As someone who grew up working in a photo lab developing other people’s pictures, I quickly learned what I liked and what I didn’t when it came to the outcome of images. I knew right away when a particular customer walked in to drop off his or her film what their images would look like. I feel it’s kinda the same way now that we are all connected through social media and the internet. Over the last 8 years I have helped teach 100’s of students during our Night Photography Workshops that we hold in the summers, except this summer due to the pandemic. In our workshops the info is pretty deep and I could probably write an entire encyclopedia set just on Night Photography.
Most of my friends who I shoot with know that I refer to myself as the lazy photographer. Not because I am lazy physically, but because I will find the easiest way to do something in the least amount of time with the best results. In this blog I will give you, my opinion only, what I feel are the 10 best tips to improve your night photography.
1.Fill the Frame – all of our cameras have lots of megapixels now. This is no reason to have a crappy composition and tell yourself you will just crop and recompose in post. Composing in the dark can be hard… If you don’t have a light that will shine on the entire scene you’re shooting then just point your camera in the general direction and shoot a 20 second shot at a very high (12800-25600) ISO. The image quality will suck but you will then be able to see what your composition is like. Adjust your comp until you get it just right and then tone down your exposure to something like 6400 or 8000 and do your shooting.
2.Sturdy Tripod – This is a MUST. At night when we are doing long exposures (20 seconds to an hour or more) any amount of movement can ruin a shot or a set of shots. I personally use Robus Tripods for my work and have been using them for the last year. I recommend whatever tripod you purchase that it not have a center column or it has the short center column. I love my tripod because it does not have a center column and I can get super low to the ground. It also has a hook that hangs down from the tripod platform that I can hang my bag on in windy conditions to help stabilize and eliminate movement.
3.Scout and Plan – It’s important to know what will be in the night sky on any particular evening you’re planning on going out shooting. If you want your images to look like daytime with only a few visible stars then shoot on a near or full moon. If you want lots of stars in your image then shoot closer to a new moon. There are many apps that will help you figure all this out. I use 2 different apps to do my planning because they each serve a unique purpose. Moon Phase is an app that tells you the phases of the Moon, when it will rise and when it will set. It also tells me when golden hour and blue hour are. Photopills is an app I use for my planning. Once I know the phase of the moon, then I can plan where I am going to go based on where the Milky Way or other celestial object will be in the sky.
4.Proper Exposure This is one of the most important components to getting good night images. As our eyes adjust in the dark the back of LCD seems to become extremely bright. This will fool you into thinking your images are bright and properly or over exposed when in reality they are probably underexposed. ALWAYS use your histogram to make sure you are not pushed up against either side. With cameras today you should not have any pure blacks in your raw images unless you want it there. Having a good histogram means that the info should be off the left side a little (blacks) and not pushed up against the right side (whites) Having a proper exposure to work with will give you a huge advantage when it comes to post processing.
5.Use different ISO’s – If you are new to night photography and possibly afraid of the high ISO’s don’t be. You’re not wasting film by taking test shots. You have nothing to lose. I suggest you take one night to learn before going to a specific location to shoot. In theory ISO 6400 should have more noise than 1600 ISO right? Well, yes and no. A well exposed 6400 image may actually have less visible noise than an underexposed 1600 ISO image that you have to bring way up in post processing. 6400 is also 2 full stops brighter than 1600 so you can use shorter shutter speeds to help keep the stars from trailing during your exposure. So if you are shooting 30 second exposures at 2.8 at 1600 ISO with a 24mm lens and you are seeing the stars trail in your images then you can bump your ISO up to 6400 and shoot 8 seconds and you wont have the trailing stars anymore.
6. Lens selection – I have a bad habit of carrying all my lenses (8 of them) with me each time I go shoot. It never fails that when ever I leave a lens at home, it’s the lens I need. I don’t suggest you do this when going out at night… In all honesty if you have 3 lenses that cover 14mm up to 50mm you will be fine. You don’t need anymore. Knowing the difference between what a 14mm scene looks like vs what a 50mm scene looks like is very important. If you were too close you may cut off part of the image you wanted. With a 14mm you may end up with a lot of empty space and end up cropping later (see tip #1) Generally I shoot with 14mm, 24mm and 50mm. I recently sold my 20mm after extensive testing with the Sigma 14-24 2.8 art lens. With my style of shooting I did not need the F/1.4 that the 20mm offered. I can shoot at 2.8 and be totally fine. More on this a little later. Keep your gear light and simply bring what you need. Quality of lenses actually make a difference too. The sharper your lens and the ability to focus with give your image less visible noise on a properly exposed image. Also the sharper the image the more you can enlarge without increasing the noise.
7. Shooting Technique – Stacking or single shots? This is where people seem to separate in their styles. Do you shoot single images or do you shoot a set of images to stack later. I can honestly tell you that if you are not using one of the stacking programs available today (Sequator for Windows, Starry Landscape Stacker for Mac OS) your image quality will never be as good as those who do. This really all boils down to, “What am I going to do with the image?” If you are just out for fun and want to share online with friends and family then you probably don’t need to use one of the programs. If you are out shooting for images to print and or hang in homes or offices, then using one of the stacking programs will help advance your overall image quality. Personally, I stack all of my night images using Starry Landscape stacker the reason I use the stacking program vs noise reduction in PS or other programs is because it works the best to keep the details in the image while removing the noise. ALL the other programs remove more detail when any noise reduction is applied. I like details in my images. I don’t want my images to look like what some have called “oil paintings”. If you use too much noise reduction it can create a painterly feel by smoothing the entire scene and removing lots of detail. Can you get a good image without stacking? Sure, and if you never compare it to a stacked image chances are you wont even know the difference. As you can see in the image below there is much less noise in the stacked image. No editing has been done to these images other than stacking. This is a 100% crop from the image below it after it’s been edited and sized for web presentation. By stacking you not only give yourself a much better starting point but your beginning image has more data (colors) to work with when you process it. By stacking images in your shooting technique, you no longer need to worry about the noise in each of the raw frames… I typically shoot my stacked sequences at 6400-12800 ISO because I know the stacking will remove the noise.. This allows me to use shorter exposure times and get sharper, more pinpoint stars. As a general rule of thumb, Stacking images to reduce noise reduction works like this, if you stack 16 images you will get a 4x noise reduction factor, If you stack 36 you will get a 6x noise reduction factor so that means that your 6400 ISO stack of 36 images will have an end result that has the noise of ISO 100. This works up until you get to 36 images, after that you need to double the images to get any more visible reduction…so 49 wouldn’t be any better than 36 but 72 images would.
8. Calculating super long exposures – This is so easy. Let’s say you want to do an hour long exposure. You can’t just point your camera and set your timer for an hour… Well, you can but chances are you wont get the desired results. First you need a good test shot at a super High ISO. Your test shot can be 30 seconds because we don’t care if the stars are trailing a little or not…Once you get a good, properly exposed test shot at, for example let’s say 10,000 ISO, F/2.8, 30 seconds. then we know our final long exposure will be 80 ISO for 64 minutes and the image should look exactly as bright as the test shot at the high ISO. No matter what your starting ISO is, just cut it in half and double the exposure time until you get down to your desired length. Most cameras now go below 100 ISO into what is known as expansion ISO’s. My D850 goes down to ISO 31 so for the above example, if your camera doesn’t go below 100, then just set it at 100. It’ll be slightly brighter but not by much. Most all the times in our workshops we start with test shots of 6400 ISO 2.8 and 30 seconds so then the final long exposure will be 100 ISO for 32 minutes. The long exposure is very useful for 2 reasons… 1. It will create beautiful star trails. 2. the low ISO foreground can be used to blend with a stacked sky for optimum results. In the below image you can see the single high ISO image on the left and the long exposure at a low ISO on the right. The image quality of the low ISO image is 100x better in my opinion… Try this for yourself and see.
9. Post Processing – I think it’s safe to say that most of us are like kids in a candy store when it comes time to start processing our images… We get home, get the images stacked and then bring them into Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw and start moving the sliders..We make the images bright and colorful, boost up the saturation and vibrance add some contrast and WOW…this looks awesome… Now go take a break for 15 minutes, give yourself a chance to be away from the computer…then come back and open your raw file on top of your processed file in photoshop, toggle back and forth and see if maybe you went too far too fast.. Maybe, just maybe, it needs to be toned down a bit. Other things to look for are processing artifacts caused by over processing your image. Banding between color gradients, Halos around rocks or buildings because you have too much contrast or sharpening, Level your image… If this was not done when you shot it, do it now. Check for dust bunnies. Don’t be afraid to work on your image at 200-500% to make sure you get everything. Dust bunnies generally don’t show up in night images because we tend to shoot at wider f stops…but it’s always good to check for them. Remove Chromatic aberrations, these are the bright yellows, greens, reds, purples and blues around rocks and buildings or other areas where there is a lot of contrast… Each lens will produce a different amount and it’s fixable with one click in LR or ACR. I recommend you do this as a first step before doing all your other processing. When processing your images ask yourself, does this look right? Get another persons opinion before posting it. Is it too crunchy looking. In my opinion I feel that images that are over processed have a very harsh/crunchy feel to them and it’s just not my preference. Remember, less is more and the cleaner you can get your image the better it will represent you as a photographer.
10. Use a star tracker or not? – This is a topic I feel pretty strong about on a personally level. I’ve already spent money on camera, lenses, extra batteries, remote cord, memory cards, lights, light stands, do I really want to spend more money on another piece of gear to carry with me in the field… Not really, am I willing to try it? Sure… I even went so far as to borrow a friends tracker….guess where it is… sitting in my closet in a storage bin with other photographic accessories. Why? Because honestly I don’t feel the need to bring it with me and try to polar align it (you can only properly align it if you have clear visibility on the north star). For me personally, it’s just not something I want to deal with. I will say that when trackers get better and can track for a longer period of time I may reconsider this as an option.. For now, I am totally fine stacking images with amazing results.. I do suggest if you want to get into high quality night photography then check out a tracker and see if it may be an option for you. After all we all do things a little differently with different styles.
As always, Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. I appreciate each one of you. If you have any questions at all please feel free to fill out the contact form and I’ll answer as soon as possible.
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Interested in taking a Night Photography Workshop? We are already planning for 2021 at Night Photography Workshop in places like Moab, Utah; Yellowstone National Park as well as Colorado. I offer Zoom Learning through private 1:1 Zoom sessions to help take your processing to the next level. Private Small Group workshops available here in Colorado as well. Contact me directly to learn more about these. They are great for people who live in and around or travel to the Denver area. I have specific locations picked out based on the time of the year and what is up in the sky.