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4 Tips to Compose the Perfect Astrophoto

“A good photograph is knowing where to stand.” -Ansel Adams

The most memorable Milky Way scenes have interesting terrestrial foregrounds. Before getting swept away with the technical side of setting up your shoot, spend some time planning the composition of the photo and what message you want to convey to the viewer.

1. Do some daytime exploration

Doing daytime exploration to find a great setting for your image is extremely helpful. It certainly makes finding your frame and exploring different viewpoints a lot easier and quicker. In addition, it makes testing the desired focal length a whole lot easier!

Composition astrophotography daytime

If you want to photograph an amazing wide-field astrophoto, you’ll need to know exactly which direction to shoot, at what time the Milky Way will appear, and how you’ll use the foreground in the composition.

2. Know where the Milky Way will appear

With a little help from technology you can use augmented reality to overlay on your smartphone where the sky will appear, at your location, at any time of night. This is helpful when exploring and finding the perfect composition. Read more about finding and planning your Milky Way shots with PhotoPills.

Milky Way overlay

This is important to consider based on your location. The Milky Way appears differently in the northern hemisphere than the south. 

For example, a horizontal Milky Way setting photograph (below left) is nearly impossible in the northern hemisphere.

Cory Schmitz Milky Way
Horizontal Milky Way. Photo: Cory Schmitz
Cory Schmitz Milky Way
Northern Hemisphere Milky Way. Photo: Cory Schmitz

Conversely, a vertical Milky Way that includes the core at the horizon (above right) cannot be photographed from most of the southern hemisphere.

It’s therefore extremely important to align your expectations with what’s possible from your location.

3. Plan your composition

Regarding composition, night photography is not much different from normal daytime landscape photography, some traditional composition techniques can help your photo appear balanced and more appealing. Taking a great photo is knowing how to make all the elements work together.

Rule of thirds

This is one of the most well known landscape composition ‘rules.’ At a basic level – break the image into thirds, horizontally and vertically, resulting in 9 parts. The theory behind this is to place points of interest where these lines intersect in your grid.

Milkyway photography
Photo by Tanja Schmitz

Above, the tree is the main focal point with the Milky Way as the backdrop. This shows the viewer the singularity of a lone tree in an otherwise flat desert landscape.

This helps brings balance to a photo and tends to make the composition feel more natural. If you’re including closer up objects in your photo, place them at the intersecting points.

In night photography, that can also translate to finding a balance where foreground and sky nicely fit into this grid. Most commonly, the night sky can dominate 2/3 of the composition and the foreground would be the lower 1/3. (Note: use this as a starting point for very wide field images. But it’s not uncommon to give the foreground less than 1/3)

Rule of thirds
Photo by Tanja Schmitz

But remember, rules are meant to be broken! So while the rule of thirds is not an essential in composition, it definitely will assist you in getting a natural and balanced photo if you’re starting out.

Tyler Sichelski Path
Image of the Week winning photo: “Path.” Photo: Tyler Sichelski

Leading lines

This technique refers to drawing the viewer’s attention to the main subject using lines in the composition. It gives the eye a guide to follow, drawing them into the photo.

For night photos, nine out of ten times the main focus is the Milky Way core itself. So where you can, use the landscape to draw the eye towards the Milky Way.

For example, in the photo on the left, the road is leading the eye directly to the core and the path of the Milky Way as it rises in the night sky.

4. Use the right lens for the scene

As with landscape photography, most night-sky astrophotography is done with wide angle lenses. Anything from a fisheye lens to 10-50mm on an APS-C or full-frame DSLR will capture the sky effectively.

Wide angle lenses have a larger field of view (FOV) which allows you to capture more of the night sky. When you compose your photo, take into consideration the size and scale of how the Milky Way will appear against your foreground with your lens.

What lens should you use?

10-20mm: This is great for views that include a lot of sky and foreground. The Milky Way core itself will appear smaller, but more of the sky and surroundings will be visible.

20-35mm: This will increase the size of the Milky Way core in your photo, making the core itself more of the focal point. Rather than showcasing an all-sky view, photos taken at this focal length will carry more details in the Milky Way structure.

35-50mm: Great for photos that really brings the viewer into the stellar mix of gas and stars. This is the focal length you want to use when shooting silhouettes of people set against the night sky, and landscapes with a narrow field of view; like a mountain peak set against the night sky.

Beyond 50mm: Here you start entering the realm of long exposure tracked photography. Longer focal lengths like this are normally used on deep sky objects and sky-only regions, and require specialised mount to track the sky as it moves is required. See how to do this in our tutorial: Deep-Sky Astrophotography Without a Telescope!

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About the author

Tanja Schmitz

Tanja is the co-founder of PhotographingSpace.com with her husband, Cory. She is also the co-owner of several telescopes and Celestron mounts, too many cameras, and not enough hard drive space.

An internationally commissioned and published astrophotographer, her work has been used in multiple online and print publications. Tanja was also shortlisted for the Astronomy Photographer of the Year award.

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