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

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