6 Night Photography Tips To Help You Take Better Shots After Dark
Some pretty amazing things happen between dusk and dawn, and most people would never know if it wasn't for photography. Night photography is becoming increasingly popular as camera sensors are able to deal with low light situations better and better with each new camera model coming out. We are able to do things today with our cameras that were not even in question five years ago. However, night photography can be one of the most difficult kinds of photography, and conditions are often unforgiving. During the daytime, you can often recover if you made a minor mistake in the field, but in night photography, nailing the settings and composition correctly are key to creating a compelling image.
Figuring out how to shoot night photos isn't hard to do on Google. This post isn't dedicated to that. Rather, these tips are things that I've learned while out shooting on my own, and things I wish I'd know when I first started astrophotography.
Don't open your aperture all the way.
Most online guides will tell you to buy a lens with an aperture of f/2.8 or wider, and to shoot it wide open. However, I've found with most lenses that I use, that f/2.8 will never get you the best result. Most current lenses on the market have something that I call a sweet spot, which is the place where the lens is the sharpest and experiences the least amount of optical issues.
In night photography, one thing you have to worry about with most lenses is something called comatic aberration. Simply put, comatic aberration causes stars in the corners of your frame to be distorted, and often look like they are moving in the scene. Some lenses experience this problem worse than others, and opening the aperture all the way amplifies the issue,
By opening the aperture all the way, you also give up sharpness. I recommend testing each of your lenses and finding the aperture that gives you the sharpest results, but for night photography, it's a balance between letting in enough light and coming up with a photo that is sharp enough. Often times, I'm willing to give up a half-stop or a stop of light in order to increase the sharpness and reduce the coma.
It's still worth it to purchase lenses that can go to f/2.8 or wider. The wider the aperture opens, the more light we can let in, and the lower the ISO can be, meaning that our images will be cleaner. Generally speaking, on most f/2.8 lenses, I'll shoot at f/4, and most f/1.8 lenses, I will shoot night photos at f/2.8. Try out different settings and see which ones work best with your particular lens.
Consider purchasing a star tracker.
Star tracking is a relatively new concept, at least at the consumer level. Years ago, star trackers were all big, bulky, and expensive, making them not friendly for the hobbyist photography. However, in recent years, technology has gotten better and more affordable, making a star tracker an accessible tool for any photography.
The way a star tracker works is simple. You align the tracker with Polaris (the North Star), and turn it on. Then, you put the camera on the plate of the tracker on a ball head, and align your composition. The plate is programmed to turn the correct speed so that your camera continues to stay aligned with the stars. This allows you to take very long exposures of the Milky Way at very low ISO's, without any trailing. I usually shoot 4 minute exposures at ISO 400, and my night skies have so much detail and so little noise straight out of the camera.
However, because the camera will be aligned and moving with the stars, the foreground will also be moving. Because of this, you'll need to take a separate, non-tracked exposure of the foreground to blend with the shot of the stars and blend this in later.
My favorite star tracker is the Slik ECH-630 Astro Tracker. It's easy to use for beginners and it works great. You can use the code "Jackson15" at checkout for 15% off!
Shoot your foreground shot during blue hour.
If you've shot night photos before, you'll know that the foreground is always very dark, and you're rarely able to recover the details. This is why you should be shooting your foreground during the blue hour. The blue hour is the time between sunset and total darkness, or between total darkness and sunrise. I love shooting my foreground shots about an hour after sunset, or an hour before sunrise.
Most photographers combat the dark foreground one of three ways. The first being with an artificial light source. I generally find these shots to have a very uneven look. Because you are lighting it from behind the tripod, the foreground closest to you will be lighter than when you go back further, and also, your light will tone the color of your foreground. The second is by using super long exposures. These can work, but you'll find that if there isn't any moonlight, the foreground will not have many details, and it will appear very flat.
That brings me to my favorite way of getting an exposed foreground. This is shooting your composition near the end of blue hour after sunset, or at the beginning of blue hour before sunrise. You can get highly detailed images using longer exposures (5-30 seconds), and then blend them in with your shot of the stars. If you do it this way, it's important that you balance your colors and light correctly in photoshop. When you shoot in the blue hour, your foreground is often times very blue. You'll want to be sure to match the color of your foreground with the milky way to create a seamless transition.
Combat the Wind.
When shooting night photography, it's rare to have an exposure under 10 seconds long, so it's important that your camera is as still as possible. However, many nights I'm out shooting, it is very windy. Most tripods have multiple leg angles you can set them at. If possible, open up the legs more and shoot the tripod closer to the ground. If you still have issues with the wind, most tripods have a hook on the bottom of the center column, and you can clip a backpack or something else heavy onto this clip to stabilize the tripod.
My favorite tripod for night photography is the Slik CF-833. You can use the code "Jackson15" at checkout for 15% off!
Get a headlamp with a red light setting.
At night, your eyes adjust to the darkness to be able to see better in the dark. If you turn on a white LED headlamp, your eyes will begin to re-adjust back to daylight, and once the headlamp is off, you'll be unable to see again. Do yourself (and anyone else out there shooting with you) a favor and get a headlamp with a red light setting. It's easier on your eyes and less likely to intrude on your photo if you accidentally turn it on during an exposure.
Lower the brightness on your camera's screen.
Nothing is worse than thinking your image is properly exposed in the field, and then getting home and putting your photos on the computer to find out that all of your shots are unusable because they're too dark. At night, since your eyes adjust to become more sensitive to light, the image on the back of you screen will look brighter than it really is unless the brightness on your screen is reduced. This can also help preserve your night vision (and your camera battery), like I talked about with headlamps above.
Use these tips to help you create stunning photos of the night sky. Shooting after dark is a challenging, but rewarding experience. If you've never shot night photos before, consider joining one of my upcoming night workshops, where I'll teach you everything you need to know about taking photos of the night sky. Good luck out there this summer!