By Catherine Simard
July 22, 2020
If you have never done night photography, at first it can seem intimidating. There are many techniques to shoot the stars, some simpler and some more complex. But don’t worry, the basics are very easy to learn. For your first night shooting, I recommend you focus only on the stars and leave the foreground for another time. So, here are the 10 things you should know to get your first night photos right.
There are plenty of camera bodies on the market with varied performance under low light settings. When you start off in night photography, you don’t necessarily need high end equipment. However, if you want to shoot great quality photos, it is strongly recommended to get yourself a high performing camera in low light. My favourite camera bodies for night photography are the Sony a7S II and the Sony a7R III.
The Sony a7S II sensor’s high sensitivity allows you to get less noise in images and to reduce the shutter speed. The Sony a7R III body, on the other hand, allows for higher resolution because of its 42 megapixels while maintaining great low light performance.
Choose a wider angle between 14mm and 24mm, and a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or larger. My favourite lens for this kind of photography is the Sony FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM, because of its image sharpness and versatility. The large aperture fixed lenses such as the Sony FE 24mm f/1.4 GM are also excellent choices because of their better capacity to let the light through.
FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM
FE 24mm f/1.4 GM
FE 20mm f/1.8 G
E 20mm f/2.8
FE 16-35mm F2.8 GM
E 16mm f/2.8
Sonnar T* E 24mm f/1.8 ZA
DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM
Vario-Sonnar T* 16-35mm f/2.8 ZA SSM 2
Vario-Sonnar T* 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM II
Sony FE 12-24mm f/2.8 GM
A stable tripod is imperative as it helps stabilize the camera during the long pauses necessary to properly expose the scene. Gitzo and Manfrotto tripods in carbon fiber are very good choices for their quality and durability.
MT055CX Pro 4 Fiber Carbon Tripod
Befree GT XPRO Tripod with 496 Head
Element Traveller Tripod Small with Ball Head - Carbon Fiber
190CXP, 4 Section Tripod with horizontal Center Column
MT055CX Pro 3 Fiber Carbon Tripod
Mountaineer Series 2 Tripod
4-Section Series 3 Mountaineer Tripod (Long)
Mountaineer Series 0 Tripod
Traveler Series 0 Tripod with Ball Head
Do not underestimate the vibration caused by pressing down on the camera's shutter release button. A wired or wireless remote control will allow you to shoot without having to touch your camera. Also, don't forget a headlamp, which will allow you to handle your equipment in the dark, and can help you with fine tuning.
It is essential to plan your night photography outing. The first thing to take into account is the lunar cycle. If the moon is too bright it shines too much natural light and it becomes very difficult to capture the stars. Stick to the time period between the first quarter and the last quarter moon. If the moon is too bright, pay attention to the moonrise and moonset and plan your photo shoot before moonrise or after moonset. The PhotoPills app is great and gives you a lot of information including sunrise and sunset, moonrise and moonset, the position of the milky way and more. The SkyGuide app is another excellent application that works even without service/internet. Both apps include an augmented reality function, which can show different positions of the Milky Way throughout the night.
It is also important to take into account the light pollution present in certain places. The Darksitefinder website is an excellent tool that will allow you to target the most and least light polluted areas of cities.
Finally, weather conditions are a key factor in your planning so keep an eye on cloud cover. A clear sky is ideal, but sometimes a few clouds can also make a very interesting effect!
Since natural light varies greatly from a setting to another, so do the settings for night photography. It is therefore essential to shoot in manual mode in order to have complete control of your camera. If you have a zoom lens, make sure you are at the widest possible angle, this allows you to reduce the star streaks caused by the rotation of the Earth. It also allows you to increase the view angle and this way you can capture more stars or a larger portion of the Milky Way. Make sure your photos are in RAW format; this will preserve the most information in your images. You can leave the white balance on automatic, use a pre-set such as tungsten/Incandescent or set it manually to around 3500K. This setting can be easily changed during editing. Finally, enable the ''Long Exposure Noise Reduction'' option. This will allow you to reduce noise directly inside your camera. Note that this setting drains battery life quicker and increases the processing time of each photo.
The goal in night photography is to let in as much light as possible onto the sensor. However, if exposure is too long, the stars will start to streak, making short lines instead of sharp dots. The traditional 500 rule-of-thumb states that dividing 500 by the focal length can give you the maximum shutter speed before the stars start to streak. For example, if I use my Sony FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM lens on my Sony a7R III full frame camera, my maximum shutter speed is calculated as follows:
|500 / 16 = 31.25 seconds maximum|
If your camera sensor is not full frame (APS-C), you should do it this way instead:
|500 / (Crop Factor X Focal Length)|
Nevertheless, slight traces may appear even if you apply the rule. In my experience, replacing 500 by 400 gives better results, giving me a maximum exposure time of 25 seconds for the same equipment. So, I usually start with 25 seconds and then adjust my shutter speed according to the available light.
Use the largest possible aperture of your lens. This allows you to capture as much light as possible. But don't hesitate to change your aperture slightly to find one that produces the sharpest possible image, if natural light allows for it. For example, with the Sony FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM lens, my star images are slightly sharper at f/3.2 rather than f/2.8.
The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive the sensor in your camera is to light. At night, since the scene is dark, you will need to increase the ISO sensitivity to capture the maximum amount of light. However, a high ISO introduces "noise" into the image. This is grain that reduces the image quality. The higher the ISO, the more noticeable is the noise. I recommend starting with an ISO at 2400 and adjust if necessary, according to the available light.
The easiest way to focus at night is to do it manually and place the focus ring on the infinity marker. However, most lenses on the market do not offer a perfectly accurate infinity marker. For this reason, I recommend that you test your lens during the day and place a marker on it to indicate the true infinity. Another possible method, which I use the most, is on-screen aiming, i.e. using a feature on your camera that allows you to take a picture using the LCD screen and not through the viewfinder. First, find the brightest star and point your camera towards it. Keeping your eyes on the screen, turn the focus ring using the digital zoom until the star is at its smallest point. If it is too difficult to find a shimmering star to do the focus, you can use your headlamp as a light source. As a general rule, put it at a minimum distance of 30 meters and focus on it, this will allow you to get a clear sky.