Camera Settings for Astrophotography: Northern Lights Photography, Milky Way Photography, Star Trails Photography

Astrophotography is one of the best ways to break the routine and reward yourself with novel experiences that inspire beautiful creations. It transports you to another world while you photograph the astronomical objects, celestial events, and areas of the night sky on your trip to new & exotic places.

From Moon Photography and Star Trails Photography to Milky Way Photography and Northern Lights Photography, Astrophotography helps you discover, capture and reveal the mysterious beauty of our universe.


Photo by Chris Slagle, landscape photographer and Grand Prize Winner of the 2020 AAA World Photo Contest. For more such amazing images, do check his Instagram profile here

How to photograph the Milky Way

Milky Way Photography is capturing the band of light formed from the stars seen in the clear, cloudless night sky (with no moon) of remote areas/countryside that has minimal light pollution.

Below is the recommended setting for Milky Way Photography:

Camera Settings – A Tripod is needed, use a wide angle lens i.e. focal length of 14 mm or the widest focal length available in your camera, Aperture: f/2.8, Shutter Speed: 30 sec, ISO 3200, set the focus to infinity (you will find the infinity symbol ∞ on your camera lens).

Pro tip: To avoid a blur image caused by the motion of the stars (due to earth’s rotation) and use of long exposure/slow shutter speed, go for the 500 rule/focal length.

For instance – in the above mentioned setting, 14mm is the focal length, so 500/14 = 35 sec, so shutter speed should be lower than 35 sec, so you can use 30 sec.

How to focus to infinity without indicator

If you don’t have the infinity symbol ∞ on your camera, then you can find the infinity focus and mark it on your camera. Here’s how:

  • Turn your AF (Autofocus) mode on
  • Go for Single Focus Point and select center focus point
  • During daytime, point your camera (preferably mounted on a tripod) with the Single Focus Point on the top of a pillar, lighthouse, tree, mountain or a tower that is set against the skyline (Keep the top of the pillar in the center of the frame)
  • The AF mode will try to find focus on the top of the pillar
  • Through the viewfinder/Live View Shoot Mode, when you see your subject/pillar appearing sharp, halfway press the shutter button to lock the focus (the focus has been set to infinity)
  • Now, quickly mark that point on the focus ring with a marker or a tape (you’ve marked your infinity focus)
  • Turn AF (Autofocus) mode to MF (Manual Focus) mode
  • When doing astrophotography, use MF (Manual Focus) mode, move your focus ring manually and stop at the marked infinity focus to capture a sharp image
focus to infinity
How to focus to infinity without indicator

Note: After I marked the infinity focus on my focus ring (Canon 1500D) – I found out that when I move my focus ring to the extreme left (hard stop of the camera’s focus ring which is the place at which the focus ring will turn no further) and then move it back by a centimeter to the right, there lies my infinity focus.

(Always try to get sharp images coz if your images aren’t sharp, even post-processing in Lightroom won’t help to correct/enhance your image)

milky way photography

Photo by Daniel Damschen, Product Designer and a Photographer. For more such amazing images, do check his Instagram profile here

How to photograph Star Trails

For Star Trails photography which is capturing the circular movement of stars in the night sky – choose a night with no moon, a dimly lit location, go for long exposure/slow shutter speed, use a foreground for better composition, wide angle lens & a tripod and set the focus to infinity.

Option 1: Use the Bulb Mode

Bulb mode is a shutter speed option for long exposures/very slow shutter speed that you can use only in Manual mode. For instance, if you want keep the shutter open for longer periods than 30 sec, go for Bulb Mode. In this mode, as long as you keep the shutter button pressed before taking the shot that much long will be the exposure.

Shutter speeds for a star trail, ranges from anywhere between 10 minutes to several hours.

Camera Settings: Use the widest Aperture: f/3.5 or less, Bulb Mode: 30 min exposure/shutter speed, ISO: 200. You will need a remote shutter release/cable release that allows you to lock the shutter button for long exposures like 30 min without having to keep the shutter button pressed with your finger for longer periods.

Alternatively, if you don’t want to use a very long exposure/slow shutter speed, you can increase the ISO.

Option 2: Use the Intervalometer

Instead of Bulb mode, you can use an intervalometer which is an advanced remote shutter release that automatically triggers the shutter at timed intervals.

How to use Intervalometer/Recommended Setting

Set the Shutter Speed to 30 secs and set the intervalometer to take 100 shots continuously at an interval of 1 sec to avoid breaks between trails. Seasoned Photographers take many pictures using intervalometer and combine them during post processing to create the final star trail image.

How to photograph the Northern Lights

northern lights

Photo by Chris O’Donnell, an Engineer and a Photographer. For more such amazing images, do check his Instagram profile here

Known by various names – northern lights, polar lights and aurora borealis, it is a natural light display in the dark skies of high-latitude regions. You can take pictures of this spectacular ballet of light with a colour palette of green, violet, blue, and pink in places closer to the Arctic Circle – Iceland, Norway, Alaska, Greenland, Sweden, Finland and Canada.

For photographing Northern Lights – you need a place where the sky is dark, clear with no clouds. If you’re planning a trip to Iceland, mid-October through March (winter months) is the best time which increases your chances of seeing the northern lights due to extended hours of night time and clear cloudless night skies. You can check with the locals or check the aurora forecast apps/websites for predicted aurora activity.

For your Iceland winter trip, you will need layered clothing – thermal wear, wind and waterproof jackets with a hoodie, winter boots, woollen socks & gloves, a thermos for keeping hot tea/beverages. Remember to carry spare camera batteries (batteries die fast in cold climate), a rain cover for your camera and a flashlight.

Camera Settings:

Use a tripod, wide angle lens and set the focus to infinity. To avoid camera shake/blur images, use a remote shutter release or self-timer mode. Use Aperture: f/2.8 or the lowest f-number you can get on your camera, Shutter Speed: 20 sec, ISO 1600. Experiment with the settings – if the image has come out too bright, then lower the ISO or increase the shutter speed. On the other hand, if your image has come out too dark, increase your ISO or use a slower shutter speed.

Bonus: Night photography tips

Light trail photography settings

While photographing the street at night, the scene would look very dark. So, your DSLR camera’s light meter will brighten up the exposure to maintain 18% gray and result in a washed-out image. You will have to dial down Exposure Compensation (EC) to -3, -4 or -5 to make the photograph resemble the natural night scene. You can also use the self-timer mode to avoid camera shake/blur image.

light trail photography

Aperture: f/11, ISO: least ISO (Lo1), Shutter Speed: 25 secs, EC: -5

Fireworks photography settings

Aperture (mid-small) f/8 to f/16, ISO 100, Bulb Mode: keep the shutter button pressed until the firework sequence ends & then release the button. (Use a tripod and remote shutter release to avoid camera shake/blur image)

Alternatively, you can experiment with ISO settings from 400 to1600 using a wide aperture and fast shutter speed.

We bring you ‘Jo & His Camera’ Comic Strips wherein a Magical Camera gives DSLR photography tutorials to an aspiring photographer named Jo.

Click on the below Image to see the Comic wherein the Camera explains Jo, the concept of Astrophotography with the help of practical examples.

northern lights

When you do photography: Remember the 5E’s – Explore, Experiment, Experience, Enjoy & Express to develop your own style as a photographer.

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Have you tried astrophotography, yet? We would love to know about your experiences, do share them in the comment box below.

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