Northern light over Iceland

The Basics of Night Photography

Night photography has become very popular in recent years, as digital cameras have continued to improve. Photographers can now capture stunning images of the night sky with relatively inexpensive equipment.  It does, however, require a lot of expertise to capture these images, as the rules of photography are often turned on their head.

Northern light over Iceland

EQUIPMENT

When shooting at night, it helps to have a newer digital camera that is rated well for low-light ISO performance.  It’s also preferable to use a lens with a very wide aperture that can let in a lot of light.  I provide detailed information on equipment I recommend for night photography at http://www.gcollier.com/gear/.

PLANNING YOUR SHOTS

If you take the time to plan when it will be best to photograph at a particular location at night, you will almost always get results that are superior to an unplanned shoot.  One of my favorite software programs for planning night shots is called Stellarium.  It shows exactly how the night sky will appear from any location around the world at any date and time you choose.  This program can be downloaded for free at http://www.stellarium.org/.  It can also be purchased as an iTunes or Android app.

Stellarium is especially useful for previsualizing the Milky Way.  The Milky Way is one of the most dramatic objects to photograph in the sky, and its location changes constantly throughout the night and throughout the year.  By checking Stellarium to see where the Milky Way will be in the sky, you can plan for it to be over a specific object, like a rock formation or a mountain.

Milky Way over Green River Overlook

CAMERA SETTINGS

When shooting at night, you’ll usually want to use the widest aperture on your lens, such as f2.8.  You can calculate your exposure time using the rule of 500.  Simply take 500 divided by the focal length of your lens to get the number of seconds to expose the shot.  For example, if you shoot with a 20mm lens, take 500/20 = 25 seconds.  I recommend using the highest native ISO on your camera that doesn’t cause any highlights to be blown out (a native ISO is one represented only by numbers, not by any letters, such as H1 or H2).

 FOCUSING

Focusing can be a challenge at night.  The easiest way to get a night shot in focus is to set your camera up during the day and get your focus right before it ever gets dark.  However, if you can’t do this or you need to change your focus during the course of the night, there are many ways to do this, including autofocusing on the moon or autofocusing on a flashlight that you place at a set distance.  I discuss these techniques and others in much more detail in my book.  Regardless of how you focus, it is very important to always zoom in all the way on the image on your LCD screen after you take the shot to ensure that everything is in sharp focus.

Milky Way over Native American Ruins

While taking photos at night can be challenging, the most important thing is to shoot as much as possible and constantly experiment with new techniques.  With a little practice, capturing a great shot in the dark will be more than just a shot in the dark!

If you want to learn more, check out my book about Night Photography: Collier’s Guide to Night Photography

About Author Grant

Grant Collier has been working as a professional photographer for 20 years and has been shooting photos at night for 12 years. He is the author of 11 books and has just released a new book called Collier’s Guide to Night Photography in the Great Outdoors. He has also produced a new instructional video called Collier’s Guide to Post-Processing Night Photos.

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