How to Photograph Night Sky on a Nikon D3500

I’ve always been inspired by the beautiful night sky photos that I see online. Recently, I bought myself a Nikon D3500 and decided to give astrophotography a try. I did some research and created a step by step guide.

Follow these steps to photograph the night sky with a Nikon D3500.

1. Get the equipment you need

Because you clicked on this article, I can safely assume that you have a Nikon D3500 camera. But your camera is not the only thing you need for astrophotography. You will also need a lens as well as a tripod.

First things first, you need a powerful lens for astrophotography. The night sky is very dark so you need a lens with a fast aperture to capture the most amount of light from the stars. Aperture is measured in F-stop, which is formatted as an f/number. The lower the number, the faster the aperture. F/3.5 and faster (a lower F-number) will work great for shooting photos of the night sky. A slower aperture may cause problems and your photos will appear underexposed or noisy. The F-stop number is usually printed on the lens.

You also want your lens to be wide-angle. Wide-angle means more FOV in your photos. This is good because it provides a higher chance of capturing a meteor in the frame, as well as reduced star trails. Optionally, you want a lens that has a focus indicator. This is helpful when focusing on infinity – which we’ll discuss later. This is optional because it is still possible to focus on infinity without an indicator.

Finally, you need a tripod. A tripod is a requirement when it comes to astrophotography because we’re going to be shooting exposures up to 30 seconds. It is impossible for a human to hold their hands perfectly still for 30 seconds straight. Fortunately, you don’t need to; a sturdy tripod will get the job done.

2. Find a dark site near you

One of the most important factors in astrophotography (and stargazing in general) is light pollution. Light pollution is when man-made lights shine into the atmosphere blocking our view of the stars. You can see hundreds and hundreds of stars and the Milky Way in rural areas. If you live in a city, however, there’s a good chance you didn’t know the Milky Way exists.

An extremely useful resource you can use to find a dark site with low light pollution near you is darksitefinder.com. Darksitefinder is an OpenStreetMap web application that uses colors to represent light pollution on a map. Bright colors represent high light pollution, dark colors represent low light pollution.

map of the worlds light pollution
Map of the world’s light pollution from DarkSiteFinder.com

The pins on the map are dark sites that users have submitted to the website.

Here is a key to the light pollution colors:

This key doesn’t provide much information, so I made a table based off my own experiences.

Light Pollution LevelComparisonWhat to expect
WhiteUrbanLarge amounts of skyglow and glare will obscure your photo.
RedCity/suburbanThere will be some stars in your photo but the glare from nearby streetlights will outshine most of them.
OrangeSuburbanYou’ll have a good amount of stars but no Milky Way.
YellowRural/SuburbanYou’ll see some of the Milky Way in your photo but it will be very faint.
GreenRuralYou’ll see the Milky Way and plenty of stars. You may capture a meteor as well.
BlueDark/RuralYou’ll see the Milky Way clearly and thousands of stars. You may see satellites high up in the exosphere.
BlackDark siteThe stars and Milky Way will look excellent. You’ll see multiple shooting stars every hour.

When picking a dark site you also need to choose when to visit the site. Take the weather and the phase of the moon into account. The full moon is more than enough to outshine the Milky Way. Clouds could cover the entire sky. Try to visit your dark site on a clear, moonless night. Go during a meteor shower if you can.

3. Take test photos.

You have your equipment set up, you’re at a dark site. Now it’s time to take some test photos. The reason I take test photos is that the final photo will be a long exposure which can take up to 30 seconds. If I take a 30-second photo each time I need to get a better angle, this could take all night! So before I take the long exposure photo I take test shots using automatic shooting mode (a shorter 2-second exposure) until I’ve framed my picture just right.

4. Switch to Manual Mode

You’ve taken your test photos and angled your camera just right. Now, it’s time for the real shot. Switch to manual mode where you’ll set 3 settings: aperture, shutter speed, and iso. You can switch to manual mode on your Nikon D3500 by rotating the mode dial to the letter M.

5. Set your aperture to the lowest amount possible

Set your aperture to the minimum F-stop possible. Your camera needs to absorb the most light it can because the night is very dark.

6. Change your shutter speed

Longer shutter speed means more light and again, you want the most light possible. However, too much shutter speed will cause star trails. Star trails happen because of the rotation of the earth, and they make stars look smeared. You may have heard of the 500 rule, but because the Nikon D3500 is a crop sensor, we’ll be using the 300 rule.

It’s quite simple, divide 300 by the focal length of your lens. So let’s say your lens is 18mm, 300/18 is 16 seconds. So the longest shutter speed you should shoot at is 16 seconds.

7. Set your ISO

ISO is how sensitive your camera is to light, so more of it will make a brighter photo. But as with shutter speed, there is a catch, higher ISO causes noise in your photos as well as increased sky glow and glare. I choose my ISO based on light pollution. In white, red, and orange light pollution (on dark site finder) use 400-800. In yellow and green use 1600-3200. In blue, grey, and black use 6400.

8. Focus on infinity

Now you need to focus your camera to infinity. Focusing to infinity is when you focus on an object an infinite distance away. Because stars are extremely far away, focusing on infinity will focus your camera on the night sky. You can focus on infinity using manual focus as well as autofocus. If your lens’s manual focus ring has an infinity indicator then turn your focus ring until it aligns with the infinity symbol. If it does not, autofocus on the brightest and farthest object from you, this doesn’t focus exactly on infinity but focusing on a faraway object is close enough. Autofocusing on the horizon or the moon is a simple way of doing this.

9. Take the photo

You’ve framed your photo, adjusted your settings, and focused on infinity, the only thing you need to do now is to click the shutter release button. Don’t move your camera until you hear the click of the shutter close. Be on the lookout for airplanes and satellites which could photobomb your shot. It may take 10 to 20 seconds after the shutter closes for the photo to show up on your LCD panel. Make sure you like the look of your photo on your Nikon D3500 display. Because your eyes have been dilated, your photo may look brighter than it really is, keep that in mind.

10. Post process your photo

You’ve taken the photo, now you need to post-process. This is a photo of the Milky Way that I’ll be post-processing.

milky way

Because Adobe Lightroom costs money, I will be using the free version available on mobile devices so you don’t have to pay to follow along with this tutorial. Here are the steps I take when post-processing my night photos.

Adjust exposure

If your photo is too bright or too dark, adjust the exposure until your shot looks just right. The exposure of this photo is fine so I will not be adjusting it.

Increase contrast and highlights

Increasing contrast and highlights will make the stars stand out from the rest of the photo, but don’t overdo it or your photo may become overexposed and/or underexposed in certain areas. Increasing contrast can make your photo darker while increasing highlights can make your photo brighter. You may want to adjust exposure again after completing this step.

milky way increased contrast and highlights

Increase clarity to the max

Adding clarity will make the stars clearer, I usually turn clarity to the maximum amount possible.

milky way increased clarity

Adjust white balance

White balance is the balance of cool colors or warm colors in your photo. Adjusting white balance to the left will make your photo cooler while adjusting it to the right will make it warmer. Personally, I prefer cooler Milky Way photos.

milky way adjusted white balance

Increase saturation

Now you want to increase saturation which will really bring out the colors of the Milky Way. The amount you increase is based on your personal preference. Too much saturation will make your photo look over-processed and doctored, while too little will make your photo look bland.

milky way increased saturation
Photo by Joaquin Menendez

Before and after

Here are the photos before and after post-processing.

before and after post processing milky way

Congratulations you have successfully photographed and post-processed the night sky.

28 thoughts on “How to Photograph Night Sky on a Nikon D3500”

  1. This whole series fails to note one quality of the D3500: If it doesn’t see enough light, it won’t make the exposure. Of course I don’t want the night sky to look like daylight. I want individual planets to be appropriately lit. But regardless of settings the D3500 will not make an exposure pointed at the night sky.

    1. Thanks for this, I’m looking forward to trying it. That would be disappointing forgeting your SD card. lol. Peter Clay, you wouldn’t be alone in doing this.

  2. These are the tips I was looking for. I’ve gotten some great daytime wildlife shots with my d3500 but will be heading to Big Bend National Park in Texas is a couple months and I’ve just learned that it’s very dark there and an excellent place to shoot the night sky. Now I just have to figure out if the 18-35 lens that came with it will be sufficient. Thank you.

    1. Hello, if the lens you are describing has an aperture of f/3.5 or faster it should be sufficient. (Be sure to focus on infinity using the techniques I mentioned if your lens lacks an infinity indicator) Thanks, for commenting.

      1. Yes, f stop of 3.5 is the fastest setting tor this lens I believe, and there is no infinity focus setting on the lens body, so will follow your technique. Thank you!

  3. I set my S and A settings but when I go to set my ISO it changes my other settings. It will only let me use ISO100 with 30” shutter speed. If I increase the ISO it changes my shutter speed to BULB.
    And even on BULB will not allow a picture…says “subject too dark” well, yea, it is night!! What am I doing wrong. (I never had trouble with BULB on my D3200)
    Help!

      1. Tahmara Hendrickson

        I’m using manual and have all my settings set on my 3500, yet it still says subject too dark. Extremely confused as to what I’m doing wrong?

  4. michele l lorella

    Thank you for all the helpful information in this article. My question is what would be a little better lens then the Nikon dx 18-55mm?

    1. Hi. Great article thanks. What beginners lenses would you recommend for the nikon d3500? Or as I have a 150 skywatcher newtonian, would you spend the money on a t piece and lenses for that?

    1. Yes, the aperture is good for astrophotography, the only thing is the autofocus might not function when paired with a Nikon D3500, however that shouldn’t be a problem as you can use manual focus.

  5. Niroshan Balasuriya

    Thanks for this article. It cleared me lots of doubts. Should try now. But i’m afraid that I will have some light pollution.

  6. what Nikon lens is best for astrophotography? shorter lenses or longer lenses? i just got my camera and have only turned it on a few times.
    just starting to read about aperture, shutter time etc.

  7. Hi, i have a problem, so i came here for help. Yesterday i tried to shoot night sky (camera settings: F 3,5 15sec and iso 3200). I have a problem with focusing.. I did not saw any stars at the back of my camera, it was just black screen, idk whats wrongs

    i took a couple photos but every photo was blurred

    1. You (remove your lens cap if you haven’t already) and you need to focus on infinity. You can find out how to do this on YouTube. Also make sure your shutter speed is above 10 seconds.

  8. I’m using a D3500 attached to a telescope (f/10 1250mm with a f/6.3 focal reducer, so new focal length is 787.5mm). I live in a decently dark area, bortle 4 skies. The last clear night I took some pictures of M31, 40 second exposures/ISO 1600, about 60 photos. I was surprised that I could not actually see the Andromeda galaxy after processing, plenty of stars though. Would increasing the ISO help in this case?

    1. That’s very very strange, I don’t do astrophotography with a telescope, but my camera can see M31 without one. Are you 100% sure you are pointing at it? Also, I believe increasing anything exposure-related could help.

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