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Night photography can be daunting, first because we feel more threatened or vulnerable at night, so it is good to always think safety first. Take someone with you.
Then the art of photographing at night is often hard to master especially if you want to do night landscapes. You need both an understanding of low light or long exposure photography and some knowledge of lunar science.
The light from the moon has a different quality to sunlight and gives a mystical, tranquil feel to an image.
lights at night
We are also seeing more than the naked eye as we are doing long exposure so capturing more light than even the eye can see. So it really needs some pre visualization, which means it is a good idea to choose a location while the light is still up so that you know what you will be shooting.
Night photography encompasses many things, from star trails, to night landscapes, fireworks, lightening and more, so there is something for everyone.
There are three aspects we need to take into account, one is the strength of the moonlight, is it up yet? What phase is it in? Then we have star light, a lot softer than moonlight and finally light pollution, this is the light given off from man, city light, house lights, car lights etc.
So we need to pre plan what we are going to shoot and when. Stars appear brightest when the moon is not up or there is a new moon. Do you want star trails or pinprick stars? Star trails are best with no moon but it doesn’t light up the landscape as well, if you want the landscape lit up, plan for a time when the moon is up. The best time is at full moon or two to three days either side but you will also need clear skies and be prepared to wait between two and four hours after the moon has risen.
This was one of my first attempts at taking stars. This was only a 20 sec exposure.
stars at night
If you want star trails then no moon is best and often the time between sunset and full dark is best, we call this blue hour. This way you get a blue background and more detail in the landscape. If you want to highlight the foreground try painting it with light using a torch.
If you want circular star trails you need to face your camera to the north so you are getting the stars as they rotate around the polar axis.
Another element we need to be aware of is the equipment we use. Low light photography always introduces noise, so we want the best quality camera and lenses we can afford and we need to use the lowest ISO possible. Also we should be using the widest aperture, f1.4 is best but f2.8 is still okay. It is even better if you have a fish eye lens to experiment with.
You will also need a tripod, a cable release, preferably one that locks, an intervalometer for star trails or time lapse, headlight with a red LED, you can have this on and it doesn’t affect the exposure of the shot. Flashlight for light painting and good software to post process the image.
Also remember to turn Image stabilization off and go to live view so that your mirror is locked up. You will also need to be in Bulb mode.
Focus is a hard one. If we temporarily increase our ISO to max and take a test shot with our wide aperture, we can manually set the focus and then leave it on manual so it is set for the entire shoot. Now decrease your iso, remembering for every stop you decrease the ISO you have to increase the shutter speed one stop. This gives you the correct exposure for the shot as well as allows you to sort the focus out.
For a still shot of the stars start at 25 seconds at f 2.8 at ISO1600 and then adjust from here. This setting will only work when there is no moon.
A 20 min exposure an hour after sunset will give you a daylight type shot with no moon or a 10 min exposure with the moon. You can try these even with cloudy skies, although you may have to increase exposure time.
For star trails you will probably need to use an ISO of 800, so start here and see how you go.
For fireworks you will need two to three secs at f5.6 or f8 if you want the landscape as well. and ISO100
Long exposures and low light shots always produce noise, so how can we deal with this. first use as low an ISO as you can and then use a “Dark Frame” to reduce noise in post processing. So what is a dark frame and how do we use it?
Once exposure has been made, place the lens cap on camera and take another shot at the same exposure, so if it was f1.8 for 20 secs, then this is the exposure you would use. Also cover the view finder with the attachment that is usually on the camera strap or place something dark over it so no light gets in. When you are processing you copy and paste this layer into your image and set the blending mode to difference, if you have Photoshop, there are some articles below which give free editors if you don’t have Photoshop.