Night Photography Explored – Part 1: Introduction

Northern Lights and Milky Way

Camera: Canon 7D, Lens: Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8, Aperture: f/2.8, ISO: 5,000, Shutter Speed: 30sec., Focal Length: 11mm

There’s an expression in photography that says, “Don’t pack till it’s black,” implying that as long as there’s light in the day, there’s still something to shoot. While it’s certainly true, one of the most exciting times for photography is when it has actually gone black, or rather, during night time hours. Whether there’s a new moon, full moon, or something spectacular in the sky, there’s still plenty of light to work with to create something interesting. This is the first of several posts that will focus on how to capture and maximize your time out under a starry night sky. Everything will be discussed, from gear, to setting up the shot, to post-processing techniques.

The night sky has virtually limitless possibilities, opening up an entirely new realm of photographic opportunities. From comets, to northern lights, to full moons, the Milky Way Galaxy, or even just an abundantly star-filled sky, the night sky is open to infinite possibilities that very few have thus far begun to really explore with a camera. In this first section, I’m mainly going to bring everyone up to speed, covering ideal settings (though many will change depending on the circumstances), some good gear, must-have essentials, and general preparedness for extended hours outside after dark.

Applying Settings for Night Photography

First and foremost, you should always shoot in the RAW format. This can be set in the menu of your camera, if it’s not already. If you don’t know why, a simple Google Search will show you a plethora of reasons, but more specifically, for this purpose, it allows much more flexibility when processing the image on the computer. When viewing a JPEG file on your monitor, you’re viewing everything that that file has to offer, whereas when viewing a RAW file on the screen, there is significantly more information in the file that the screen simply can’t even show. That extra information allows for much more room and allowance for edits so that bringing out the photo’s true potential is made much easier. Since a JPEG is compressed inside the camera, it has essentially already been processed, applying a few, simple post-processing applications inside the camera, whereas processing in RAW gives you the freedom to make those adjustments in the manner that you feel most appropriately suits the image. Post-processing will be discussed in a later post, so some important in-camera features will be discussed here to help you along.

High ISO Noise Reduction

In just about any night situation, you’ll want to set your High ISO Noise Reduction to Strong. The terminology will vary from camera to camera, but you’re looking for a similarly worded function in the menu settings that is made to reduce the noise produced from within the camera when the ISO is pushed up to what is considered a high setting. This will not only help in post-processing, but also in producing a final photo that has as little noise as possible.

Next, you should set your camera to Manual mode (M). This is best night mode because the light-meter built into your camera is only worth anything during daylight hours, and thus, will give you improper readings during night hours as well as very dark exposures on the automatic modes. Likewise, many rules of photography are thrown out the window during the night because the faint light available changes a number of things. Of course some of you might be wondering at this point, Why not Bulb (B) mode? Bulb mode is great for a number of applications, however, anything longer than 20 or 30 seconds will leave noticeable star trails. Even if star trails are what you’re wanting to accomplish, there are better ways of going about capturing them than with long exposures, which I’ll detail in a later post. With your camera on M, you now have control of three essential elements: aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. I’ll provide a few basic understandings for anybody new to working in M along with the recommended settings for each and why they should be set as such.

Aperture

The aperture is a device in the lens that opens and closes based on the defined setting to allow more or less light in for an exposure, and is usually controlled with a dial on the camera. With regular landscape photography, you’d want it set to something like f/16 or f/18, which will have the aperture closed down quite a bit and will capture a much better depth-of-field than something opened up more. However with night photography, all the rules you know with daytime photography are obsolete. Under a new moon, the aperture should be as low as possible. With moonlight thrown in, you’ll want the aperture to change as well, depending on the amount of moonlight saturating the landscape. Regardless of the moonlight present, you will most likely still want to see stars in your photo, so the lower the aperture the better. Variables such as moonlight will be discussed later in a future section.

ISO

ISO controls how sensitive the sensor is to the light coming through the lens when it’s exposed. For night photography without any moonlight, something pretty high is ideal. Fortunately, many newer cameras can accomplish relatively extraordinary ISO settings allowing for some great night exposures. On a Canon 7D or Nikon D7000, night shots around 4000-5000 can be easily accomplished. With something like the 5D Mark III or the Nikon D800, you can get away with something even higher, filling your exposure with stars invisible to the naked eye. There will be noise produced in your image, but this can be reduced both in post-processing (discussed later) and the camera itself (discussed prior). When finding an ideal ISO, it’s important to note that your camera will max out at a setting that will probably produce too much noise. Therefore, it’s best to dial it down two or three steps from that limit. It will take a bit of experimenting depending on your camera model and available aperture to find the “sweet spot” of the dark sky ISO, so take a number of different shots at different settings and see which one works best with different combinations. Keep in mind that this could wind up being a process that takes more than one night.

Shutter Speed

The shutter speed is what controls how long the sensor is exposed to a given scene. This can range anywhere from 1/some-thousandth-of-a-second, to 30 seconds before opening it up longer on Bulb mode (B). It’s typically controlled with the dial closest to your index finger. With night photography, you typically don’t want to exceed 20-30 seconds for a single exposure because stars move a lot quicker than you realize and anything longer than that will cause you to pick up noticeable star trails. A good rule of thumb to determine how to freeze stars is to divide the number 600 by your focal length and that will give you a value that when exceeded will create star trails. Even though you might be going for star trails, there are actually better ways of going about it using digital cameras than with one exposure. This technique will be discussed when post-processing techniques are discussed. In addition, if you leave the shutter open for more than a few minutes or so, the sensor noise becomes pretty bad, making it hard to find a practical application for the image itself, so keeping the exposure below 30 seconds is ideal for most purposes. If you have a lens that can open up to something less than f/2.8, I’d recommend an exposure of no more than 20 seconds. If you don’t have a lens that can open that wide, then your best bet is to stick to 30 seconds with the aforementioned settings.

Understanding the Histogram

histogram

Before moving further, it’s important to understand the histogram as displayed within the camera, or even in post-processing. Put simply, the histogram shows you the light that was captured in a given scene. To view it on the camera, consult the manual for specific instructions on how to get it to display, but it typically involves pushing the Info button on the back of the camera while reviewing the image. If you use Adobe Lightroom for post-processing, you’ll see it near the top-right. Likewise, it can also be activated in Photoshop under the Window menu. All you see is a graph, but this graph tells you exactly what you captured light-wise and whether or not you need to adjust some settings to try again. At the very left edge of the graph is what the camera reads as black, while at the very right of the graph is what it reads as white. Your ideal image should fall within those two lines, peaking on neither edge (unless you intentionally want a silhouette, in which case a spike on the left is desired). With new moon shots you’ll typically see most information on the left side of the graph since there is less light overall. In those situations, the stars will be represented as a horizontal line extending to the right side from the bulk of the information on the left. As long as it’s not completely against the left edge, you’ll have enough information to pull out detail in post-processing if you wanted to preserve some detail. Keep in mind that it’s much easier to work with an image if it’s properly exposed to begin with. If you wind up overexposing on the other hand, you’ll see what are commonly called “blinkies.” These indicate that the exposure captured too much light, which you’ll see on the histogram as information all the way to the right. This is information that cannot be recovered. There was simply too much light, so the amount of light pouring into that one particular spot caused it to record nothing but solid white, leaving absolutely no detail to work with. If you see this, it’s a good idea to make adjustments and try again. Learning to read the histogram will help you to better understand exposure in the camera and thus, create better overall images in any situation.

Investing in the Right Tripod and Ballhead

Since your camera is going to be taking shots longer than any human can physically hold still, you’ll need to set it on something. For night photography, a tripod is an essential piece of equipment, just as much as a camera body itself (well, almost). In addition to holding the camera steady, it will allow you to easily switch compositions and move around in the sky to capture different angles. A good tripod can get pretty pricey, so if you have the money, you’re serious about photography, and you haven’t invested in a good set of legs yet, it would be a good investment to go ahead and make since a tripod has many more practical uses than just night photography. If you’re on a budget, or simply plan on keeping photography a hobby, you can find a good one ranging from $100-$200 with some searching. Spend less than $100 on a tripod for a DSLR, however, and you’ll be replacing it sooner than later.

tripod-251x300

Due to options and personal desires, many tripods do not come with a ballhead – a device to mount the camera setup to the tripod. Often though, you can find a combo. The most important factor when choosing a ballhead is to make sure that it supports enough weight for your setup. In addition, you’ll also want at least a few pounds extra of support just so that you’re not putting too much stress on the ballhead.

Overall, there are literally thousands of different tripod and ballhead combinations. Below I’ve listed a few of the more highly regarded and affordable tripods and ballheads.

Why You Need an Intervalometer

An intervalometer is a device that plugs into your camera and can serve a few different purposes. For this instance, it’s a great tool to have so that you don’t shake the camera by pushing the shutter button down. No matter how still you think you can be, there will still be a little shake in lifting your finger off the button, so with either an intervalometer or remote plugged in, that will be eliminated. If you’re interested in doing time-lapse photography and/or star trails, an intervalometer will be a necessity versus a standard remote shutter. Below are listed the two primary intervalometers by both Canon and Nikon, however with a bit of searching, you can also find third-party options that are often much cheaper if budget is a concern.

Canon TC80N3 – For 10D series, 7D series, 6D series, 5D series and 1D series
Nikon MC-36A – For D3, D3s, D3x, D4, D200, D300, D300s, D700, D800, D800E

Lenses and Focusing

Rokinon 14mm f/2.8

Wide angle lenses usually work best for night photography because this gives you the opportunity to pick up many more stars and also makes focusing much easier. For crop-sensor cameras, a fantastic lens for both day and night shooting is the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens for both Canon and Nikon cameras. It’s a solid, well-built lens that produces outstanding images for a third party, and with a 2.8 aperture, opens up nicely for night shots with very little distortion. Placed on a full-frame camera however, it will produce severe vignetting when zoomed out. An excellent alternative for crop- or full-frame cameras is the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, also for both Canon and Nikon. Despite having excellent glass quality, the price is relatively cheap for a good lens due to the fact that focus and aperture must manually be set. However it’s a small price to pay for such a great budget lens. For those with a little more cushioning in their budget, the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 is highly regarded as one of the best night lenses available. Not to worry, Canon users. This Nikon lens to Canon camera adapter will allow you to take advantage of that lens as well. Regardless of which lens you have, 24mm is about as zoomed in as you’ll want to be for night shots most of the time. Since the dark sky will not allow for auto-focus to work, it’s best to set your lens to Manual Focus so that you can set it to infinity and not have to worry about it wanting to readjust with each shot. The auto-focus will want to look for something with contrast to lock onto, but with such a dark scene, it won’t find anything and will either leave the scene completely unfocused, or won’t find anything at all. If your lens doesn’t have a reading for the focus ring, the next best option would to be handle it while there’s still daylight. Find a mountain peak or object as far away as possible and then with the lens as wide as possible, focus on that object. Then when night comes around, make sure you haven’t altered anything on the lens, including the focal length, unless you know to put it back where it was.

Cold Weather Preparedness

For those of us living in winter environments, or even close to them, the cold nights can have a few unintended consequences on your gear if you’re not careful. This mostly applies to people who will be shooting in the 30s or 40s (F), or colder, but everyone can benefit from checking over this list.

Moulton Barn and Milky Way Galaxy

  1. Dress to be out in the cold. Most of us don’t think about being out in freezing temperatures for extended periods of time. Instead we’re preparing based on the temperature being a little colder than what we’re feeling before heading out. In addition, that also means that you’re expecting to be back in warmth sooner than later. That alone will keep you from getting the best night shots because you’ll be ill-prepared, and thus, not willing to devote the time necessary to getting a great shot, or especially a time-lapse. Wool socks are essential, as are a great pair of gloves, along with multiple layers on your torso and legs. Being properly prepared to be out in the cold will help you to stay out longer composing better shots as well as enduring what adds up to a lengthy time-lapse sequence.
  2. Avoid blaring your car’s heater. While it’s not as important when driving out to a specific location, it’s very important when you’re on your way back. If you’re wearing glasses while doing night photography, you’ll notice why immediately: condensation. The same rules apply inside of your camera where your sensor is. If condensation builds on your sensor, you better hope you got some great shots to last you a while because it will need to go in for repair. Therefore, rule #2 is almost an extension of rule #1. If you’re dressed properly to be out in the cold for extended periods of time, keeping your heater on a low level won’t be much of a problem. If you have a long drive ahead of you once you’re done, it’s acceptable to gradually acclimate the car to more heat. Many people will also seal their camera in a large, resealable bag so that the humidity can acclimate as well.
  3. Headlamps are invaluable. A good light source is a must for night shooting. As bright as the moon gets, it’s often still not enough to give you as much light as you really need right away to get setup. And while there are good flashlight apps on phones, you’ll find you are much more productive when you have both hands setting up, particularly if you’re in a rush to get them back into gloves! A headlamp is a great tool also because it’s not only out of the way, but red filters are also available for many models which won’t compromise your night vision nearly as bad as the bright white LED. This way you can continue to set up while still allowing your vision to adjust to the darkness.
  4. Always have extra batteries. Nothing zaps a freshly charged battery quite like cold weather. The colder it is, the quicker your battery goes. It’s always good to keep an extra battery with you and in your pockets, close to your skin, so that your natural body heat will keep it warm. This way, if the cold kills it off quicker than you were expecting, you have a warm spare ready to go. With that one in, put the used one in that same pocket and the warmth will rejuvenate the energy that was killed by the cold. If you’re out for a long time, you can continue switching them out until both have had enough. For that reason, it’s always good to have more than one backup. Likewise, if you have a battery grip, two extra batteries is always recommended.
  5. Hand warmers are worth their weight in gold during night photography. Hand and toe warmers aren’t just great to keep you warm. Strap one below your battery compartment and the heat will rise to help keep your battery warm too!

Part 1 Conclusion

For many of you, this will be enough information to get you rolling. I’ll have future parts ready as soon as possible to discuss specific situations both that were referenced here, and others that weren’t. Part 2 will deal with new moon photography and capturing the Milky Way Galaxy. For now, stay warm and happy shooting!

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