Nail the focus in Night Photography

Night Photography is a genre that has become more and more popular the last years. Photographing at night can give stunning results but it also comes with a few more challenges than “regular” daytime photography. The most normal challenge with nighttime photography is getting everything sharp and in focus.

Let me tell you this: getting sharp photos during the night isn’t as hard as you may fear. In this article, we will look at a few techniques and tricks on how to get the stars and landscape as sharp as possible in one single image. It’s time to stop taking blurry images of stars!

focus in night photography

Use Live View

When you’re outside photographing the stars you’re most likely in a dark area (unless you’re photographing a cityscape). Looking through the viewfinder will not give you much of an impression on how the image will be since you can’t actually see anything.

In Live View, however, you’re able to see more of the landscape when you increase the ISO and shutter speed plus open the aperture. No, the entire scenery won’t be visible but you can see the outlines of the landscape and brightest stars.

Recommended Reading: The Best Settings for Night Photography

If the surroundings are dark, you should take a couple of test shots to adjust and find the best perspective and composition. It’s hard to get this correct in the first shot since you barely see any of the landscape. When you’ve found the composition you wish to use, it’s time to nail the focus!

Where should I focus?

If you have Live View, activate it and try to find a place to focus on. This often depends on the photo you’re capturing (bright cityscapes are different than dark landscapes) but you want to find bright places on your LCD.

When you have located such a spot (could be the brightest star, streetlight or another light source), use the +/- buttons on the back of your camera to zoom in on your screen. This is the spot that we are going to focus on.

Night Photography Focus
For this image, I used the brightest star as my focal point

If your camera doesn’t have Live View, it’s still possible to get sharp photos of the stars. It will be a little more challenging as you don’t have the possibility to see the live focus but I’ll show you a few techniques that will make sure you still get it correct.

Use Manual Focus for best results

Even though autofocus has come a long way and many people never use anything else, manual focus is the way to go for Night Photography. Since the surroundings are dark your camera is simply not able to get a sharp focus as it struggles to find a reference point.

Note: Autofocus could work when photographing cityscapes but it’s still better to focus manually. 

When you’ve found a bright spot and zoomed in using Live View, start adjusting the focus ring until the spot becomes sharp. You might need to twist back and forth a few times until you find the exact focus where the spot is sharpest.

The image is now in focus and you’ve found the sharpest point. It wasn’t that hard, right?

But wait… I don’t have Live View!

Fear not, my friend, not having Live View is no reason to give up! It might take you one or two extra test shots but the process isn’t that much harder.

Since we don’t have the LCD screen and Live View to refer to when adjusting the focus we need to know where our lens will give the sharpest result and get most of the image in focus. There are two techniques that makes this process very easy.

Prefocus on Infinity

The easiest way to get a good focus in night photography is to simply set your focus to Infinity. However, the sharpest point isn’t always exactly at infinity, but nearby.

A good idea is to prefocus the camera before heading out and either mark the spot with a pen or simply tape the focus ring so it won’t move.

Hyperfocal Distance

Hyperfocal Distance is a more advanced technique than using Infinity but the result is often a little sharper. It requires some more thinking and calculation before photographing. We will do an article on this subject in the future but here’s a general idea of how you can benefit from using Hyperfocal Distance.

Note: If you want to focus on a foreground element you should consider focus stacking (capturing multiple images with different focus points) images in Photoshop or another software since the stars won’t be as sharp as if they were focused upon. 

Basically, Hyperfocal Distance is the focusing distance that gives you the best depth of field (meaning the distance where most of your image is in focus). You can use this calculator to find the Hyperfocal Distance you need.

As you can see, focusing in the dark isn’t as hard as many think. The most important thing to remember is to use Manual Focus. Like anything else, focusing in night photography requires some practice before it works flawlessly. So, what are you waiting for? I would love to see your night images in the comments below. Maybe you also have some tips for focusing in the dark?