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How to take better night photos with the Pixel 6 Pro, iPhone 13 Pro or a digital camera

I've always thought taking a picture of the night sky meant mounting expensive cameras on heavy telescopes and having a deep understanding of the stars. But for the latest episode of my Full Frame YouTube video series, I flew 2,000 miles from the lights of the great city of New York to meet Bettymaya Foott, astrophotographer and Director of Engagement for the International Dark-Sky Association, who taught me how to capture incredible photos of the stars using cameras I already owned. What once seemed like a monumental task, involving in-depth knowledge of the cosmos, quickly turned into an incredibly peaceful but also incredibly cold night under the stars.

Here's everything I learned about capturing a great photo of the night sky:

Dark place, clear sky

First, you need to find a dark place and be there on a clear night. The ideal location is located away from towns and villages that could pollute the sky with light. Check or the International Dark Sky Places Program for some ideas. It is also important to ensure that you will have access to your pitch at night. Many parks close at night or require camping reservations so you can access the park after dark. It's also important to scout your location during the day so you can clearly see any hazards, like a cliff or thorny plants, that you'll want to stay away from at night. Also check the weather:the less cloud the better!

Then it is important to know what phase the moon will be in and when it will rise and set. Generally, the brighter the moon, the fewer stars you will be able to see, which is something most people try to avoid. But while a full moon can make for less visible stars, it can make for a truly unique photo by illuminating your foreground. It's also useful to check when the moon will rise and set, especially if you want to capture a dynamic moonset timelapse. Below is the first and last image of a timelapse I took while the moon was setting, but check out the video above to see the full timelapse.

Equipment and parameters

The most important piece of equipment you will need is a tripod. No matter what camera (or phone) you use, the shutter will be open for a long time and need to be firmly on the ground to avoid blurry photos. Also, make sure you have the proper mounts to attach your camera to the tripod.

When it comes to the camera, newer phones like the iPhone 13 Pro or Pixel 6 Pro have built-in night modes that can capture surprisingly good photos of the night sky without having to compose custom settings. In these modes, the camera shutter remains open for long periods of time, allowing more light to accumulate on the sensor. I was very impressed with the photos from the Pixel 6 Pro which keeps its shutter open for four minutes and provides a 2 second timelapse with the photo of the stars it takes.

When using a DSLR or mirrorless camera, a wider lens will allow you to keep the shutter open longer without noticing star trail. The Rule of 500s can help you figure out exactly how long you can set the shutter with your particular lens before you see star trails. If available, set your camera to shoot in RAW to have the most detail and dynamic range for later editing. Next, put the camera in manual mode and start with the following settings, then adjust shutter speed or aperture to get the perfect exposure for your scene.

  • White balance:Daylight (5600K)
  • Shutter speed:10 seconds
  • Aperture:f/2.2
  • ISO:3200

The last step in the field is to focus your lens. Start by setting your camera lens to manual focus and infinity focus. Then display the live view on your camera and zoom in to at least 10x magnification in the middle of your screen. Find a star and focus it until it's the smallest, sharpest point of light possible. Then take a photo and revise your focus. Once everything looks balanced and crisp, you're ready to shoot the sky!


Editing your astrophotos is important to bring out faint details in the night sky, like airglow. Airglow is made up of particles in the Earth's atmosphere that release energy in the form of light into the night sky. This is what causes the orange and green bands to span the bottom third of the photo below.

Foott suggests editing your photo so that looking at it makes you feel the same way you felt when photographing it. She uses a mix of Photoshop, Lightroom and an astrophotography-specific editing program called Starscape Tracker to create vivid portraits of our night sky. You can see more of her work on her Instagram. I'm not a master at photo editing and find this quite boring, so I simply increased the contrast by brightening my highlights and darkening my shadows and blacks, then added saturation and clarity in Lightroom.

To see more photos I took while learning how to capture the night sky, watch the video above.