What is Night Photography? Taking your camera out at night after the sun goes down. Sounds easy enough, right? I mean you already know how to take pictures in the day time so why would night be any different? Lots of reasons. I have been co teaching night photography workshops for 3 years now and I have seen a lot of various skill levels come through our classes. Some of our students by brand new gear just before the workshop and find out what they like or don’t like and then send the rest back. We recommend renting gear you may need from Lens Rentals. I have used them for several years and they have been great to work with.
Night Photography is actually quite a bit more than just taking your camera out at night and taking images… There are a lot of questions you need to ask yourself if this is new to you. Let’s say there is a meteor shower coming up and you are very interested in capturing some meteors but you have never shot at night before…
- How do you focus in the dark?
- Will you be shooting with a manual focus lens or autofocus
- What should my exposure be?
- Do I need a tripod?
- Do I need a cable release?
- Do I have enough memory?
- Do I have enough batteries?
These are a list of questions you need to ask yourself before heading out for a night shoot. Not knowing the answer or not having one of these pieces of gear could ruin your whole night. You arrive at your vantage point, set your camera up and you see these meteors shooting across the sky. You shoot and 1 of 2 things happens ( I can say all of this because it has happened to me) Your image is very dark or it’s very blurry. Opps, you forgot to change the settings on your camera from the last time you shot… You set your autofocus lens to infinity. These meteors are shooting across the sky and you are frustrated because you can’t get a good picture and you don’t know what’s wrong. You continue to fumble around and still nothing good is coming out of the images you are taking… after about 30 min you pack it up, go home and rack your brain as to why things didn’t work out..
Here is what happened. Chances are you were trying to use your camera on one of the program settings.. P is not for Professional, A is not for Awesome. M,is for magic, the manual setting is where it all happens.. You take that camera and you personally make the settings you want the camera to do.. To make the magic happen you need to do a few things.
Focus – Using your camera in manual focus mode with Live View on you can then zoom in all the way and focus on the brightest star in the sky. This will allow you to precisely focus for the best image quality.
Exposure – Trust your histogram – It’s dark out so your eyes will be easily fooled by looking at the LCD. Let’s say you take an image at 1600 ISO for 30 seconds and it pops up on the LCD and you think, “Wow”, this is awesome…and you do this all night. The next morning you get home and start to look at them on the screen and see they are really way too dark. So you make some adjustments to your shadows and exposure in Photoshop only to find some horrible purple noise show up. Not good. While it may be hard to do on a moonless night, “Exposing to the Right” will always yield the best results. Trust your histogram, learn what it is telling you. Don’t be afraid to push your cameras ISO unless you are using a very old camera. If you are using an older camera we have some tips for you on how to take great night images without getting a lot of noise – Stacking for Noise Reduction
Night Photography is huge. There is quite a lot that goes into getting a great night image. From set up to post production. If you can focus in the dark and understand how to get a good exposure this is a huge step in creating great night images.
Planning your shot is crucial. Knowing if the moon will be rising or setting or if there even is a moon on the night you want to go out. If you have never been to a location before but are planning a trip and want to see if your shot is possible, I recommend Planit! For Photographers $5.99. During our workshops Mike Berenson dives into using this to plan a shot. What is cool about this app is that it takes into account elevation. You don’t want to get to a spot in the mountains only to find that the mountain you want to shoot the Milky Way over is blocked by another mountain/hill. It also has a Milky Way seeker so you can pinpoint the best days to get out and shoot if you want to shoot the Milky Way Bubble. Another app I use a lot is Stellarium it’s free and very easy to use. It’s easy for me to know when and where the Milky Way will rise as well as see what else is in the sky.
This next image shows you something I had never seen before. This is a 100% partial view of an image I captured while doing a panorama sequence. I have known what Andromeda looks like in the night sky but I had never seen the other galaxy. Would you believe this was shot with a 20mm lens. It’s simply incredible and what the camera sensors can pick up.
The Milky Way is hard to see in the above image of Longs Peak over Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park due to the 3/4 Moon that was up in the sky. Still some of the other features of the night stood out pretty well. I was able to identify each of these by using the Stellarium App on my iPhone. Knowing what it is you are looking at will make stargazing and photographing the night sky so much more enjoyable for you.
Let’s take a look at some images that feature the Milky Way. Below is an image taken from Independence Pass in Colorado. This is an image which shows the brilliance of the night sky when there is no light pollution or moonlight to dim the view. The second image below was taken on a moonless night as well. This is Landscape Arch in Arches National Park, Moab, Utah.
The Milky Way bubble as seen from String Lake in Grand Teton National Park. Being near the small town of Jackson, Wyoming provides a small amount of light pollution as well as great visibility. As you can see here the Milky Way really stands out and the color adds a bit to the overall scene.
These next 3 images show a little more light pollution and how artificial light can add to a scene. The top image was taken on a very very clear night along the Oregon coast. The seastacks were light by the house lights up on the hill to my left. I had my camera on auto white balance and it created a gorgeous contrast between the blue sky and the warm golden tones of the rocks. The 2nd image was taken up in Rocky Mountain National Park with the lights of Denver below. Delicate Arch in Arches National Park faces the town of Moab, Utah. the lights from Moab can add quite a bit of light or drama if there are clouds in the sky. You can see the glow from the lower left corner of the arch.
Giving the viewer a sense of place in your images. For places that people have never been, sometimes it can be hard for them to understand how big or small a place is. We like to add some key elements into our images to help the viewer. As with the above image we added a tent. No we did not camp here. Capturing images with people by taking a few steps back away from the scene and including more can have quite an impact on the viewer. Below you will see some of our students taking advantage of the great skies behind Delicate Arch on the last night of our workshop.
What are some other types of night photography you can think of? It doesn’t always have to be the Milky Way or static stars… I like to get out to the city once in a while at night and roam around to see what I can find. Each of the below images are 30 second exposures to allow the cars to create trails of light.
Moon photography proves to be the hardest for me. It takes a great lens, very sturdy tripod and no wind to get a really good image of the Moon. The Moon is most easily photographed when it’s either rising or setting just before or after sunrise or sunset. A full moon high in the sky at night is by far the most challenging.
We use LED Lights to help illuminate some of the scenes we shoot. Light painting is an art form in and of itself. Over the years we have found some more simply ways to light dark scenes for great effects…
First image used 3 LED panels to properly light both North Window and Turret Arch. The second image shows Mesa arch being lit by 2 LED panels strategically placed to create the light you see here. In the 3rd image I lined up the Milky Way with the arch in the rock and placed my LED panel on the backside of the Arch. The 4th images was created with 1 LED light but just before my exposure stopped, Mike’s camera finished his exposure and that is what is creating the blue light from his camera. The last image is using only 2 small candle lights.
Super long single exposures allow you to create clean images with nice star trails. Often times I will use the foreground from a super long exposure (30 or more minutes) and put it with the static stars from a shorter exposure for best printing quality. Each of the images below are single images leaving the shutter open about an hour. Depending on which way your camera is facing the star trails will have a different line of travel.
And last but not least, stepping out of the box once again and creating vertical panoramas of the night sky and our foreground subjects. Each of the images below is at least 180 Degree full overhead panorama of the Milky Way in the Night Sky. This is much easier to do in the Summer months when the Milky Way is overhead right after sunset.
I hope this blog has inspired you to get out and try your hand at night photography. If you want to read more about our articles and tutorials <–click here.
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I thank you for your time and please feel free to leave me a comment or question.