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Beginner Guide to Night Photography

Have you wondered how to photograph the night sky? Do you enjoy taking pictures of the stars, but wish you could get better results? In this night photography guide for beginners, you will learn all you need to know about photographing the night sky with the landscape. By the end of this article you will understand the fundamentals of night photography, the camera settings required, and, as a bonus, the six things I wish I knew when I began night photography.

How to Photograph the Night Sky

The Gear

The first thing we need to touch on is the gear required. Gear is generally unimportant to successful photography, but in night photography, some gear is necessary. This tutorial is specific to DSLR and Mirrorless camera users, however, you can do night photography with other gear. The most common questions I get are around this type of setup though, so let’s start there. You won’t hear me say that you need the most expensive camera to photograph the night sky, far from it. Digital camera technology has come a long way in the past few years. For example, I have successfully photographed the night sky with the affordable, entry-level DSLR Nikon D3300. All you need is something that you are comfortable using in the dark, and that has relatively good low-light performance.

A more important investment you can make is in your lens selection. Look for a fairly wide-angle lens (35mm or lower) with an f-stop or aperture of 2.8 or lower. If you have a kit lens with a variable aperture starting around f3.5 or f4, feel free to use it to start out. Just know that your f-stop dictates how wide your lens opens up, which means more light is hitting your sensor. The lower the number, the wider the lens opens up. You will let more light in with an f2.8 lens than you will with an f3.5 kit lens.

Another important investment is a tripod. When we set our shutter speed to capture the night sky, you will notice that shutter speeds are multiple seconds long. This means you will want a sturdy tripod. One that will not shake or fall over with the slightest breeze.

Lastly, and it almost goes without saying, don’t forget to bring along a flashlight or a headlamp. Something that has a red-light mode is best for night photography as red light is less disruptive to human night vision than other types of light.

A landscape astrophotograph panorama of the night sky in Saskatchewan over a lone tree as part of a night photography workshop

Go Manual

Even though camera technology has come a long way, we have yet to see cameras that function in automatic mode during the night. Your camera will struggle to see in the dark, meaning that auto modes (even shutter and aperture priority mode), including your focus system, will become unreliable. You must go manual. I know this might be a big step, but I promise that once we get to the settings you need, you will feel right at ease!

Planning

Planning will make or break your night photography experience. I’ve covered a whole plethora of free planning tools for night photography here. But, there are a few important things to mention now. First, you will need to get away from the city lights by checking a light pollution map (the one I frequently use is available here). Head for a green, blue, or clear area, if possible. Also, plan to head out around a new moon. A full moon reflects sunlight into our atmosphere, which washes out the stars and detail in our night sky, so heading out to photograph the stars when there is little or no moon is best. Lastly, you will want to go out during darkness. Darkness is when the sun is 18 degrees below the horizon, and lower. Normally, there are a couple of hours between sunset and darkness, but that varies depending on location. Use the Sun Calculator here for your specific location, so you can plan a good time to head out for night photography.

 

Astrophotography in Saskatchewan. The Cygnus region towers over a lone tree

Settings for Night Photography

The benefit of being in Manual mode is that you can quickly and easily adjust your settings. Every scene is unique and has different considerations so the ability to be flexible is important. That said, there are a few guidelines below that can help you get started.

Aperture

This one is the easiest because it’s the one that will generally stay the same throughout the night. Remember earlier when I chatted about your lens requirements? Well, the first thing I do when photographing the night sky, is open up my aperture as wide as it goes. If I have an f2.8 lens, my aperture will be at f2.8. If I have a kit lens that goes to f3.5 on the wide-angle end, I’ll be at f3.5. Set your aperture as wide as you can to let as much light to hit your camera’s sensor as possible.

Shutter Speed

The next thing I’ll adjust is my shutter speed. Shutter speed dictates how long your sensor is exposed to light. Because we are photographing at night, there is generally very little light to work with. The longer we can leave our shutter open, the better. So why not just expose for several minutes and let a lot of light hit the sensor? Remember that our planet is rotating and that the night sky is constantly “moving”. If you were to expose for 2 or 3 minutes, you would introduce star motion (or star trails) into your photograph. So the longer we leave our shutter open, the more star motion we will introduce in our photograph. Star trails are a popular photographic technique, and you are welcome to experiment with your shutter speed, but if you want pin-point stars, there are a few rules you can follow.

The first is the 500 rule. The 500 rule is a simple mathematical equation that gives us a shutter speed at which there should be no, or minimal, star trailing. The formula is simple. Take 500 divided by your focal length. If, for example, you are photographing at 20mm with a full-frame camera, you would take 500/20mm and that would give you a shutter speed of 25 seconds on a full-frame sensor:

500/20mm = 25 seconds

If you have a crop sensor camera, you need to add your crop factor to the equation (either 1.5 or 1.6, depending on your camera system) so the formula here would look like this:

20mm*1.5 = 30mm , 500/30mm = 16.67 seconds

The 500 rule isn’t perfect, especially as higher megapixel sensors hit the market, but it will get you close. If you are looking for a more precise approach, check out point number three below.

ISO

ISO is generally the last thing I’ll set but that doesn’t make it unimportant. Generally, the lower the ISO, the better. In night photography, however, it is almost pitch-black, so we need to increase the ISO. I will start with an ISO of 800 and make adjustments from there. Sometimes my ISO will go up to ISO 3200, but that’s generally as high as I’ll go. The problem with higher ISO’s is increased noise, which is very unnattractive. I’ve chatted more about ISO below if you’re looking for more information.

Manual Focus

I know, you’re tired of hearing the word manual, but this is the last time! As I said before, your camera’s automatic systems will struggle to see in the dark. This will include your autofocus system. With a lack of reference points, your camera will miss focusing more than it will hit it. And, at wide-open apertures, you have little depth of field, so finding perfect focus is best done manually. So, if you haven’t already, switch your camera or lens to manual focus, switch on live view and work on finding perfect infinity focus by zooming in on a star and, turning the focus ring, make it as small as you possibly can. This might sound complicated but it’s very easy. I’ve covered it in the night photography video tutorial above. Just skip to about the 5:50 mark.

Quick Hits

First, an intervalometer will make your night photography much less stressful. This will give you the ability to open the shutter without touching your camera, almost eliminating the possibility of camera shake. If an intervalometer isn’t an option for you, then use your camera’s built-in self-timer option. Second, it’s hard to say what automatic white balance will do, so I prefer to set it manually. I advocate for a daylight white balance because (for many reasons too complex for this article) it is closest to the true colour of the night sky. Rest assured though, if those colours don’t suit your personal preference, it is easily remedied in post-processing.

As you can see, night photography is VERY different than daytime photography. It takes a very different mindset to successfully photograph the night sky. I hope this beginners guide to night photography was helpful to you and I encourage you to keep reading for more advanced night photography tips that will help you become even more successful!

The 6 Things I Wish I Knew When I Began Night Photography

After getting out and practicing using the beginner guide for night photography above a few times, I got hooked and have since gone out, again and again, to experience and photograph the night sky. I’m self-taught and, if you’re like me you know, that means mistake-prone. I spent too much time shooting with the wrong settings, missing focus, and getting stuck photographing the same old composition. In hopes of saving you from the same frustrations, I have put together these 6 tips that will help you get better, faster.

1. Composition Matters in Night Photography

A common approach with new night photographers (including me when I started!) is to drive away from the city, pull over somewhere, and take a photo with the tripod at eye-level. I spent far too much time driving around the countryside, looking in the dark for something to shoot. The best it ever got for me was a grain bin, or a sign, or even, if I was lucky, an abandoned house! If composition matters in day-time photography, a compelling composition should matter in night photography. A combination of two approaches helped me overcome this frustration: First, planning your photoshoot so you can pre-visualize what your photo will look like (I’ve made a video about the tools I use to plan for my night photography that you can find here). Second, while I’m on location at night, I will open my aperture up as wide as it will go, set a shutter speed of 5 or 6 seconds, and take test photos at max ISO so I can see my composition and tweak things on site. BONUS tip number 3: If you’re shooting wide, get low and include some foreground that works well with your subject. This will make a greater impact in your photo than photographing at eye-level.

2. Explore the Night Sky

The big shiny summer galactic core is not the only thing in the night sky. After spending nearly two years photographing different foregrounds with the same sky again and again and again, I got tired of going out under the stars. I lost the connection I had with the land and the night sky. And it wasn’t until I pointed my camera towards Orion that I realized that there was so much more to photograph at night. There are astronomical objects and constellations to photograph everywhere and I didn’t HAVE to take photos of the same section of night sky. This opened up a brand new world to me and I started getting excited about getting out under the stars again. I began looking for compositions that included other parts of the milky way (north arm at summer, “winter milky way”, and constellations). Once I moved in that direction the sky was the literal limit. I began exploring other “deep space” compositions that showed the night sky in a telephoto format against the landscape. In conclusion, space is huge, it’s so much bigger than a streak of bright stars and nebula, and dark space dust. There is so much more and I encourage you to get out and experience all of it!

 

3. Shutter Speed: The Rule of 500 Does Not Work

The rule of 500 works fine if you are going to be using your photos in a digital medium, such as sharing on social media. It doesn’t work if you own a modern high megapixel digital camera and print your work, or ever hope to print your work. The rule of 500 was created years ago by film users in order to help figure out the correct exposure. It simply doesn’t work with today’s large modern sensors. I see trailing in my photos WAY before my shutter speed gets even remotely close to what the rule of 500 states would be safe. So instead, I subscribe to the NPF rule which calculates the shutter speed you need by factoring in your cameras sensor, the aperture of your lens and the focal length you are using. I’ve found that TYPICALLY (though this is not a rule, and everyone’s setup is different) that it will decrease your shutter speed in comparison with the rule of 500. This is ultimately what pushed me towards a tracking device; which allowed me to increase my shutter speed once again. If that isn’t an option for you, then there is an app that can make the NPF calculation for you, it’s free and is called “Shutter Speed Calculator” (I’m an android user), this calculation is also available on the PhotoPills app (more info on that here).

 

NPF Rule comparison with 500 rule in astrophotography

4. Don’t Max Out Your ISO

If you’re like me, you heard early on that you needed to use a high ISO in night photography. I hope I can help you not make the same mistake I did by offering two counters to the “high ISO argument”. First, higher ISO shots typically result in a loss of star colour. When you’re maxing out your exposure and cranking your ISO then you will likely be blowing out your highlights. The same happens in daytime photography with exposures set too high. In the case of night photography though, most of the highlights you will have in your scene are the stars. Blowing out your stars turns them white. Believe it or not, stars aren’t white, they are quite colourful, and if your ISO is set too high you will likely start to lose star colour. So keep an eye on the star colour in your photos by taking test shots at different ISO’s. Then stop moving your ISO upwards when you start seeing big white stars with little colour. 

Second, you need to know at what point your camera is ISO Invariant. As basic as I can put it, it is the point where it makes no logical sense to push your ISO past. By going past your ISO Invariant point, you sacrifice image quality and dynamic range. Let’s say, for example, I find out that the ISO invariant point of my camera is ISO 1600. This means that I will get a cleaner result, with more dynamic range, by photographing at ISO 1600 and moving my exposure up a stop or two in post-processing to compensate for exposure, than if I used an ISO that was past my invariance point to compensate for my exposure. So find your ISO invariant point and don’t go past it. If you want a more technical article on ISO in night photography, I can recommend reading this article by Roger Clark.

A night photograph of Moraine Lake, Alberta in Banff National Park. the milky way reflects in the pristine blue waters

5. How to Focus at Night: Infinity Focus Shifts Over Time

In A-LOT of online forums, I’ve read that a way to focus at night is to focus to infinity during the day and then either mark the spot on the lens or tape it there. I tried this for quite a while and was never happy with the level of sharpness in my skies. The reason for this is that perfect infinity focus shifts over time. Our lenses are built from elements that expand and contract, these changes are at a micro level but they do happen. And this is enough to shift our focus points in the lens. If I were to focus during the day when it is 25C with 45% humidity, then go out at midnight when it is 10C with 90% humidity (as is typical where I live!), expecting things to remain the same, I’m going to find that that will rarely be the case. Things are expanding and contracting in your lens and that is going to shift the focus point you found during the day. It’s no wonder I kept missing focus! The recommendation I make to everyone is to use live-view focusing (a tutorial can be found in the video above at 14:21).

Milky way photography in Grasslands National Park during a night photography workshop

6. Post Processing

I was guilty of using a lot of the de-haze, clarity, and contrast sliders in my early work. This resulted in crushed blacks, blown-out highlights and no mid-tones. My final histogram would have two peaks, one on the far left and one on the right with very little information in the middle. This is far from ideal. I’m an advocate of Photoshop because I can stack adjustments using different layers. But if you want to use Lightroom just be careful that your adjustments don’t go too far. Less is more, especially with the de-haze and clarity tools. Always try to maintain mid-tones and work on having good mid-tone contrast in your final images, keep your blacks off the left edge, and don’t blow out those highlights.

There is more information in the two videos included in this guide to night photography. If you want a more immersive experience, or you’re at the stage where you want to know more, feel free to check out my Workshop page for current listings! If you want to share these tips with your friends, then feel free to use the share links right here. I wish you clear skies the next time you go out to photograph the night sky.

See more of my landscape and night photography on my social media.

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