Understanding the Night Sky

David Kingham

If you want to do more under the stars than just wish on them, landscape and nightscape photographer David Kingham can help you get started. Kingham isn't an astronomer, nor do you have to be. His mantra? You need vision. Spend some time learning the technical aspects of night photography, not to get the perfect shot, but to reach the point where your camera doesn’t get in the way of what you set out to do. Once you don’t think about the technical aspects, you can truly focus on your vision. This is an excerpt of Kingham's book, Nightscape: A Complete Guide To Photographing The Night Sky

If you don't have experience with the night sky, it can be overwhelming. There are so many stars, constellations, the moon, planets, radiants, and galaxies that they all seem to appear and disappear at different locations and times. Although I’m not an experienced astronomer, I will show you the basics of photographing the night sky by sharing what I have learned over the years through my own trial and error.

The points below assume you’re viewing from a location in the northern hemisphere near 40 degrees latitude. There are differences in the southern hemisphere and most concepts still apply, but I won’t be going into detail about those differences.

North Star

Without the aid of the sun, it can be challenging to orient yourself at night. Some believe it’s easy to find the North Star by looking for the brightest star, but in reality, the North Star (also called the Pole Star or Polaris) is the 50th brightest star in the sky. The trick is finding the Big Dipper, as this is the easiest constellation to find in the night sky. Upon locating this constellation, use the two stars on the end of the Dipper to point you to the North Star. The North Star is also the end of the handle in the Small Dipper.

Finding the North Star achieves two things: (1) it gives you bearings to find other objects in the sky; and (2) if you point the camera towards the North Star for star trails, you will create circular trails that are not possible in any other direction.

14mm, 25 mins @ f/2.8, ISO 3200 | To create the star trails, 200 images were stacked together, with four exposures blended for the foreground.

Milky Way

Few in our modern society have seen the mysterious Milky Way for themselves because of our city lives. Ancient cultures were in tune with the night sky as they could step out of their cave, tepee, or tent and see the Milky Way blazing brightly above them every night. If I could do anything to reconnect you with the night sky, I would; I want as many people as possible to get out and experience it, to be humbled by it.

When I first started photographing at night, I found the Milky Way to be elusive because I lacked the necessary astronomy background. One night it would be in the sky, but later in the year at the same time I was unable to find it. Since then I have spent countless hours studying the Milky Way to decode its mysteries.

When I talk about the Milky Way, I’m referring to the brightest area of the galaxy, often referred to as the “core.” There is more to the Milky Way that is not as bright and less photogenic. The core will always be found in the southern sky no matter where you are on Earth, but its position changes slightly based on the time of year. In the spring, it can be found in the southeast sky, directly in the southern sky in the summer, and in the southwest sky in the fall. During November, December and January, the core of the Milky Way is not visible at all.

        Below: 24mm, 20 secs @ f/2.0, ISO 6400, 8-image panorama


Planets are fairly easy to identify as they are quite bright, and unlike stars, they do not twinkle. Venus is the brightest planet, followed by Jupiter. Both planets are brighter than any star in the sky, and these will be the first you see as the sky becomes dark (the stars Vega and Sirius are brighter than Saturn). Interesting photos can be created when planets are in conjunction (when two or more planets appear to be close together in the sky).

24mm with fog filter, 20 secs @ f/2.0, ISO 6400 | Jupiter rising over the Badlands.

Meteor Showers

14mm, 30 secs @ f/2.8, ISO 3200, 24-image composite | The radiant of Perseids is in the top right corner.

Meteor showers are caused by comet debris. When Earth passes through the debris cloud, the small particles burn in the atmosphere, causing meteors. Different showers occur throughout the year with varying intensities, which is measured in meteors per hour. How many meteors you'll actually see is unpredictable. The best showers are the Perseids, Geminids, and Quadrantids. Each shower occurs near the same time each year. Generally, the best viewing time is after midnight local time until dawn, with the exception of Geminids, which can be viewed after dusk until dawn.

Zodiac and Ecliptic

The zodiac is a 20-degree wide band that is the apparent path the sun, moon, and planets follow from our viewing location on Earth. The center of this band is called the ecliptic, and it determines where and when the moon will rise and for creating a different type of star trail that seems to be going in different directions.

Image from Starry Night Software 

Moon Phases

The moon travels along the ecliptic, rising in the east and setting in the west, following a similar path as the sun. Where it rises and sets changes throughout the year.

As the moon orbits around Earth, its illumination changes from a new moon (not illuminated) to a waxing crescent moon (1-49% illuminated), first quarter (50%), waxing gibbous (51-99%), full moon (100%), waning gibbous (51-99%), last quarter (50%), waning crescent moon (1-49% illuminated), and back to a new moon. This cycle takes 29.53 days, the timing of which is shifted by an approximate one day per month. During the waxing phases, the illuminated side of the moon will be on the right, and during the waning phase, the left side will be illuminated.

 24mm, 20 secs @ f/2.8, ISO 3200 | Moon illuminated 26%


Constellations are imaginary patterns formed by the brightest stars in the sky. As previously discussed, the most important constellations to help you find your bearings are the Big and Small Dippers. During the winter, different constellations are visible than those seen in summer. The most notable is Orion, which can be easily identified by finding Orion's belt, but only in the winter; it’s not visible during the summer.

Top: Image from Starry Night Software

Bottom: 14mm, 30 secs @ f/5.6, ISO 1600; stars enhanced with StarSpikes Pro

If you’re struggling to learn the constellations using the traditional charts, you may be interested in H.A. Rey’s classic book, The Stars: A New Way to See Them , where constellations are represented in the same stick style, but in shapes that make sense based upon the names of the constellations.


There are over 1,000 satellites orbiting Earth, most of which are photographic nuisances because they show up as a line across the sky. However, iridium satellites—used for satellite phones—can add interest to your photos because they have a unique reflective antenna that briefly focuses sunlight on Earth, called “iridium flare,” which is one of the brightest objects in the night sky when it flashes. These vary in intensity and can easily be predicted using tools online or apps on your phone.

24mm, 20 mins @ f/2, ISO 6400, 16-image panorama, 16 meteors composited from three nights | The bright bulge directly above Devils Tower is an iridium flare; the rest are meteors.


The only galaxy you will likely capture with this style of night photography is Andromeda. This galaxy can be found in the north-northeast sky near the northern end of the Milky Way. In the image below, you can see it in the lower left, below Comet PANSTARRS. It's not large in these images and is hard to find in the sky.

Top: 24mm, 20 secs @ f/2, ISO 3200, 14-image panorama | Fremont Butte

Bottom: 85mm, 6 mins @ f/2, ISO 6400| A closer view taken with an 85mm lens.


Comets are cosmic snowballs of frozen gases, rock and dust. A comet warms up as it nears the sun and develops an atmosphere, and sometimes a tail. An average of one comet per year is visible to the naked eye, but most are unspectacular. We are mainly interested in “Great Comets,” those that become visible to the casual observer without looking for the comet. Recent examples are Lovejoy, McNaught, and Hale-Bopp. These great comets are extremely rare, and you may only get one opportunity in a lifetime to photograph such an event. Pay attention to space news sites, and if you hear of such a comet, don’t miss the chance to make photographs!

300mm, 6 secs @ f/5.6, ISO 3200 | Comet PANSTARRS


The aurora borealis (northern lights) is created from charged particles that are ejected from the sun. When these particles reach Earth, they collide with the atmosphere and create magnificent light shows in the sky

The best way to view the aurora is to go far north to an area called the “auroral zone” near the North Pole, where there is a greater likelihood of seeing aurora. It’s also possible to view the aurora in the northerly areas of the lower 48 states, but this only happens during a geomagnetic storm.

Below: 24mm, 20 secs@ f/2, ISO 3200Geomagnetic storms are measured on the K-index: Kp=3 is a low level of activity and no aurora will be visible in the lower 48, and Kp=5 will be visible in some areas far north. In the map above, you can see where the aurora will be visible. If you are slightly south of the line, you will only see a slight glow of aurora on the horizon but as you go farther north, the aurora will become higher in the sky.

Want to learn more about night photography? David's eBook, Nightscape: A Complete Guide To Photographing The Night Sky, is on sale for 35% off until 11:59 pm PST on June 20. 

David Kingham is a landscape photographer who specializes in photographing the night sky. After a successful 12-year architectural career, David discovered his passion for photography, left the office confines, shed the excess of his consumer-driven lifestyle and now lives as a nomad, exploring the American West with his partner, Jennifer Renwick, and his dog, Emmie. Along the way, he shares his love of photography with others by teaching workshops. Learn more about David and his adventures on his website.



Craft & Technique David Kingham

← Older Post Newer Post →

Leave a comment

  2. Lightroom CC vs. Lightroom Classic: The Death of the Perpetual License
  3. In Conversation: Marcin Sobas
  4. Is Composition Overrated?
  5. The Power of Becoming a Beginner Again
  6. Five Ways to Make Mouth-Watering Food Photographs
  7. Forget Lens Stereotypes
  8. Using Low Dynamic Range to Improve Your Photography
  9. Isolating Your Subject
  10. Choosing Lighting Patterns
  11. Understanding The Stages
  12. Conceptually Speaking: A Word With Claire Rosen
  13. Best Places
  14. Thinking Less Literally
  15. Vision Is Better, Ep. 63
  16. An Iconic Photograph, or a Photographed Icon?
  17. Thinking in Monochrome
  18. Vision Is Better, Ep.62
  19. Vision Is Better, Ep.61
  20. Making the Image: Kathleen Clemons
  21. Night Ranger: A Word With David Kingham
  22. Understanding the Night Sky
  23. Vision Is Better, Ep.60
  24. The Value of Critique
  25. Capturing the Moment
  26. Vision Is Better, Ep.59
  27. Five Key Elements of Food Photography
  28. Using Flash That Doesn't Look Lit
  29. Vision Is Better, Ep.58
  30. Using Flash To Improve Your Photographs
  31. Five Tips for Using Off-Camera Flash
  32. Vision Is Better, Ep.57
  33. Finding Critics
  34. Street Life: A Word With Libby Holmsen
  35. Using the Frame
  36. The Photographer's Tools
  37. Backlight: The Art of Silhouettes
  38. Vision Is Better, Ep.56
  39. Understanding Perspective
  40. Vision Is Better, Ep.55
  41. In Conversation: Sharon Covert
  42. Create Projects + Collaborate
  43. Mirrors or Windows?
  44. 2018 Mentor Series Workshop: Varanasi, India
  45. F/ The Rules
  46. Drawing the Eye With Selective Focus
  47. In Conversation: Willem Wernsen
  48. Exposing for Highlights
  49. Using Fill Light to Create Dramatic Portraits
  50. Cameras Don't Make Photographs
  51. Shooting with Your Final Image in Mind
  52. 10 Ways to Make Better Black and White Photographs
  53. 2018 Maasai Mara Photographic Safari
  54. 2018 Mentor Series Workshop: Lalibela, Ethiopia
  55. Start With the Corners
  56. Creating Painterly Images with Movement and Multiple Exposures
  57. Using the Guided Upright Tool in Lightroom
  58. The Power of Photographing Icons
  59. In Conversation: Susan Burnstine (Part II)
  60. In Conversation: Susan Burnstine (Part I)
  61. Controlling Your Edit with Lightroom's Tone Curve
  62. Making the Image: David duChemin
  63. 3 Ways to Make More Honest Portraits
  64. The Adjective-Driven Approach to Photography
  65. In Conversation: Oded Wagenstein
  66. Making the Zone System Work for You
  67. Ten (More) Ways to Improve Your Craft
  68. Reference View: A New Way to See in the Lightroom Develop Module
  69. In Conversation: Laurent Breillat
  70. The Best 3 Filters for Landscape Photography
  71. Creating Classical Portraits with Simple Lighting
  72. Photographic Processing and Believability
  73. Visual Storytelling: An Introduction
  74. Making the Image: Piet Van den Eynde
  75. In Conversation: Satoki Nagata
  76. Use Repeating Elements for Stronger Images
  77. In Conversation: Kate Densmore
  78. One (More) Reason To Use Adobe's Creative Cloud
  79. Three Ways to Use Backlight
  80. 2017 Rome Mentor Series Workshop
  81. 2017 Venice Mentor Series Workshops
  82. Controlling Foreground to Background Presence
  83. Making the Image: David Adam Edelstein
  84. In Conversation: David Adam Edelstein
  85. Using Contrast for Stronger Images
  86. Three Ways to Make Better Portraits
  87. How to Direct the Eye in Your Photographs
  88. How to Improve Your Street Photography
  89. In Conversation: Piet Van den Eynde
  90. Starting Your Next Personal Project
  91. Five (More) Creative Exercises to Improve Your Photography
  92. Five Creative Exercises to Improve Your Photography
  93. Three (More) Ways To Discover Your Vision
  94. Four Ways to Discover Your Vision (Part I)
  95. Three Ways to Make Stronger Black & White Images in Lightroom
  96. In Conversation: Cristina Mittermeier
  97. How to Add Mood to Infrared (and other) Photographs
  98. In Conversation: Paul Nicklen
  99. Four Ways to Tell Stronger Stories
  100. In Conversation: John Paul Caponigro
  101. Master the Art of Seeing and Improve Your Photography
  102. Adding Light with the Radial Filter in Lightroom
  103. The Power of Abstraction
  104. In Conversation: Anja Büehrer
  105. Five Ways to Add More Depth to Your Portraits
  106. Four Ways to Make Stronger Travel Photographs
  107. In Conversation: Martin Bailey
  108. Learn to Isolate
  109. Gear Is Good
  110. In Conversation: Dave Brosha
  111. For the Love of Your Photographs
  112. Working with Target Collections in Lightroom
  113. Review: Epson P800
  114. Seeing: Receptive & Observant
  115. Better Questions
  116. Siri? Ask Lightroom!
  117. Wake Up.
  118. In Conversation: David Jackson
  119. Photographic Skills: Patience
  120. In Conversation: David duChemin
  121. 2017 Jodhpur Mentoring Workshop
  122. 2017 Maasai Mara Safari
  123. Rome 2016 Mentoring Workshop
  124. Florence 2016 Mentoring Workshop
  125. Venice 2016 Mentoring Workshop
  126. Vision Is Better, Ep.54
  127. Vision Is Better, Ep.53
  128. Vision Is Better, Ep.52
  129. Vision Is Better, Ep.51
  130. Vision Is Better, Ep.50
  131. Vision Is Better, Ep.49
  132. Vision Is Better, Ep.48
  133. Vision Is Better, Ep.47
  134. Vision Is Better, Ep.46
  135. Vision Is Better, Ep.45
  136. Vision Is Better, Ep.44
  137. Vision Is Better, Ep.43
  138. Vision Is Better, Ep.42
  139. Vision Is Better, Ep.41
  140. Vision Is Better, Ep.40
  141. Vision Is Better, Ep.39
  142. Vision Is Better, Ep.38
  143. Vision Is Better, Ep.37
  144. Vision Is Better, Ep.36
  145. Vision Is Better, Ep.35
  146. Vision Is Better, Ep.34
  147. Vision Is Better, Ep.33
  148. Vision Is Better, Ep.32
  149. Vision Is Better, Ep.31
  150. Vision Is Better, Ep.30
  151. Vision Is Better, Ep.29
  152. Vision Is Better, Ep.28
  153. Vision Is Better, Ep.27
  154. Vision Is Better, Ep.26
  155. Vision Is Better, Ep.25
  156. Vision Is Better, Ep.24
  157. Vision Is Better, Ep.23
  158. Vision is Better, Ep.22
  159. Vision is Better, Ep.21
  160. Vision is Better, Ep.20
  161. Vision is Better, Ep.19
  162. Vision is Better, Ep.18
  163. Vision is Better, Ep.17
  164. Vision is Better, Ep.16
  165. Vision is Better, Ep.15
  166. Vision Is Better, Ep.11
  167. Vision Is Better, Ep.10
  168. Vision Is Better, Ep.09
  169. Vision Is Better, Ep.08
  170. Vision Is Better, Ep.07
  171. Vision Is Better, Ep.06
  172. Vision Is Better, Ep.05
  173. Vision Is Better, Ep.04
  174. Vision Is Better, Ep.03
  175. Vision Is Better, Ep.02
  176. Vision Is Better, Ep.01

Related Articles

Backlight: The Art of Silhouettes

Back, indirect, and rim: learn how to use these lights to create the art of the silhouette. 
Read more →

Using the Frame

The key to successful compositions? Learning to become more conscious of the frame and how to use the forces...
Read more →

Related Resources

Adam Blasberg Adobe Alessio Trerotoli Alexandre Buisse Andrew S. Gibson Andy Biggs Anja Büehrer Bret Edge Bruce Percy Chris Orwig Claire Rosen Composition Craft & Technique Creative Cloud Creativity Cristina Mittermeier Dave Brosha David Adam Edelstein David duChemin David Kingham Duncan Fawkes Guy Tal Henry Fernando Interview Jason Bradley John Paul Caponigro Kate Densmore Kathleen Clemons Kevin Clark Landscapes Laurent Breillat Libby Holmsen Lightroom & Photoshop Making the Image Marcin Sobas Martin Bailey Michael Frye Nathan Wirth Natural Light Oded Wagenstein Paul Nicklen Piet Van den Eynde Podcast Project Nimbus Rafael Rojas Satoki Nagata Sean McCormack Sharon Covert Sherri Koop Simi Jois Street Photography Susan Burnstine Vision is Better Show visual storytelling Willem Wernsen Workshop Younes Bounhar Zone System