Photographing at night is unlike anything else. You don’t have the soft light of a sunrise or sunset to cast light on the scene, and you don’t have the light of day to reveal the details within a landscape. Yet, night photography results in some of the most unique imagery.
As a photographer, you quickly realize just how different night photography is from most other genres. You need to distance yourself from most of the fundamental knowledge you’ve already learned.
It’s not uncommon that someone who’s new to night photography returns home with only black images. We’ve all been there.
That’s what I want to help you avoid.
If you enjoy looking at images captured at night and wish that you were able to capture these images yourself, then keep reading on. Below, you’ll be introduced to the fundamentals of night photography that you need to understand in order to get beautiful images of the night sky.
The Basics of Night Photography
I remember the first time I went out to try night photography. I’d been looking at all these incredible images for weeks and figured I’d head out and capture some myself.
That didn’t go as planned.
While I had learned the basics of photography (such as the fundamental camera settings), I hadn’t read specifically about night photography. Can you guess what happened? The images turned out pure black.
This was a frustrating experience but I went straight home and started reading. It didn’t take long before I learned that night photography requires a different approach than daytime photography.
So why is that? Why can’t you use the same settings as you do during the day?
The answer is quite simple: because we lack light.
It’s that one little factor that changes everything. It changes the required camera settings. It changes the ideal camera equipment. It changes the post-processing workflow.
Let’s take a closer look at the required equipment and best camera settings for night photography:
Equipment for Night Photography
During the daytime, you can get away with minimal equipment but at night there are a few more things you should have in your arsenal. Some of the equipment is essential while some of it is there to make life easier or improve certain aspects of the workflow.
I won’t get into the specific brands and models as there are many factors involved in finding the best for you but feel free to leave a comment below or send me an email if you’d like more specific advice.
The Tripod – Essential
I used to believe that a tripod was essential for each and every shot. No matter if it was broad daylight or during the golden hour. As I’ve become more experienced, I’ve changed this opinion and see that a tripod has its time and place. It’s there to give more creative options but it doesn’t always need to be used.
This is not the case for night photography. For night photography you actually depend on having one.
The reason is that we’re using a slow shutter speed. We’ll get back to the camera settings in a minute but simply put, the shutter speed we’re working with is too slow for photographing handheld.
I strongly recommend putting some extra money into a decent quality tripod. At the very least, you want one that is solid enough to hold your camera gear without causing any vibrations.
Recommended Reading: How to Choose Your Next Tripod
The Camera and Lens – Essential
It shouldn’t come as a big surprise that a camera and lens are essential for night photography. It’s kind of hard to do photography without…
But are there different requirements for the camera equipment you use at night?
Yes, and no.
In most cases, you’re fine off using the same equipment as you do for any other photography. However, for the best results, I strongly recommend having equipment that meets the following requirements:
- A camera that gives manual control of camera settings
- A camera that can handle high ISO values
- A wide-angle lens (ideally with a widest focal length of somewhere between 12-20mm)
- A lens with a maximum aperture of f/4 or wider (such as f/2.8 or f/1.4)
It is possible to create beautiful images of the night sky without equipment that meets all those requirements but the quality won’t be as high. The Image Averaging technique is an alternative post-processing workaround that can help reduce noise.
Remote Shutter – Non-Essential
A remote shutter isn’t an essential tool for night photography but there are many benefits of using one.
The main advantage is avoiding unnecessary camera shake that’s caused by pressing the shutter button (though this can be avoided by using a delayed shutter).
It doesn’t need to be an expensive model; a simple remote from your local electronics shop will work just fine.
Flashlight – Non-Essential
This should go without saying but a flashlight or headlamp will make it considerably easier to navigate in the dark. I’m pretty comfortable walking around at night but I’ll admit that the headlamp has prevented more than a few possible injuries.
Besides using it for navigating, it’s very helpful for both setting up your composition and for focusing when using the focus stacking technique at night.
Camera Settings for Night Photography
I’ve mentioned several times now that the ideal camera settings are different for night photography. Each situation requires a different approach but there are some guidelines you should follow to get the best results:
What Camera Mode to Use
I generally recommend using manual mode but semi-automatic modes such as Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority can be acceptable. That isn’t the case with night photography.
Unfortunately, you can’t rely on semi-automatic or automatic modes when the stars come out. You need to take the leap into manual mode.
The reason is that the camera struggles to see in the dark. There’s no doubt that technology is improving but, as of now, the camera isn’t able to find the ideal settings at night. It’s simply not smart enough.
That means you need to adjust the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed manually. Some of you might not be comfortable with this yet but don’t worry. It’s not as scary as you think.
I strongly recommend reading our Fundamentals to Landscape Photography series if you aren’t comfortable with manual mode yet.
Use an Open Aperture
We tend to keep the aperture somewhere between f/7.1 and f/13 during daytime landscape photography. This is generally what will result in the sharpest images.
Yet again, this is not the case for night photography. In this case, we need to keep the aperture as wide as possible.
This means you need a low f-stop value such as f/1.4 or f/2.8. The exact value you use depends on the current lens. The most common lenses for night photography have the widest aperture of f/2.8.
Don’t worry if your lens doesn’t have an aperture that fast, f/4 will also work. However, if you’re becoming serious about night photography, I strongly recommend investing in a wide-angle lens that has an aperture of f/2.8 or wider.
The reason we need fast aperture lenses at night is due to the bigger opening letting in more light. This allows us to use a shorter shutter speed and pick up more details than we would otherwise. More about this in a minute.
Recommended Reading: Introduction to Aperture in Landscape Photography
PS. The aperture is the only setting that can remain the same for all your night images. It’s extremely rare that you need a narrower aperture at this time.
Use a High ISO
You might recall that a fundamental guideline for landscape photography is to always keep the ISO as low as possible. This is done to reduce noise and improve the image quality.
While that concept remains the same for night photography, the ‘lowest possible’ is now a lot higher than it normally would be.
A fast aperture lets more light reach the sensor but it’s still not enough to get a well-exposed image. The typical ISO100 won’t do much at night.
The exact ISO value you need to use depends on how dark it is outside. Nights under the full moon are differently illuminated than nights under the new moon.
In most cases, you’ll find that you use an ISO between 800 and 3200. In some situations, you might need to increase it up to 6400 or more.
A good practice is to start with ISO 1600 and adjust the settings based on the test shot. If the image is too dark, you need to increase the ISO. If it’s too bright, you need to decrease it.
Recommended Reading: Introduction to ISO in Digital Photography
High ISO and Noise
Increasing the ISO doesn’t come without consequences. It’s at this point when you see the difference between entry-level and professional cameras.
The cheaper cameras will typically struggle with high ISO values. The higher the value is, the more noise is introduced.
All cameras see an increase of noise and grain when using a high ISO but entry-level models quickly get to the point where it’s too much.
Techniques such as Image Averaging can help but if you’re serious about your night photography, you should consider purchasing a camera that does well with high ISO values.
Use a Slow Shutter Speed
Shutter speed is the third and final setting that builds up the Exposure Triangle. You already know that we need to use a slow shutter speed but that’s a rather vague statement.
A long exposure, or slow shutter speed, can be anything from half a second to hours. For night photography, there’s only a small window within this range that we should stay within.
Just like the ISO, the exact shutter speed depends on the scene you’re photographing. Brighter nights require less light while darker lights require more. That being said, you typically aim for a shutter speed between 15 and 30 seconds.
Personally, I tend to begin a 20-second exposure time and adjust depending on how the image preview looks.
Now, if the image is too bright, I’ll rather decrease the ISO than shorten the exposure time. This is in order to keep the ISO as low as possible.
Recommended Reading: Introduction to Shutter Speed in Landscape Photography
The Problem with Long Exposure Times
We know that a longer exposure time allows more light to reach the sensor. So, why can’t we just extend the shutter speed to ten minutes or more and lower the ISO to a point where there’s little noise?
Well, you can. But it’s going to have one very significant consequence.
Our planet is rotating which means that, for us, the stars are moving (Yes, it’s us 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 20-30 seconds. You can use the 500 rule or NPF rule to calculate exactly how long of a shutter speed you can use to freeze the stars.
Longer exposure, such as 5 minutes, begins resulting in what’s known as star trails. This is a quite popular technique and can give interesting-looking images but ideally when it’s done on purpose.
Setting the White Balance for Night Photography
The final setting you need to adjust for night photography is the White Balance. This isn’t as important as the other settings, especially if you’re photographing in RAW. If you’re anything like me, however, you want to get the best possible results already in the camera.
I’ve often had issues with the Auto WB mode when photographing in the dark. The result is often too orange for my taste.
That’s why I switch to Kelvin Mode and manually set the temperature. A temperature around 3400K tends to do a good job for most situations. As always, adjust if needed.
Note: You can easily adjust the White Balance in post-processing if you’re photographing in Raw.
In-Field Tips for Night Photography
Now that we’ve looked at both the camera equipment and camera settings, let’s take a quick look at some of the things you should be aware of when taking the shot.
Setting the Focus
Autofocus functions are constantly improving but most cameras still struggle to find focal points at night. This means you’re most likely left with an out-of-focus image if you don’t do it manually.
It takes a bit of practice to nail the focus at night. To be honest, I still find it a hassle after all these years.
There are a few different tricks to finding the right focus, several of which I’ve written about in my article ‘How to Focus in Night Photography’, but here’s one that you can try:
- Switch to Manual Focus
- Turn on the camera’s Live View
- Look for stars or distant light sources
- Zoom in on this source
- Adjust the focus ring until the light is as small as possible
These 5 steps should be enough to give you a nice and sharp image. Quite often, you’ll need to take a test shot or two and make minor adjustments to find the sharpest point.
Take Test Shots When Setting up the Composition
Setting up and optimizing a composition in the dark isn’t quite that easy. It takes a fair bit of trial and error until you find what works best.
Using a headlamp to light up the foreground can be a helpful trick in order to see what elements you have to work with. If you also turn on Live View, you can use the few details you see to adjust your composition.
Then you need to take a test shot. Take one to make sure your exposure is good and the focus is sharp, then multiple more until you’ve found the best possible composition.
Don’t be afraid of taking too many test shots. Use these to your advantage. Take the time to zoom in on the image preview to make sure you’ve optimized everything you can.
Then you know you’ll return home with a good image.
If you’ve made it this far, you’re well on your way to improving your night photography. I know this might be a little overwhelming for those of you that are just getting started but once you’re in the field, you’ll realize it’s not as hard as it sounds.
Print out this article or our free Night Photography Cheat Sheets and bring them with you in the field. Use this information to remember the few essential steps of photographing the night sky.
Have you been experimenting with night photography? Share the result with us in a comment below!
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More Night Photography
I’ve gathered some more night photography articles and resources below that you might find useful:
- The Best Settings for Night Photography [Article]
- 5 Common Night Photography Mistakes to Avoid [Article]
- The ‘500 Rule’ for Night Photography Explained [Article]
- Night Photography Post-Processing: Desert Nights [Course]
- Image Averaging and Time Blending for High Quality Night Photos [Article]
- 7 Tips for Better Night Photography [Article]
- How to Plan and Photograph the Milky Way [Article]
- A Guide to Better Milky Way Photography [Course]
- Northern Lights Photography Made Easy [Course]