You do not need to work for NASA or have a fancy telescope to take beautiful photos of the night sky. All you need is a clear evening, a decent camera, tripod, some warm clothes and something to drink.
Check the weather forecast in your area and don't forget to see when the next meteor shower is. The further away from civilization the better. Light from cities and even little towns has the potential to spoil beautiful photos.
Most SLR cameras and high-end point-and-shoot cameras are capable of taking decent photos of the stars. Be sure your camera has a manual setting so you can control the exposure. You'll need the following:
Find a quiet remote spot where no one will drive by and no street lights will affect the photo, even headlamps can have negative effects. If you have a campfire don't make it next to the camera. The fire will light up the surroundings and can cause light pollution.
Set the camera on a tripod or a sturdy surface. A small shake or wobble of the camera will turn the perfect little dots of the stars turn into little squiggly lines or blurry dots. The delay of the self-timer will give the camera time to settle before the shutter opens, thus eliminating camera shake. Cable releases can also be used, but are not always available for point and shoot cameras.
Set your camera to manual and turn the ISO up as high as you can to take a few short test shots. Do this to frame the photo, find light pollution and potential objects that create interest. If there is a halo on the horizon there is light pollution, sometimes this is unavoidable.
Don't be afraid to add objects in the frame to make the photo a little more interesting and add scale. You can include the trees and the landscape. Clouds, the Milky Way or a meteor shower can make a good shot great. Reposition the camera and take some test shots until you are happy with the composition.
The rule says that if you want a photo where the stars are not noticeably streaking across the photo you need to divide the focal length of your lens into the number 600. That means if you have a 50mm lens you should be able to take a 12 second exposure and have the stars appears as little pinholes. (600 / 50 = 12) If you have a point-and-shoot camera you may need to look up th mm rating for you lens online. Unfortunately most focal lengths are now measured in Xs, and they mean pretty much nothing.
Here are the settings for the photo at the top of this page: using an Olympus XZ1 point-and-shoot camera at f/1.8, ISO 2500, shutter speed of 30 seconds. My lens is at its widest angle has a focal length of 28mm.
Some photos might require a little touch up work. Use a photo editing program like Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Elements or iPhoto for Mac to crop and /or change the levels of the photo and adjust the colors to look more natural.
Open the photo you want to correct or crop in your editing program, in my case Adobe Photoshop. Open the levels panel by going to Windows > Layers or using the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + L on a PC or Cmd + L on a Mac
If the image appears to have a red glow select red from the channel drop down menu. Then move the left slider until the red starts to lessen. Don't be afraid to mess with the sliders. You can always undo.
Alternatively, in the same levels panel, you can select the black eyedropper tool and click on a part of the night sky that you want to be black. Zoom in as far as possible before clicking the eyedropper. This method gives mixed results. If it doesn't look right, undo and try again.
And voila your photo is now ready to send to all your family and friends.
Questions, feedback, great photos to share? Leave a comment below.