Beginner Guide for Night Photography: The 6 Things I Wish I Knew

May 29th, 2019

I got hooked on night photography three years ago and have since gone out again and again to experience and photograph it. I’m self taught and, if you’re like me you know, that 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 the 6 things I wish I knew when I started Night Photography.

1. Composition Matters

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, compelling composition should matter in night photography. A combination of two approaches helped me overcome this frustration: First, planning your photo shoot 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 astrophotography. 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 your 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 astrophotography though, the only highlights you will really have in your scene are the stars. Blowing out your stars turns them white. And, believe it or not, stars aren’t white, they are actually 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 in order to compensate for exposure, than when I use an ISO that is past my invariance point in order 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.

The milky way over Herbet Lake in Banff National Park

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 around Saskatchewan!), 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 dehaze, clarity, and contrast 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 isn’t the best way to process your milky way images. I’m an advocate of Photoshop because I have the ability to 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 dehaze 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. 

I hope you found this tutorial helpful. There is more information on each of these points in the video at the top of the page. If you have any questions that you think I can answer, drop me a line! If you want to share these tips with your friends then use the the share links right here.

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

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