During the last year, I’ve become a big fan of night photography and the night sky. I’ve always enjoyed it but my hometown in Norway doesn’t have the most interesting landscape. So I rarely bothered to go out during night – unless there was a rare show of Northern Lights or meteorite showers. After packing up my stuff and moving to the north of Spain, however, I’ve found myself spending more and more time photographing the stars. What appears pitch black to the naked eye can be beautiful scenery through the camera.
In this article, I’ll share some tips and tricks on how you can photograph the various states of the night sky including The Milky Way, new moon, or northern lights.
Camera Settings for Night Photography
Light is the most important part of photography; without light, there’s no picture to be taken. During the night it is dark and the light is sparse, making it challenging to photograph. In fact, in order to capture an image during the night, you’ll most likely have to sacrifice some image quality – forget about using a narrow aperture and low ISO.
Unlike regular landscape photography, night photography requires less than ideal settings in order to capture enough light to properly expose the scene. Since there’s not a lot of available light, that means opening the aperture, increasing the ISO and lengthening the exposure time (shutter speed).
There isn’t one correct setting for each and every scenario as it depends on many factors (such as the brightness of the moon). But as a rule of thumb, you want to use the widest aperture your lens allows in order to get the sky as detailed as possible. Lenses with an aperture of f/2.8 are widely popular amongst nighttime and astrophotographers and if your lens allows for such an open aperture, this is where you should begin.
ISO and shutter speed
The ISO also needs to be increased quite a lot for night photography. For regular landscape photography, I always stress the importance of shooting with the lowest possible ISO. Even though we still want to shoot with the lowest possible setting we’re now looking at an ISO of at least 1600 at night. It’s not uncommon to use an ISO of 3200 or 6400 during the night. Still, to maintain as much quality as possible, try to use the lowest possible option.
Choosing the shutter speed is slightly more challenging as it depends on the focal length of your lens, but I recommend not going longer than 30 seconds unless you want to photograph star trails (I’ll come back to this later in the article). The 500 Rule is a good guideline when choosing the shutter speed. Basically, divide 500 by the focal length of the lens you’re using and you’ll know the maximum shutter speed you can use (to avoid star trails). If you’re using a crop sensor camera you’ll need to calculate the equivalent focal length of a full-frame lens (for example 20mm on crop sensor = 30mm. 500/30 = 16.6 seconds).
Remember that a tripod is essential for night photography in order to get a sharp image. It’s simply not possible to hold your camera still for several seconds!
Planning to Photograph the Night Sky
Scouting can be hard during the night so it’s often beneficial to have familiarized yourself with the area before going there in the dark. I know this isn’t always possible but the very least use an app such as PhotoPills to learn the phase of the moon, its position, as well as the time of sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset and anything else related to your shoot. The more you’ve prepared, the higher the chance you’ll get a great image.
Let’s summarize what you should know before going out photographing:
- Time of twilight
- Time of Nautical and Astronomical dark
- Phase of the moon
- Moon’s position in the sky
- Time of moonrise and moonset
- When The Milky Way is visible (if applicable)
- The Milky Way’s position (if applicable)
All this information is easy to find in an app such as PhotoPills or by doing a quick search online.
General Ideas for Night Photography
If your goal is photograph stars and the natural night sky, I think it’s fair to guess that you want to see as many stars as possible. In order to get the best possible view of the stars, you’ll need to position yourself at a location that’s away from larger cities and light pollution.
A subtle display of Northern Lights in Lofoten.
Website and maps such as DarkSiteFinder are great resources when searching for areas with less light pollution. If you live close to a major city you’ll probably have to travel a little further than if you live near a small town. There are filters, such as NiSi’s Natural Night Filter, that help reduce the light pollution but it won’t magically remove it all and give you a starry sky – it simply neutralizes the color of the light pollution.
For the most detailed night sky, it’s also ideal to avoid the weeks closest to a full moon. During that period, the sky is brighter and there are fewer stars visible to both the camera and the naked eye. However, that doesn’t mean that you should stay home; there are many interesting subjects during the full moon as well.
The Milky Way
Norway is known for Northern Lights, dark and starry nights, as well as the overall beautiful landscape but what we don’t have is The Milky Way. Let me be a little more specific; the Galactic Center (the brightest most visible part of The Milky Way that you see in most photos) is never visible in Norway – we only see the edges of it. So, you can imagine my excitement every time I get a chance to photograph the Galactic Center and The Milky Way in its most beautiful display.
The techniques for photographing The Milky Way are mostly similar to other types of night photography. You’ll want to use an open aperture, high ISO and a shutter speed of no more than 30 seconds. I find that a slightly higher ISO and a shutter speed of around 25 seconds (when shooting at 14mm @f/2.8) gives the highest amount of detail when photographing The Milky Way. By using a slower shutter speed, the camera starts picking up slight movement in the stars (due to earth’s rotation) and it begins to get blurry.
It’s also best to photograph The Milky Way during the new moon or before the moon has risen. The darker the sky, the more stars you see and the more detailed The Milky Way becomes.
Photographing a Meteor Shower
Whenever there’s a meteor shower, such as the recent Perseids Meteor Shower, I keep my fingers crossed for clear skies. There’s nothing more magical than being outside in the pitch black, looking up at dozens or even hundreds of shooting stars during a span of several hours.
Since most the shooting stars last for only a second or two, it can be hard to capture them in an image. In order to capture as many of them as possible, I set my camera to interval shooting and I let it go continuously. To pick up even the smaller shooting stars I increase the shutter speed slightly to approximately 15 seconds (depends on the brightness of the night).
Photographing the Northern Lights
Northern Lights is a phenomenon that we’re lucky to have in the northern hemisphere. It’s unlike anything else and I can guarantee that once you see it, you’ll want to witness it again.
The challenges when photographing the Northern Lights is that it often moves quite quickly and it can be rather bright. In order to freeze the motion, you’ll need a quicker shutter speed such as 1-10 seconds. Exactly how quick depends on the intensity of the lights. Just keep in mind that if they’re moving quickly, you should use a quicker shutter speed.
Also, pay attention to the histogram as it’s easy to blow out the highlights. Since it’s a bright phenomenon in the otherwise dark night, the contrast can be great. I recommend always exposing for the highlights and if needed take a second exposure for the landscape that you can blend in later during post-processing.
Slow it Down and Photograph Star Trails
Due to the rotation of the earth, your camera registers movement in the stars once the shutter speed becomes too long. This creates a blurry and soft sky and can be quite displeasing to watch.
That being said, every now and then this is something you want to use as an advantage rather than viewing it as a problem. By lengthening the shutter speed to several minutes or even an hour (this lets you use a low ISO and narrow aperture but may result in hot pixels) you’re able to capture what’s known as star trails. This effect can be really interesting but make sure that the shutter speed is long enough so that the stars don’t just look blurry.
Stars over the Sahara desert – image by dPS Editor Darlene Hildebrandt. Series of 30-second exposures over 45 minutes, stacked using StarStax, blended with a couple of light painted images of the tent.
Alternatively, you can capture a series of images using a shorter shutter speed and merge them together in Photoshop or a software such as StarStax.
Full Moon and Bright Moon Phases
As I’ve mentioned previously, nights, when the moon is small, are best for night photography as it’s during this period you’ll see most stars. However, when the moon is up there are still many interesting images to be captured.
First of all, since the moon is a bright source of light, you can get away with using a slightly lower ISO or narrower aperture. It can also be easier to find a composition as the landscape is brighter. Use this light to your advantage and pay attention to the shadows in the landscape. Perhaps the moon lights up a mountain? Perhaps it creates a nice reflection in a lake? During this period, it can be wise to compose your image to include more landscape than sky as that’s where the most interesting things are happening.
Personally, I prefer to photograph the moon when it has a low position in the sky as I find the shadows to be slightly more interesting during that time. Note: This is for the same reasons shooting at sunrise and sunset are best for daytime landscape photography.
Have you tried night photography before? If not, grab your camera and tripod (and maybe a buddy for some company) and get out and give it a go. Share any other night photo tips you have in the comments below as well as your night sky images. We’d love to see them.
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