Learn to Shoot at Night
LEARN HOW TO SHOOT SOME NIGHT SKY PHOTOGRAPHY!
Over the next few months, we thought it would be fun to do a series of blog posts to walk you through some night photography basics. We’ll share tips and tricks and teach you how we go about getting some of our images that you see on this site, our Facebook, and our Instagram.
The first post will talk mainly about cameras, lenses, and some basic camera settings.
Next, we’ll get a little more in depth about some gear, getting out in the field, things to think about when taking night photos, and how to trouble shoot some common problems.
After that, we will dive into post processing (which is essential for night sky photography) to ensure we get the best, most real looking images possible.
The fourth and final post will speak to some advanced night sky photography tips and ideas in order to get really creative with your images!
We are by no means experts at night sky photos, and like all aspects of photography, practice will only make you better, and never perfect. There are so many things to learn about night sky photography, including how our Earth and cosmos work together and how it will affect your photos. We hope the following posts get you excited about the night sky and how you can photograph the beauty of it all!!!
LET’S TALK ABOUT CAMERAS
A DSLR or mirrorless camera isn’t essential, but can make things a lot easier. Some smart phones now allow us to change particular settings that work great for night sky photography! GoPro’s recent cameras also produce some spectacular results for such a tiny camera. Essentially any camera that allows the user to manually change the exposure length (time the camera is soaking in light) will work.
A noticeable difference upon upgrading cameras in regards to night photography is the camera’s ability to deal with noise (graininess) in an image. The great thing is that it can all be dealt with in post processing.
Lenses are the next important item. If your camera allows interchangeable lenses, great! If not, don’t fret. Keep reading as much of the following information will still apply. We typically use a 14mm f/2.8 wide angle lens for most of our night sky photos. Sometimes a 50mm f/1.8, and sometimes a 24-70mm f/2.8. The key here is the “fast”, very wide aperture (meaning more light can reach the sensor in a shorter period of time) represented by the f number. Lower f numbers like f/2.8, f/1.8, and even lower really open the lenses up and let the most amount of light into the camera. If your lens only goes down to f/3.5, like a lot of kit lenses do, it will still work!
The settings listed below are generally a good starting point. If the sky is darker it allows for better exposures, but if there is a lot of light pollution you may need to adjust. We also provided a cheat sheet to bring with you in the field that you can download here for free!
- Shutter speed – 20 to 30 seconds (if you are photographing cityscapes at night, dial this back to 5 to 15 seconds)
- Aperture – f2.8 (or as low f number as your lens/camera combo allows). With cities you probably want more things in focus, so bump this up to f8 or f11. This will require either a longer exposure or higher ISO though.
- ISO – 1600 to 3200 (the higher the ISO, the more likely noise will be present in your photo)
- Focus – turn off any auto focus system you have on your camera as it will not be able to focus on anything (for obvious reasons… its dark out!) Set your focus to infinity, typically denoted as ∞on the lens. This will ensure all of the stars are sharp! Here's a nifty trick!... If your lens does not have the infinity focus feature, use a flashlight and shine it on something in the foreground to achieve a sharp focus.
- White Balance – set to Tungsten Light (3200 Kelvin) or White Fluorescent Light (4000 Kelvin). This will make your photo the nice green/blue or purple/orange hue that are very common in night photos. Experiment with this setting to see how the white balance affects the photos. This is my general setting as I like the colors it produces, but you’re the artist! You may enjoy something totally different.
- Image format – Always shoot RAW if your camera allows, this will give you the most flexibility with your post processing.
- Image stabilization – If your lens has this feature, turn it off once focus has been achieved.
We want to keep the camera as absolutely still as possible. Turn on mirror lockup if your camera allows, to reduce shake in your camera (only applicable to DSLR’s). Remove the camera strap, as wind can move it and create camera shake, resulting in a blurry photo. Turn on the self-timer (typically 2 or 10 seconds) – this ensures that you will not shake the camera by pressing the shutter button. You can also use a cable release or remote trigger. While your camera is taking the picture, don’t touch it! If you’re on a deck, dock, or anything else other than solid ground, be careful not to walk around, as your steps could cause camera shake as well.
Turn off noise reduction (if your camera has this feature) – this will only make the entire process of taking the photo longer as your camera will try and render noise out of the image as you’re in the field, and if it is chilly outside, this is bad!!!
A tripod is also very helpful, but not 100% necessary. You could also use a bunched up shirt or something similar.
WARNING - PHYSICS LESSON!
To get the sharpest night sky photos possible, we have to take into account the earth’s rotation (which causes the stars to appear to move throughout the night). For night sky photography, we handle this with the 500 rule.
500 Rule – Divide 500 by your lens’ focal length. In the case of our 14mm lens, we would divide 500 / 14 = 35.71 seconds, this means that we could take a photo for 35 seconds and the stars would not start to “trail” meaning they would still show up as a sharp, bright points in our photograph and not a streak in the sky. Most cameras only go up to 30 second shutter speeds, so 30 seconds would be our choice here. But wait, if you are not using a Full Frame Camera, you will have to do a little more math…. A smaller sensor size, like the widely popular APS-C sensors, are more “zoomed in” meaning you get a smaller picture size with the same focal length. If you have an APS-C camera, simply multiply your lens focal length (say 14mm) by 1.5. For example, if my camera has an APS-C sensor, 14mm x 1.5 = 21mm, 500 / 21 = 23.81 seconds. I could only expose for 23 seconds before the stars started to “trail”, we would do a 20 second exposure to be on the safe side.
Now get out there and start trying some of the things you've learned here, and be sure to look for the 2nd night sky blog post early next month! Feel free to message use with any questions, and check out the Deep Roots Facebook and Instagram pages for the latest night sky shots that we've taken! Thanks for reading!
P.S. - Some amazing night sky photographers that everyone should check out and inspire a lot of our work are below. Enjoy!