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Shooting The Night Sky In Long Exposure

Shooting The Night Sky In Long Exposure

Shooting at night comes with its set of challenges as against photographing during the day. Availability or rather lack of availability of light at night poses the biggest challenge. Mastering night photography would mean having a good understanding of your camera and how to manipulate its various settings. Night photography therefore pushes us out of our comfort zones. However, once mastered shooting at night can get your creative juices flowing.

Night photography would typically mean longer exposures, which adds a completely different dimension to the photographs. You will be amazed to see that a boring landscape scene during day can be immediately turn out be and eye popping one at night.

The basic gears that you would need for night photography are the following,

  • A camera capable of shooting in “Manual” / “Bulb” mode
  • A sturdy tripod – the scenes at night would need use of shutter speeds that can introduce camera shake to your images. Tripod is therefore a key element of night photography.
  • Remote shutter release – to trigger the camera without touching the shutter button. You could also use the timer button in your camera if you do not have a remote release
  • Wide angle fast lens is good to have but not a necessity. Lens hood is also a good accessory to have, again not a necessity
  • Fully charged battery. A fully charged second battery as spare is recommended

Preparation: There is not much preparation needed other than a good location to shoot your night pictures. However, it would be good to identify your location and have clear idea about the angles that you would like to capture. This would help to reduce the set-up time at the time of shoot and miss out chances.

Shooting: Mount the camera on the tripod. Focus your camera depending on your intended result. If your aim is to keep the whole image sharp, focusing at infinity or at a farthest point may be ideal. Otherwise, try to focus on a bright object at roughly the same distance as your subject is going to be. Once focus is achieved, turn the autofocus switch to manual focus. This prevents cameras from hunting for focus between your shots. You can also use the live view on your camera to focus precisely at night.

Camera Settings: A good grip of the camera controls as well as exposure triangle is key for night photography. Using a smaller aperture (higher f value) gives you longer depth of field and using a bigger aperture gives you shallow depth of field. However, smaller aperture means that you would need to use very long shutter speeds. In bulb mode, you can use shutter speeds as long as you want. At night you may have darker backgrounds, hence it would be possible to choose aperture between f/4 to f/11 without worrying too much about depth of field. This gives you added flexibility to the shutter speeds that can be used. It would be ideal to set the ISO to 100. Using higher ISO would help to dial in shorter shutter speeds and smaller apertures. However, this would also mean more noise in your image and this could be more prominent in night photorgaphs. Hence it is ideal to stay low on ISO as much as possible.

To start with, dial in f/8 and ISO 100 to see what shutter speeds would be needed to achieve the exposure you are looking for. Adjust the settings accordingly. Buildings/architecture, bridges, and other such structures of the city that you live in are good choices to start with. Getting to a vantage point like a rooftop, hilltop etc will add to the composition. Adding reflections and moving elements like city traffic, fountains etc will add another dimension to your night captures.

Once you have had a good grip at capturing night shots, you could move to other challenging areas of night photography. Shooting the night sky is one such genre and shall cover a bit more on shooting the night sky in this article.

The basics for shooting the night sky is same as night photography tips mentioned above. However, additional techniques would be needed to capture the night sky.

The basic gears remain the same as explained above, however the following would be essential in addition,

  • Wide angle fast lens – f/2.8 or faster. Wide angle kit lens may be used as well
  • Remote trigger with Intervalometer like Miops Smart+
  • Fully charged battery. A fully charged second battery as spare is recommended

Though not essential, it would be good to consider the following as well when planning shooting the night sky.

  • Head lamp or torch light
  • Comfortable clothing suitable to the weather conditions
  • Camping chair

Preparation: Scout for an ideal location in advance. A dark location away from city lights and light pollution is needed for capturing the night sky. The moon phase is an important factor to consider as well when planning night sky photography.

Shooting:  Once you are at the location, mount your camera on the tripod. Focusing the camera would be your biggest challenge here. If you are using a zoom lens, decide on the focal length and position your lens accordingly. You may typically use the widest possible position that your lens allows. The next step is to focus your camera to infinity so that you can achieve a good depth of field. Manual lenses and some prime lenses may have a focus ring which indicates infinity. If your lens has such a marking, move the focus to that position and would have focus at infinity. If your lens does not have an infinity marking, other ways to focus is to be employed. If there is moon, you could focus by pointing the camera at the moon. This may not be an option if you are shooting on a moonless night. In this case, you could focus using the camera’s auto focus system by pointing to a distant bright star.  If the camera is not locking focus using autofocus, switch to live view mode and manual focus. Point the camera to the brightest star and adjust the focus manually until the star can be seen as a bright spot on your screen. Another option is to focus your camera during the daytime. Focus the camera to the farthest point on the horizon at the widest position of your lens. Mark the positions on both the lens and camera. Change to manual focus and ensure that the position of the lens remains in the same position. Once you arrive at the location, check if the position is the same as that you have marked.

Once focus is achieved by any of the above methods, move the auto focus switch to manual position, if you are already not in manual mode. Compose and frame your shot.

Camera Settings:  The settings to use is very important when it comes to shooting night sky. Shift the camera to “Manual” mode. Open the aperture to 2.8 or faster if your lens allows. If you are using a kit lens like me, take it to the widest angle it goes to. This will also give you the maximum possible aperture which is f/ 3.5 on my 18-55 kit lens.

Next step is to decide upon the shutter speed. Though stars appear to be constant in the night sky, they move according to the earth’s rotation. Hence it is important to choose setting especially shutter speeds that do not introduce trails of the star’s movement in the sky.

One of the techniques that can be used to get pinpoint stars is the “Rule of 500”. This rule helps you to find an appropriate shutter speed before the stars start to introduce a trail. Divide 500 by the focal length that you will use. If you use a 12mm lens, then 500/12 gives you about 42. So the stars will start to trail after about 42 seconds of exposure. If you use a 24mm lens, this gives you about 20 seconds. This calculation is assuming that you are using a full frame camera. For crop sensor cameras you would need to multiply the focal length with the magnification factor. So if you use a crop sensor camera with a magnification factor of 1.6, the calculation becomes 500/(12*1.6) which is about 25 seconds. There are other rules like Rule of 600 or other complex rules like NPF which help to decide on the maximum shutter speed you much employ.

Now that the aperture and shutter speed is decided upon, ISO can be set. Choosing ISO for night sky photography is different from night photography. ISO should be chosen considering the fact that higher ISOs bring in digital noise. Depending on the sensitivity of your camera you would need to choose the ideal ISO setting. For entry level crop sensor cameras, it would be ideal to stay at ISO 1600 or below and never above 3200. For full frame cameras, ISO 3200 or 6400 may be used. These settings are by no means cast in stone. Take test shots and depending on the environment conditions. Zoom on to the test shots to check for any trails on the stars. Freeze the settings once you are happy with the level of sharpness.

Now that the settings are done, you can start to click pictures of the night sky.

Add on Tips: 

  • Select a location with an interesting foreground. You could choose a lonely tree, an old building, a parked vehicle or anything that would strengthen your composition. This would give another dimension to your night sky images.
  • Use of light painting adds to the composition. Light painting can be used to illuminate the foreground as well.
  • If the night is well lit with moon, the moonlight can help to illuminate the foreground.
  • Stack together multiple images to reduce noise and improve sharpness.
  • Take series of images to compile a time lapse of the night sky. This is a great way to see the movement of the celestial objects in the night sky.
  • For time lapse photography, use interval times of 20 to 30 seconds between the frames
  • Identify and photograph constellations.
  • Use apps for checking light pollution, moon phase, identifying star constellations etc. this goes a long way in improving your night sky photography.

Photographing the Milky way is also a part of night sky photography. The techniques remain more or less the same as explained above. However, a dark location with no moonlight is key for photographing milky way. The milky way is not visible all year around as well. You could use the apps to find information regarding the visibility of milky way in your location. It is very important to use the widest possible aperture and higher ISOs within your camera limits as explained above. Once these two parameters are set, the shutter speed can be calculated by employing rules mentioned above.

Photographing the moon: Capturing stunning images of the moon is also part of night sky photography. The techniques employed will be slightly different while photographing the moon. Zoom lenses can be used to shoot closeup images of the moon. Lenses that are 200mm or more are needed in this case. Wider or smaller lenses can be used to include the foreground elements.

The moon is a very bright object; hence ISO should be set to lowest possible value. Ideally 100 or 200. Choose the sweet spot of your lens for sharp images. Usually f/8 to f/11. Check your lens details to find the sweet spot for your lens. Shutter speed could be 1/80th – 1/125th of a second. These settings can be used as a start point while capturing the moon.

If foreground elements are to be included, you may have to adjust the settings to expose for the foreground as well. Wider apertures like f/5.6 and higher ISOs may be needed. Exposing the moon and foreground separately and combining the images in post processing can also be considered.

Tips for using Miops Smart+ trigger:

The Miops smart trigger can be used in different modes for the night sky photography. The in-camera settings can be use and Miops can be used just as a remote to trigger your camera. You can use the Miops as an intervalometer as well if you need to take more pictures. Options like normal time lapse, long exposure time lapse could be also used for night sky photography. Remember to use “BULB MODE” in your camera while using the time lapse modes. The shutter speed, interval and number of shots can be set on the Miops Smart+. You would need to set only the aperture and ISO on the camera. Miops Smart+ is therefore a versatile tool aiding your night photography. When using the Smart+ trigger, you can also use the Miops app on your smart phone to input your settings. You can see the information regarding numbers of images captured, elapsed time, remaining time etc on the app.

Conclusion: Mastering night photography and graduating to night sky photography does not need complex or expensive gears. You can master them by using basic equipment. However good knowledge of your camera and basic rules of photography is very important. As with any kind of photography, practice and patience would help you to capture stunning images of the night sky. 

Author Bio

Ansari M. Joshi has developed his skills by self learning and following the works of other photographers and pursues photography as a hobby. He has a keen interest in landscape and long exposure photography. His ambition is to capture the beauty of this genre of photography and tell a story of his own to the viewers. Ansari is from India and currently living in UAE.

Instagram: @mysonans