Night photography is a tricky thing to master. Once you’ve seen this short checklist of required equipment and mastered these basic settings, you’ll have the world seeing stars.
Words by Urth HQ
Once the artificial lights go out, the natural light show begins. The moments between dusk and dawn have long been a photographer’s favourite time to shoot. It’s a great way of being on the tools while reconnecting with nature. Night photography, however, can be pretty finicky. It’s a game of trial and error, which is often the funnest part. But to expedite your night photography game, let’s take a look at some gear that you can’t go without, as well as the settings that will turn your photos from dark to stellar.
Equipment Needed for Night Sky Photography
BEST LENS FOR NIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY
The best lens for night photography depends on what you’re trying to capture. If you want to show the grand scene, the starry night with the lightning-felled tree in the paddock, you will need a wider lens. Try something in the 16-35mm range for a landscape composition at night.
Sony is world-renowned for its optics and has, in conjunction with Zeiss, produced this stunning lens for landscape photography.
If the stars aren’t your focus, but the full moon is, you will instead need a telephoto lens to capture the bright enormity of our distant nightlight. Telephoto lenses can be expensive, so the best lens in this situation is determined by your budget.
We always say that less is more. So before you buy a 600mm telephoto prime lens that is really only suitable for photographing super moons, maybe look at a good zoom in the 150-500mm range. At least this way, your lens will serve more than one purpose and give you more bang for your buck. Different companies manufacture different focal lengths so be sure to do your homework first.
BEST CAMERA FOR NIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY
There isn’t one necessarily. All cameras are capable of taking great night photographs but some are perhaps better than others for a very simple reason – the camera’s ability to handle noise. Despite new cameras sporting ISO ratings of 25,000, we want to aim to have as low an ISO as possible in order to reduce noise.
Each camera is different. For example, the Canon 5D Mark IV handles noise extremely well up towards the ISO 3200 mark. The Canon 5DSR, on the other hand really struggles, with noise or grain really evident when using a relatively low ISO setting of 800.
If you are wanting to up your night photography game but don’t have a camera that handles noise well, then it’s probably worth investing your money in a new set-up. Unfortunately, camera manufacturers won’t supply you with a great deal of evidence about their camera’s ability to handle noise. You will have greater luck searching for an online review as photographers love to share their knowledge. If you find a review with image samples, even better!
For more information on ISO, be sure to check out How to Master ISO in Your Camera.
Other Gear for Nighttime Photography
Aside from some quality glass and a good camera body, the other crucial gear required for night photography is a sturdy tripod and a remote shutter release cable or trigger.
As you will be taking long exposures of 20-30 seconds and beyond, there is no way you’ll be able to keep your hands still in order to capture a sharp image. Instead, plonk your camera on a tripod. Stabilising the camera means you can leave the camera shutter open as long as you like with complete confidence that you will have a sharp image once the exposure is complete.
But all camera tripods are made differently, too. You can generally feel the difference between a $30 tripod and a $300 one. Camera shake may still occur on a $30 tripod because the build quality and the materials used may not prevent the tripod from moving in the wind, for example.
Assuming we have a nice carbon-fibre tripod that’s tough as nails, the other thing to consider when using it would be your movement around the camera. Opening the shutter and then dancing around the tripod may lead to camera shake. Similarly, opening the shutter with your sturdy tripod on unsteady ground like sand may also lead to camera shake.
It’s best practice to really tinker with your tripod feet until they feel firmly fixed in place. Most tripods have a hook from the centre column which allows you an anchor point. You can buy a sandbag or even just hang your camera bag from the hook to add weight to the tripod to ensure it doesn’t move.
Take a look at this lightweight option.
REMOTE SHUTTER RELEASE
The other obvious method to reduce camera shake is a remote shutter release or trigger. When taking photographs that rely on sharpness and stillness, you don’t want to be fumbling with the shutter release button on the camera. Get your settings in order, step away and then remotely release the shutter with a cable or Bluetooth trigger.
There are great and affordable products on the market, but if complete mobility is your preference, why not Bluetooth it? Check out Canon’s great wireless option:
To elevate your night photography further, try using a night filter. Never heard of a night filter? This little tool may be news to you, but will go a long way in creating memorable moments after dark.
When photographing at night, artificial light pollution has the tendency to create a warm colour cast and make your images difficult to colour-correct. The Urth Night Filter Plus+ is coated in neodymium which filters the light pollution and captures truer colours with finer details and depth.
What Camera Settings to Use for Night Photography
Camera settings for night photography differ greatly from daytime exposures. Because it’s dark or near-complete darkness, you will need a long exposure time to allow enough light (or starlight) to enter your lens. The easiest way to adjust shutter speed, aperture and ISO settings is by working in Manual Mode. Shutter-Priority Mode will also allow you creative control.
You’ll also need to manually focus, as your autofocus system will have difficulty performing in the darkness.
The right settings for your given situation will no doubt be different to those listed below, but here are some good starting points.
Do you want your stars to look like dots or lines? That is the question. A long exposure of around 30 seconds should be enough to make stars appear as dots. Longer exposures of minutes or hours will beautifully capture the rotation of the earth and make stars appear in trails.
Regardless of how you’d like to photograph the stars, set your first exposure time for 30 seconds. Once the exposure is made, review, adjust if necessary, and then repeat until you find the correct setting.
ISO is another big factor to consider when photographing the night sky. Even though your camera may go to ISO 25,000, you will want to keep it as low as possible to reduce digital noise. For nighttime photography, ‘low ISO’ tends to be around the 1250-1600 mark to ensure the tiny specks all those light years away are captured with enough light sensitivity. Start at ISO 1600 and bump down as required to limit the possibility of grain.
The ideal aperture for night photography depends on your desired creative outcome. Again, a larger aperture will allow more light into the lens while a narrower aperture will create a sharp and longer depth of field.
If you’re photographing the stars only, a larger aperture of f/2.8 – f/5.6 may be suitable. If you’re photographing a landscape with the starry night behind, you may want a narrower aperture of f/9 or smaller.
Night photography is a game of patience. Now that you’re armed with the knowledge of its basic principles and some key gear requirements, all you need is some clear weather and warm clothing. Set up the tripod and a camp chair for a long night of stargazing.