Shooting Nighttime Sky with Ken Sklute

I’d like to share some thoughts on making images in the dark of the nighttime sky. I hope that my tips and tricks can help you make better images! I can’t wait to see what you enter in this photo challenge!


1. Get out of Dodge

In order to find clear, dark skies that are so important to being able to capture stars, the Milky Way or the Aurora Borealis, you first have to get out of town, get away from any kind of lights to have the best opportunity to capture a nicely saturated sky. I have to drive a minimum of an hour to reach acceptable darkness in the deserts surrounding Phoenix, Az.


2. Where oh where is the Moon

One element that id often a challenge to the nighttime shooter is the moon. The lunar surface reflects the sun right back on to the earth, contaminating the sky or diminishing the color and contrast. I will often relax as the moon sets and then wait another 90 minutes for the solar reflector (moon) to reach a point where it no longer effects the dark sky. The same attention has to be paid to the rising moon, the rising sun as well as the setting sun. Each of those elements that illuminate the sky needs a 90 minute adjustment in order to begin or end photographing.


3. Know your camera system before you leave home since you will be in the dark

Knowing how to adjust your shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and white balance settings in the dark is a necessity. There is an etiquette when shooting in the dark.

When other photographers are near you at some locations, using a flashlight may not a possibility since they may using other techniques or timing to make their nocturnal exposures. Putting on a flashlight may ruin their hard work. Please always ask if you can use a headlamp or flashlight without costing your neighbors their photo project.


4. To Infinity and Beyond

It is very important to set your focus at infinity before you set your camera up in the dark. Autofocus is unlikely to help you in low light and low contrast requiring you to focus on a bright light. That bright light may be the sun at sunset, a light in a parking lot or any light source beyond 50 feet from your camera will do. Once my focus is set, I use a small piece of black electrical tape to secure the focus ring so it will not accidently move.


5. Keep the Camera Level

Since it may be a little challenging to look through your viewfinder to see when the camera is level, most of our cameras today have an electronic level to help you. Know where it is, how to activate it and most importantly know how to turn it off. We lose a portion of our carefully composed image if we need to crop the image after the fact.


6. Determining your Subject

Finding a primary and secondary subject are often necessary before it gets dark.  It’s difficult to look for a tree, a rock, or a design once the daylight disappears when day becomes night. I use a GPS unit to log in where all of my favorite earthbound foregrounds to balance or help create a composition with my skyward subjects like the Northern Lights, a star trail of just a beautiful nighttime sky full of stars. This should provide you a balance in your composition and in my eyes, balance is a very important part of a successful composition.


7. Which White Balance you ask?

At night, I find it to be very important to work in one of the preset white balances or a pre-determined Kelvin temperature for consistency. I often use 3200K which is actually the color temperature of tungsten or incandescent light when there is no moon in the sky. When there is a moon above the horizon for something like star trails, I select 4500K. Find what you like to capture white balance but keep in mind that you can always fine tune it in post-processing.


8. Is my lens wide enough?

Most of my Nighttime Sky imagery is captured with either a 14 mm 2.8 or my 16-35 mm 2.8 lenses. Periodically the display that I am trying to capture is wider than my widest lens. I then use my tripod, leveling base and ball head to create a multi-frame panorama that I will later stich together in Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop to create a field of view of somewhere between 180 and 300 degrees.







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