Are you guilty of making these common night photography mistakes? Then you’re not capturing as great images as you could be. Let’s fix that and make you a master of the night.
We can all agree that transforming a dark landscape into a majestic image is an amazing feeling. But there’s no secret that night photography is more demanding than most other genres of nature photography; not only does it require a solid understanding of the camera settings but you also need to navigate the menus in the dark.
Capturing impactful images at night might be challenging but it’s equally rewarding when you succeed. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the most common night photography mistakes and what you can do to avoid them.
This is more than just a ‘what to avoid guide’, though. Following these five steps will take you a big step closer to creating images that make people stop and say ‘wow’.
#1 Not including a foreground
The most common night photography mistake is the failure of including a foreground, or composition if you will.
It’s far too often that I see night photographs that don’t include much more than the night sky. Unless you’re doing deep space photography, that’s something you need to stop doing.
Take a look at the two images below. I think most of us will agree that the second image is a lot more interesting than the first. The number one reason? A stronger composition due to the inclusion of a foreground.
Finding a foreground that translates to a strong composition is perhaps one of the most difficult parts of landscape photography. Doing it in the dark is an even bigger challenge.
A good recommendation is to scout the location during the daytime to find compositions that you can use later on. This could be anything but it should be something that helps guide the viewer’s eyes through the image.
#2 Underexposing the landscape
Including a foreground isn’t enough to make a great image. An underexposed, or silhouetted, landscape can be more distracting than helpful. After all, the purpose of including the foreground is to help convey a story and guide the viewer through it.
When the landscape is silhouetted, we’re left with a big bunch of empty space that doesn’t contribute to the image whatsoever.
Take these two images as an example:
Capturing an image that’s well exposed in both the land and sky is, unfortunately, a bit challenging. Especially when photographing a dark landscape under the new moon. In fact, there are many scenarios where it’s impossible to get it correct in one shot.
Lengthening the exposure time has a huge impact on the sharpness of a star (more about that in a minute), which means that it’s not the ideal solution. Increasing the ISO can help but this introduces a significant amount of noise, which isn’t ideal either.
The solution is to capture multiple images and blend them together for a greater dynamic range. This is an intermediate technique that requires the use of a photo editor such as Adobe Photoshop but it’ one well worth learning.
This technique is based on capturing multiple images of different exposures and blending them together into one well-exposed image. For night photography, that means lengthening the shutter speed for long enough to bring out a good amount of details in the landscape, while also capturing an image with a shorter shutter speed that results in a sharp night sky.
#3 Unintentional star trails
I briefly mentioned this in the previous mistake but the shutter speed has a direct impact on the sharpness of the stars. A too long exposure time leads to the stars becoming blurry. The longer it is, the more this blur turns into a star trail.
The example below shows what happens to the stars when you use a 2-minute shutter speed. It might not be that visible on the image preview but it sure is when you zoom in.
Star trails occur due to earth’s rotation. Since our planet is rotating, the stars don’t stay in the same spot throughout the night.
Because of this, you need to keep an eye on the shutter speed. Using a too slow shutter speed is a common night photography mistake that, unfortunately, makes the image look less impressive.
Now, photographing star trails can be an exciting technique but only when done intentionally. This is definitely something you want to play around with but, for your regular night photographs, make sure to use a quick enough exposure time.
The exact shutter speed you should use for night photography depends on your lens and camera. I recommend looking into the 500 Rule (basic) or the NPF Rule (advanced) for more information on how you can calculate the maximum shutter speed for your setup.
#4 Introducing unnecessary amounts of noise
It’s hard to avoid noise in night photography as it’s a consequence of using a high ISO, which is required for photographing in the dark.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep an eye on the amount of noise. Yes, we need a high ISO but are you using the best value? This is something that varies from night to night; you can get away with a much lower ISO on full moon nights than new moon nights.
Recommended Reading: Introduction to ISO in Digital Photography
Make sure to always use the lowest ISO possible. In other words, the one that allows you to maintain the optimal shutter speed.
It’s also an advantage to know how your camera performs at night. There’s a big difference between the ISO performance of different cameras. Some are able to handle high ISO values while other introduce significant amounts even at lower levels.
The better your camera handles a high ISO setting, the better suited it is for night photography.
If your camera doesn’t perform well with a high ISO, you might want to consider learning the exposure blending technique mentioned in the previous mistake.
#5 Using autofocus
The fifth, and final, most common night photography mistake is trying to use autofocus. This isn’t going to work.
Unfortunately, the camera isn’t able to see in the dark and using the autofocus functions will rarely result in sharp images.
Instead, you need to focus manually. This might sound scary for some but it really isn’t that difficult. It’s something that can be useful to master for both regular and night photography.
I’ve written a detailed article explaining how to focus at night but here are the main steps you need to follow:
- Switch your lens to manual focus (this is often a small switch on the lens)
- Open Live View
- Zoom in on a star or distant light source (using live view, not the actual optical zoom)
- Adjust the focus ring until the star is as small as possible – this is the sharpest point
- Take a test shot and zoom in on the image preview. Make sure that the sky is sharp, if not, make adjustments.
Many tutorials will say that you just need to put your lens to infinity focus but this is not something you should do. It’s correct that the sharpest point is close to infinity but it’s rarely exactly on infinity. This is different from lens to lens.
You can test your lens to see where the sharpest spot is and mark this with a pen. By doing that, you’ll easily be able to set a sharp focus at any time.
Night photography requires a bit more than most genres of outdoor photography. It doesn’t take more than a small mistake to make an image look a lot less impressive.
At the same time, it’s incredibly rewarding. Creating a beautiful photo from a pitch-black surrounding is quite a nice feeling.
These common night photography mistakes might have a negative impact on your images but fixing them isn’t that hard. Quite honestly, fixing these mistakes can be the difference between a ‘meh’ image and a ‘wow’ image.
Make sure to keep these 5 mistakes in mind the next time you go out photographing the night sky. Being aware of these topics in the field might be what makes that image just a little more compelling!
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