Do you enjoy photos taken at night? Do you wish that you were able to capture beautiful images of the stars but struggle to get the result you want? In this article, you’ll be introduced to the fundamentals of Night Photography and at the end of it, you will be ready to go out and photograph the night sky.
You meet a new set of challenges when photographing at night. The rules or guidelines you follow during the day aren’t necessarily the correct choices when the sun goes down and darkness sets in. It’s not uncommon for someone who’s new to nighttime photography to end up with a bunch of black images (don’t worry, we’ve all been there!)
Let’s get straight to it and look at the fundamentals of Night Photography:
Manual, Manual, Manual
Although I always recommend using manual mode when photographing landscapes, using a semi-automatic mode such as Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority can be acceptable but that isn’t the case with night photography. When photographing in the dark, you can’t rely on either a semi-automatic or an automatic mode; you must go manual.
The reason for this is that your camera is struggling to see in the dark and it won’t be able to give you the optimal settings. Conditionally, the settings become extra important in night photography and mistakes become even more visible than during daytime shots.
Note: I strongly recommend reading our Fundamentals to Landscape Photography series if you aren’t comfortable with manual mode yet.
Best Settings for Night Photography
The benefit of being in Manual Mode is that you’re free to make adjustments to the settings. A scene is never the same and you can’t rely on using the exact same settings every time you’re photographing the stars. However, there are some guidelines you should follow:
The only setting that should remain more or less the same regardless of your subject when photographing in the dark, regardless of your subject, is your aperture (there are exceptions but they aren’t suitable in a beginners guide).
During regular landscape photography, we tend to keep the aperture somewhere between f/7.1 and f/13 as this will result in the overall sharpest images. The complete opposite is true in night time photography because you need to keep the aperture as wide open as the lens allows. An open aperture means that you use a low f-stop such as f/1.4, f/2.8 or f/4 (also called shallow aperture). How shallow the aperture can be will depend on the lens you’re using. Some lenses allow an aperture of f/1.2 but the most common for night photography lenses is f/2.8. Don’t worry if your lens doesn’t have an aperture that wide; f/4 also works. However, if you’re becoming more serious about night photography, I recommend investing in a wide-angle lens that has an aperture of f/2.8 or shallower.
More light enters the lens when we use a shallow aperture and more details are picked up from the highlights in a scene. This means that we don’t need an extremely long exposure in order to get a detailed image of the stars.
Now that you’ve manually adjusted the aperture, it’s time to adjust the ISO. You might remember that a guideline for landscape photography is to always keep the ISO as low as possible to get a cleaner image. Again, this is quite different in Night Photography.
Since it’s almost pitch-black when you’re photographing at night, you need to increase the ISO (unless you want to use a shutter speed that lasts for hours). Exactly how much you need to increase the ISO depends on how dark it is outside. I tend to start with ISO800 and make adjustments from there (by that point I’ve already chosen a shutter speed as well). If the image is too dark, I know that I need to increase the ISO more. Normally, I use an ISO between 800 and 3200 for the majority of my nighttime images. On some occasions, I might increase it even more but that’s not as common.
Unfortunately, this is when you’ll start seeing a difference between an entry-level DSLR camera and a professional model. The entry-level cameras struggle with high ISO values. The higher the ISO you use, the noisier an image becomes. This is true for all cameras but entry-level models have considerably more noise than professional models.
An alternative way of remaining at a relatively low ISO (such as 800 instead of 1600) is by lengthening the exposure time. This eliminates the worst noise but it also has some consequences that I’ll come back to in a minute.
The next setting you need to manually adjust is the shutter speed. Exactly what shutter speed you’re going to use depends on the scene you’re photographing but, typically, it will be between 15-30 seconds and sometimes more.
I tend to begin with a shutter speed of approximately 25 seconds and make adjustments depending on how the image looks. If it’s too bright, however, I’ll decrease my ISO rather than shorten the exposure time. I do this to get as little noise as possible.
Now, you might be asking why can’t you just use an even longer exposure time (such as two minutes) and decrease the ISO even more? The answer is “You can…” but it’s going to have one very significant consequence.
Remember that our planet is rotating which means that the stars are constantly “moving”. (Ok, it’s really we who are moving but you get the point…) This means that the longer we keep the shutter open, the more motion we capture in the stars. If you’re using a wide-angle lens, you won’t notice much movement when using a shutter speed of up to 30 seconds. When the shutter speed extends beyond that and continues towards one minute, you’ll begin to notice motion in the stars, which rarely looks good.
By using an even longer exposure (such as 5 minutes), the motion becomes even more obvious but you might notice that the image is beginning to look better again. A 10-minute exposure will result in semi-long star trails, something that’s become quite popular. I don’t prefer making star trails by using an extremely long shutter speed (there are better methods) but it’s a useful way of seeing how the scene changes with your shutter speed.
Are you getting tired of all the manual adjustments? Don’t worry, we’re almost done!
The camera will have a hard time using its autofocus when it gets dark. There’s simply a lack of reference points for it and the image will most likely end up out of focus. Instead, you’ll need to switch the camera’s focus mode to manual. I know this can be a little tricky but we’ve gone into detail trying to make it as easy as possible in our article: How to Focus in Night Photography.
Manual white balance
This is the last manual setting, I promise! I’ll keep this part short since we’re advancing slightly beyond what’s necessary to cover in a beginners guide to night photography.
Automatic White Balance will most likely work just fine. You don’t have to adjust the white balance manually but I still recommend doing so. It’s hard to say how well the automatic mode will perform so I tend to set my white balance manually at roughly 3400K and adjust as needed. This is also something that’s is easily done in post-processing.
Equipment for Night Photography
If you’ve made it this far, I want to congratulate you and let you know that even though it might sound insurmountable, it’s not that hard. Print out this article or write down some keywords and go out with your camera. I’m sure that you’ll remember both what settings to use and how to adjust them within no time!
So, now that we know how to adjust and optimize the settings for night photography, let’s look at some of the essential equipment:
Those who are regular readers here on CaptureLandscapes already know how important I consider a tripod to be for landscape photography. This is also the case for night photography. The difference between night photography and daytime photography is that now you’ll actually depend on having one.
A tripod is absolutely essential since we are operating with shutter speeds anywhere between a few seconds to several minutes. We’re simply not able to hold the camera still for that amount of time without getting any camera shake.
A remote shutter isn’t necessarily an essential tool for night photography but I highly recommend using one. When you make an exposure of more than 30 seconds, you’re entering into Bulb Mode operation and you need to have a Remote Shutter for that (at least if you want to avoid camera shake).
It doesn’t need to be an expensive model; a simple remote from your local electronics shop will work just fine.
This should go without saying but a flashlight or headlight will make it considerably easier to navigate in the dark. You might also want to use a flashlight to light up an area to focus light painting.
Night Photography is, as you see, quite different than daytime. Many of the guidelines and rules we know from before simply won’t work in the dark and at times we need to think the opposite of what’s customary. Don’t worry, though. It won’t take long until photographing in the dark is just as easy as it is in daylight.
Have you been experimenting with Night Photography? Share the result with us in a comment below!