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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.

Take Test Photos
Shoot overexposed sample shots to gather landscape detail and improve composition.

1) Situate and orient. Point your tripod-mounted camera away from artificial light sources like distant cities or roads.
2) Set your camera to capture extra light. Open the aperture wide (low f-stop numbers represent larger apertures), and select the highest ISO (1600 or above). Use a shutter speed that allows your camera to catch excess light (30 seconds).
3) Shoot a few overexposed pictures. Many areas may appear white, but quality doesn’t matter, it’s composition that counts. Examine these shots for desirable elements like rocks or trees—or for distractions like an angled horizon, bright spots caused by light pollution, or clouds. Note the focus of stars and foreground objects.
4) Adjust composition and focus. Turn and pan the camera to frame your desired scene; tilt it to level the horizon. Refocus if necessary.
5) Fine-tune. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until you’ve framed the desired shot. Then, based on conditions and content (see chart below), adjust ISO, aperture, and shutter speed to expose properly.

Shoot RAW images.
Plan to print? RAW files are like negatives, and allow more editing flexibility. Save storage space: Shoot in RAW, but delete test shots.

Celestial Fireworks
Use these exposure settings and composition tips to enhance night pictures.

Photo by Ben Canales

Star trails Exposure time
Aperture (f-stop)
Sensor speed (ISO)

Key adjustment
Experiment with exposure times lasting from several minutes to several hours. Longer times will show longer trails.

To capture arcs of light like these (left), shoot long exposures on clear nights (clouds obscure the stars). For vortex-like circles, center your frame on the North Star.


Photo by Ben Canales

Stars Exposure time
+ 8s
Aperture (f-stop)
Sensor speed (ISO)
+ 1600

Key adjustment
Use a high ISO (higher than 1600 if possible) so the camera sensor registers low-light despite exposure times short enough to freeze stars.

Aiming at the Milky Way? It’s brightest in the southern sky; go south of cities and orient south. For the aurora, go north of cities, and point north.


Photo by Tim Seaver

Moon Exposure time
Aperture (f-stop)
Sensor speed (ISO)

Key adjustment
The moon is bright (and tracks quickly across the sky), so use a fast shutter speed to capture its surface details without overexposing them.

Zoom in with your longest lens and focus on the moon’s surface features. Crop shots with photo editing software at home (to enlarge the moon’s relative size).


Photo by Ben Canales

Moonlit landscape Exposure time
Aperture (f-stop)
Sensor speed (ISO)

Key adjustment
Use a small f-stop to give your image greater depth of field so you can focus both near and far elements at the same time.

A quarter moon can cast enough light to brighten a scene. On cloudy nights, expect shadowless images. On clear nights, shadows may be harsh.


Pack More Juice Long exposures and cold temps zap battery power. Bring at least one extra set, or a charger like the Joos Orange ($150; 1 lb. 8 oz.;

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