Nighttime photography offers photographers the opportunity to capture a completely different world on camera, but the preparation and technical aspects of the long exposures can be daunting. In order to capture stunning star photos or other nighttime shots, you’ll need more gear and pre-planning than you would when shooting during the day. But once you have the equipment and the settings down, you’ll be capturing beautiful star trails and midnight landscapes in no time.
Get your gear ready.
The Body – When considering what camera body to use, there are a few specific settings and features to keep in mind. First, you’ll want a camera that can shoot on a high ISO. Although you’ll also be shooting with a shallow depth of field and exposures as long as 10, 20 or even 30 minutes, a high ISO will still be crucial for test shots with shorter exposures. You’ll also want a camera that has a live view mode, which will allow you to compose your images using the large LCD screen on the back, rather than the tiny view finder. This will be immensely helpful when it’s pitch black outside and you can barely see what’s right in front of your face. The Canon 5D Mark III and the Nikon D810 are both great options because they’re full frame and offer ISO settings above 12,000.
The Lens – Most night photography is shot using wide angle lenses in order to capture entire landscapes and skyscapes. The best wide angle lenses for night photography are ones with shallow depths of field. The shallow depth of field will allow more light to enter through the opening of the lens, which is crucial for low light situations. It’s also important to use a lens with both manual and autofocus options because you’ll be switching back and forth as you compose the image and focus on your subject. The Nikon 14-24mm at f/2.8 and the Canon EF 16-35mm at f/2.8 are both super wide and feature really shallow depths of field.
The Shutter Release – Most cameras max out their shutter speeds at 30 seconds, which is often too short of an exposure for night photography. In order to capture an exposure longer than 30 seconds, you’ll either need a shutter release cable or a wireless shutter release. Once you set your shutter speed to “Bulb” (usually one setting below 30 seconds), you’ll be able to control the shutter using the release. Click once to open the shutter, and again to close it. If you’re unsure about what kind of shutter release to buy, try renting one for Canon APS-C cameras, full-frame Canon cameras or Nikon cameras for just a few dollars a day.
The Extras – Night photography also requires some off-camera gear. The most important piece of equipment you’ll need other than the camera itself is a tripod. Long exposures will almost always require a shutter speed slower than 1/15 of a second, which means you’ll need to use a tripod in order to stabilize the camera and avoid blurry images. The Manfrotto BeFree Compact Lightweight Tripod collapses into an easy to carry size, which is perfect for photographers moving around to multiple locations.
A large, high-powered flashlight will also be a lifesaver because it will help to illuminate something in the distance to focus on. Switch on the flashlight and point it at an object at least 30 feet away. Focus your camera on the illuminated object and then switch your camera focus back to manual. Now your camera will be focused for distant landscapes and won’t try to refocus when the shutter is triggered. The Westcott Ice Light is perfect for light painting because it’s portable and its beam diffuses and wraps nicely around the subject.
Lastly, you’ll want something to help you keep track of the time. A timer with an alarm is preferable for really long exposures because you won’t have to keep your eye on a watch, and the alarm will keep you punctual.
Get your settings ready.
Long exposure photography involves a lot of trial and error, especially when it comes to settings and exposure. It’s important to be patient and understand that your images probably won’t come out the way you want them to the first time around. To start, open your aperture as wide as it will go and set your ISO to at least 1600. Working with a high ISO will be a trade off. The higher the ISO, the brighter your images will be, which is great for night photography. On the other hand, as the ISO goes up, the photo quality goes down.
Set your shutter speed to somewhere between 15 and 30 seconds, depending on your subject. If you’re shooting a more urban scene with artificial lights from buildings or cars, you’ll need less exposure time to get the shot. If you’re shooting a natural landscape where the only light is coming from the stars, you’ll need an exposure time closer to 30 seconds, or even more.
Your camera will also have to process each image for as long as it takes for the image to be captured. This means that if you’re shooting a 10 minute exposure, you’ll have to wait another 10 minutes after the shutter closes to see your image on the playback screen. This process will drain your batteries more quickly than daytime photography, so bring a few fully charged backups.
Have fun with the style and composition.
There’s an endless number of styles to play around with when it comes to night photography. If you want to take star point images, make sure your shutter speed is under 30 seconds, or else the stars won’t be sharp. Bump up your ISO to accommodate for the shorter exposure time. For star trails, you’ll want to test out the composition and exposure at intervals of five, 10, 15 and 30 minutes or more. Every time you double the length of the shutter speed, decrease the ISO by half. So if you’re shooting a 15 minute exposure at ISO 800, and you want to double the exposure time to double the length of star trails, increase your shutter speed to 30 minutes and decrease your ISO to 400.
Sweeping landscapes are beautiful on their own, but to create more professional looking images, focus on something in the foreground of the picture to contrast against the vast background. Use your flashlight to illuminate the foreground subject for a few seconds during the exposure. Paint each part of the subject as evenly as possible, and check each take to adjust the flashlight exposure time as needed. For urban scenes, play around with your aperture and shutter speed. A higher aperture will decrease the size of the opening in the lens and will create a bursting effect on street lamps and headlights on parked cars. Longer shutter speeds will turn moving cars into streaks of light.
Whether you’re a professional photographer or just enjoy shooting for fun, night photography offers endless creative options to help you improve your craft and develop a better understanding of your equipment. Just wait for the sun to go down, and let the fun begin.