11 essential tips to master night photography like a pro

Tips & Techniques

Astrophotography allows you to capture some spectacular images of the night sky, from milky way images, star trail images, and all the way up to deep-sky images. Each requires a slightly different shooting technique to capture them correctly.

But some things don’t change, you do them every time to give yourself the best chance of getting the image you planned for. Below are 11 tips that will help you get started capturing some amazing night pictures.

1. Plan In Advance

To capture clear images of the night sky, a little pre-planning goes a long way to getting great photos. Firstly, it’s extremely important that you choose a place that doesn’t have much light pollution.

That usually means grabbing your gear and heading out of the backyard and away from the bright city lights. Light pollution is often the worst in major cities and towns, so that’s why you’ll usually get better shots when you head out to the countryside.

Using a site like darksitefinder.com will help you find how much light pollution is around your area, and if that’s the case, then you will be able to see the nearest place to shoot that isn’t over-run with light pollution.

Before heading out during the night, it’s always a good idea to scour some locations during the day. This is useful to help to pick interesting objects and scenes for your composition. Trying to do this at night can get a little tricky.

2. Get Yourself A Sturdy Tripod

Because of the nature of night photography, you’ll usually be capturing long exposures of an image for 10-30 seconds at a time, sometimes even longer.

So keeping your camera still while shooting is crucial unless you want a blurry image. This is where a strong and sturdy tripod comes in.

If you have the choice of either aluminum or carbon, carbon fiber would be my tripod of choice purely for the fact that they are slightly lighter and stronger.

Side note: stronger doesn’t mean more robust, while carbon is stronger than aluminum, it is also more rigid. Meaning it is more prone to breaking while aluminum is a little more flexible.

Using a sturdy tripod makes a world of difference to your images.

3. Use Manual Mode And Forget Auto Mode

Make sure you shoot in manual mode, you’ll have much more success with your images. In manual mode, you take away your reliance on the camera choosing the best settings for you, and you take over and manually set the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. This gives you complete control over your camera for each night scene.

Whether you’re shooting a night landscape, Milky Way, starry night, or even deep-sky images, each “type” of night photography will need a different setup of the exposure triangle (aperture, shutter speed, and ISO).

4. Raw Format Retains The Most Details

It’s true that JPEG is most commonly used for casual, everyday photography, but when you need to squeeze every last ounce of detail from an image, you’ll be thankful you shot in RAW.

JPEG file sizes are considerably smaller than RAW, but that is mainly due to the amount of compression, and it’s a lossy format. RAW, on the other hand, is much larger in file size and doesn’t lose valuable imagery data.

So why is this important you ask? When we shoot a dark scene, without any post-processing of an image, it will be inherently dark.

But because a RAW file retains a lot of unseen data, when you run the image through image editing software, something like photoshop, you’ll be able to pull out all the deep details that we weren’t previously able to see.

Shooting in RAW lets you pull out all the details from a dark image.

5. Practice First

Always spend a little bit of time taking some test shots first before you settle in for the night with a full night’s sequence of images. Unlike daytime photography, taking night photography shots requires you to be more methodical. In low light conditions, You can’t set it to auto and just press the shutter button and expect amazing pics.

Test samples allow you to experiment and adjust to the night’s specific surroundings. You need to get a feel of the right settings for your camera to give you the clearest, brightest image, yet still retains overall sharpness, and to do this, you need to take some test shots.

6. Test With A High ISO

One of the practice techniques I use when getting acclimatized to the night’s conditions is to take a few test shots with a high ISO. While the final image with a high ISO won’t get any awards for image quality, it will serve its purpose in helping you get close to the settings you’ll need to shoot night images.

You’ll be able to do this in a 2-second image rather than waiting for a 30+ second image as you’ll usually have to take a shot multiple times.

The process for this is relatively simple, for each successive increase of your ISO dial and full stop value when opening the aperture notch of your lens, your subsequent exposure time will be halved.

So if your typical setting would be ISO 800, an aperture of f/2.8, and a shutter speed of 30 seconds. The testing would take quite a while just for a few tests.
So if you increase your ISO up to 6400 (3 times the difference from an ISO of 800) and speed up your shutter speed by the same number of stops (3 stops bring the speed up to 4 seconds)

If you’re confused from the maths, below is a quick chart of how a “stop” works:

  • ISO 800: one stop = ISO 1600, two stops =ISO 3200, three stops =ISO 6400
  • Shutter Speed 30 seconds: one stop =15 seconds, two stops =8 seconds, three stops =4 seconds.

When you’re happy with your exposure, just reduce the ISO and increase the shutter speed time by an equal amount of “stops” to get a setting that will be close to what you need.

7. Focusing In The Dark

Autofocus setting in a camera is usually a great feature… during the day. During night photography shoots, it becomes evident how much autofocus begins to struggle.

Manual focus is a must for night photography, using manual focus will ensure that your camera is focused exactly how you expect it to be when shooting a night scene.

A quick process to manually set your focus is to rotate your lens to infinity (∞ symbol on your lens). This gets you around the mark, and from here, you’ll need to slightly adjust more or less to get a pinpoint sharp image.

While using your camera’s live view as the display, aim your camera at the brightest object in the distance, usually a shining star, or if there are none then the furthest street lamp will do.

From here, as I mentioned before, you’ll need to slightly adjust your zoom in or out a little until the object in the live view becomes sharp.

A quick tip: you can put a little masking tape on your lens, so it doesn’t move while you’re out on a night’s shoot. Just make sure you don’t activate the autofocus, or else your manual settings will be lost, and you’ll need to manual focus all over again.

Focusing at night can be tricky, but use a bright star as the focus point can help.

8. Reduce The Noise – Pick A Low ISO Setting

Taking night images usually requires you to increase the ISO, making the image brighter, but the offset to this is the more you increase the ISO, the more you’ll be introducing noise into your image.
The sensors in most newer cameras these days can handle very high ISO settings without too much added noise.

However, to play it safe, an ISO of 1600 is a good setting for night sky images to begin with.
Depending on your model of camera, if you still find the noise level unsatisfactory, then you’ll need to lower the ISO even more and increase your shutter speed time, not too much though, or you’ll get star trails, but that’s another story.

9. Lower Your Aperture

Your selectable aperture settings will vary depending on your model lens, but the aim here is to lower your aperture number (which counterintuitively means widening the lens opening).

If your lens can go as low as f/2.8, then I suggest that as a good starting point for starry nights photography. If your lens can’t go down that low, then just select the lowest number it has, which will usually be something like f/5.6 or f/3.5.
10. Shutter Speed and Blurry Images
Extending the length of time of your shutter speed is a must for night photography. By doing so, you’ll achieve some of the following:

  • Increase the image brightness
  • Add motion blur to your image

If you want a brighter image without the blur, read up on the 500 rule. It’s a calculation to help set your shutter speed as long as possible before you begin to experience any form of blur or trails in your images.

Adding blur can be the desired effect in some scenes.

11. Acclimatize Your Gear To The Outside Temperature

Lastly, this isn’t a technical tip, but more of a “learn from my experience” tip. Heading out for half a night shooting sounds like a great adventure until you realize that the temperature drops quite quickly once the sun goes down.

So taking your nice warm camera equipment out into the cold outdoors can cause havoc with your camera lenses fogging up.

A good suggestion to avoid condensation is to get them acclimatized before you head out. Some ways of doing that are by keeping your camera outside for a few hours before your leave.

You should also travel with your camera and lens in the trunk of the car, this way, your gear won’t warm up inside the car while you have the heater on while driving.

It can get cold at night, remember to acclimatize your gear before heading out.

Conclusion

That’s it, hopefully you put all or at least some of those to action. By doing so, you’ll get yourself on the right track to getting some great night images.

About The Author

Charles is an avid night photographer based in Salt Lake City, Utah. He loves nothing more than spending the night photographing the night sky and sharing what he knows. Check out this website to see more of his work.

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