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Backpacker Magazine

Master Class: Take Better Night-Sky Photos

You’ve found the ideal starry sky. Now, shoot the sparkling display—without investing in a new camera. Use these composition and setting tips from award-winning photographer Ben Canales.

Camera Models
These days, almost all cameras—from compact point-and-shoots to top-end DSLRs—have the controls you need to shoot at night. If you can adjust your camera’s shutter speed, sensor speed (ISO), and/or the size of the lens opening (the aperture), you can apply the photo basics in these pages. No manual controls? Turn off your camera’s flash, use the landscape mode, and apply Canales’s preparation, composition, and editing tips.

Boost Star Power
Evade light pollution, map the night sky, and adjust your eyes to see (and shoot) more stars.

>> Select a site.
For the darkest skies, go 60 to 100 miles from cities. You want an open view of the heavens, with a horizon that fills one-third of the frame. At high elevations, notice the effect of a thinner atmosphere overhead: Shooting through fewer light-dispersing particles creates crisper, brighter shots.

>> Find targets.
Research moon phases and constellations with apps like Star Walk (iPhone) or Google Sky Map (Android), or software like Stellarium (free;, which shows you the sky view from specific places at any time of night. Check for forecasted auroras at

>> Improve night vision.
Allow your eyes to adjust to darkness by turning off the lights for 45 minutes. Need to illuminate the trail or camera controls? Cover one eye when the light is on—the protected eye will stay dark-adapted. If you need a headlamp, use one like Petzl’s Tikka XP2 ($55; ); its red LED won’t ruin night vision.

Oops! Avoid Common Mistakes
Remedy navigation traps caused by inexperience and overconfidence.

>> Beginner: Leaving the camera’s autofocus setting on, which delivers out-of-focus star shots.
Fix: Set the camera to manual and adjust the focal length to infinity (∞). Check that far-off stars are in focus by snapping a test shot, then review the shot by zooming in to the sky’s brightest star on the LCD display. If it appears out of focus, adjust.

>> Intermediate: Judging a shot’s exposure by looking at the LCD screen.
Fix: Confirm correct exposure using the histogram—a graph that shows an image’s range of light. If the graph is shaped like a mountain or range, your image is exposed correctly. If the mountain shape has cliff-like edges at the ends of the graph, continue adjusting settings.

>> Advanced: Using automatic noise reduction for every shot. While it improves image quality, it also doubles each picture’s shooting time and burns through battery life.
Fix: Disable noise reduction (in your camera’s settings menu) for test images. Reset it for your last exposure. Not planning to print your shot? For digital, low-resolution displays you can clean up graininess at home using noise filters in basic editing software.

TIP: Eliminate shaky shots.
Use a tripod (weight the legs to add stability) or cradle your camera securely on a stuffsack full of dirt. Use a remote trigger or the auto timer; both eliminate shaking caused by pressing the shutter release button.

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