point. It will help minimize the noise visible in the photograph. You'll also want to experiment with different white-balance settings. Keep in mind that "cloudy" and "shade" white balance settings will bring out more reds and oranges in the photograph.

Use a Tripod

Even with the right camera and the right settings, you'll still need a tripod in order to capture landscapes illuminated by the night sky. Clear, well-lit nighttime photos are achieved by using a slow shutter speed, which compensates for the limited amount of light available. But the slow shutter will capture any and all motion, resulting in a blurry photograph. Place your camera on a tripod to mitigate the risk of any movement during an exposure, and make sure that your vibration reduction (VR) setting is switched to off­: many lenses have this setting on the side. Also note that if your subject is moving, you won't get a clear shot—so don't even bother snapping a picture of that deer scampering across the field of moonlit flowers. When you're ready to snap the photo, use your camera's internal timer setting so the final product is not blurry.

Josh Laskin

Create Light Trails

To capture light trails, a light source must be moving around in the frame during a long exposure shot. Light trails can be artificial (headlights from a car passing by, a flashlight moving in the foreground) or organic (the stars as the Earth rotates beneath them). Be careful not to leave the source motionless for too long, as this will create a washed-out bright spot in your photograph. When capturing star trails, specifically, you'll want to leave your shutter open for at least a few minutes. If you accidentally created this effect and wish to eliminate it, increase your ISO and shorten your shutter speed.

Once you master the basics of photographing the night sky, you can use these very same skills to photograph the motion of clouds during sunset, or to smooth the waters of waterfall—even in full daylight.

Josh Laskin