How To Take Photos at Night

Milky Way Rises Over The Trona Pinnacles

Milky Way Rises Over The Trona Pinnacles

There are many sites on the Internet with tips and suggestions about taking photographs at night but most of them are targeted for city lights and not star light. There is a big difference. That difference of course is the amount of light being picked up by the camera and the size of the object emitting that light.

So here are my tips and suggestions to successful night photography especially when you are standing in the dark!

Tip #1. Shoot RAW. You will need to get as much information as you can from your image to develop it when shooting at night. If you have the bad habit of shooting RAW and JPG it’s time to break it now. RAW will deliver far more flexibility in your photography. When shooting at night there is a more to contend with than shooting in the daytime. 
Tip #2. Use Manual Settings. Dial that knob on the top of your camera to “M” or “B.” Since there very little light coming into the camera using anything other than Manual or Bulb will not work. We need to plan ahead of time how everything will be set up so we are not fumbling around in the dark. On most cameras you can program the shutter to open up to 30 seconds. In most cases that is enough.

Tip #3. Turn off Automatic White Balance. Your shot will be affected by the amount of manmade lighting. The Automatic WB setting on your camera likely won’t know what to set up and the photos will come out looking either ultra-blue or yellow. 

I set my WB to 4100K. A lot of manmade lighting tends to be a very hash yellow made by High Pressure Sodium Vapor (HPS) lamps. That light scatters into the sky at night and it is amazing how far it really scatters even when you are 200 miles away from the nearest large city. Industrial plants, farms, and factories use this lighting too. There is a push underway to do away with this lighting and go to LED. Now LED lighting has its own foibles by turning the sky blue in a lot of cases but at this point I haven’t seen too many problems yet unless I am very close it or someone is using a cheap LED flashlight. Regardless of what the lighting is in the area you can fix it in post processing by changing the temperature settings till you find something more pleasing to the eye. 

Tip #4. Use a Tripod. You would think this is a no-brainer but I carry a spare tripod in my car just in case. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen people forget their tripods for a night shoot. It happens. Remember you are exposing for several seconds to minutes! 
When you use a tripod push it down on the ground firmly. If your legs give way they may not be locked down enough or you are a soft patch of ground. Since I shoot in very sandy locations I need to anchor the tripod down firmly so it is not going to move because it is sinking in sand.

Tip #5. Pick your destination well ahead of time. I live the Las Vegas area and head out to the desert to do much of my night time photos. I try to get to the location before it is completely dark. To get away from the bright lights of Las Vegas I need to go at least 70 miles away to get out from the glare of the city and depending on what is up in the sky make sure it does not align with Las Vegas because the light dome will likely obscure it if I am not far enough way. You can see the glow from Las Vegas as far away as Death Valley with your eyes. The Camera sees that glow even better – a lot better. 
Since I am driving off road to get to my spot I need to get there and settle in for the evening before it gets too dark. Driving on a dark desert dirt road at night is not very smart. You may not live in a desert but setting up while there is daylight is a whole lot easier than fumbling around with expensive toys at night and dropping things. 

Tip #6. Composition. Unless you plan to shoot straight up in the sky you likely want to get everything set so that you can get your shot. It’s a lot easier to see your landscape in the day time than at night. If got there late you can do some test shots at ultra-high ISO so you can make out the features of the landscape and expose them for a long time till you get it right. There are times I use ISO 12800 and even 25000 just so I get an idea what something looks like illuminated by pure starlight. Of course the shot will also be noisy but those shots will almost never be used in post processing. BTW – I have used shots in those ISO ranges if it is cold enough outside to keep the noise under control. 

Tip #7. Dress for Success. Even in the Mojave Desert night time temperatures can fall dramatically. It can be in the upper 90’s in the day but fall into the 30’s by night. Always have a jacket, hat or hood, gloves, and boots. I also have a high tech sleeping bag designed to be ultra-compact and rated for 0 degrees Fahrenheit. While you are at it you might as well carry at least a case of water and some munchies. 

 Tip #8. Don’t Touch Your Camera! You’ve driven 100 miles or more to get out to your sweeping landscape and use the shutter button to create that special shot? Really? Have your camera remote with you and use that to trigger your shutter. In night photography having any type of vibration is bad. The slightest vibration will ruin your shot however slight. There are a few things to think about before you press the button on your remote you can do to maximize your success.

Use Live View while shooting. While you may not see anything on the screen Live View will open the open the mirror lock up before you shoot. If you are concerned about the battery life of your camera you can always program the mirror lock up to open then shoot. Some people however forget that the click they just heard was the mirror lock up and the not the shutter and find out after they click the shutter again and possibly miss something. 

The next thing I do is set a two second delay in the shutter opening with the mirror lock up. This way the vibration of the just the mirror lock going up doesn’t get into the shot. 
Be aware of the wind. At night as the desert cools off the wind picks up so you want to be sure a gust of wind does not introduce vibration in your shot. Stand in front of your tripod and use your body as a wind block as much as you can. If it is really windy I lower my tripod so that legs are shorter so that the tripod does not twist and even use my vehicle as a wind block. The drawback of course is that dust and sand can kick up and get on the lens. 

Tip #9. Focus! Everything you will be doing in night photography is manual and that includes your focus. Now it is dark relatively speaking. Stars are very unforgiving when it comes to focus. Even slightly out of focus will affect your overall composition.

How do you focus? Since I am shooting landscapes with stars in them there are several things I have to do to get the focus right. 

Open the aperture nearly all the way. Depending on the lens you are using most are not really sharp all of the way open.  We have to back them off just a little. But since we are trying to gather as much light as we can from the stars this can present a challenge. 

My “Goto” lens for night photography is a 24mm f/2.8 lens. I am so familiar with it that I know where focus is even in the dark. That doesn’t mean it stays focus through the whole evening. As the air cool off in the evening hours so does the lens and camera. As the lens cools the focus point slightly changes. That means you have to focus again and again throughout the evening. It may not be enough of a change in daytime photos, but star light is the most unforgiving object in your photos. The slightest out of focus condition you have and your star field is more like blobs, or worse snow cones!

I use Live View and set it for 10x and find bright stars. I try to get them down to as small as possible. It is interesting that as you come into focus smaller and fainter stars also come into focus. I try to find that point where those faint stars appear. At that point I use a small piece of gaffers tape and tape down the focus ring on the lens. I can remove and reapply the gaffers tape over and over again and it won’t leave a residue to sticky gum behind. 

Avoid really bright stars as they can be deceiving at the focus point and you will be just out of focus when you shoot everything else. Don’t focus on red navigation lights on towers. Red light comes into focus at a different point than white light. So using those cell towers in the distance will not really help you. City lights in the distance are also bad as they are actually larger than stars. You’ll end out just out of focus on stars if you focus on some distant street light too. If you goal is to shoot stars in your background then focus on them. 

Since our lens is a wide angle and shooting at nearly the widest opening possible our hyper focal distance is also several hundred feet ahead of us in the field of view. If we have object much closer to us they will be out of focus even if the stars are in focus. 

So in my case a 24mm lens at f/2.8 will give me a Depth of Field (DOF) of 9.2 meters or around 30 feet. Sometimes I want to get an object very close by in the field yet retain the stars. 

Luckily there are a lot of apps out there for your smart phone that will tell you what the DOF is with any given lens and f/stop. Use your DOF app to get an idea what your DOF is when you set up your composition. 

The technique I use is focus stacking. If you have objects that are close to you and under the DOF The way to do that is take several shots without moving the camera and focus for the close object then somewhere in between that object and the stars. So if the object is a an old tree root and it is 3 feet away I need to focus on that object and shoot, then focus on another object further way say 10 feet, then another object 20 feet away till finally I am at my hyper focal distance of 30 feet way. Take all of those photos and focus stack them all together. Now that is a discussion for another time but a skill you need to develop. 

Another way I get to focus in the dark is to use a green laser pen. I will shoot a green dot on a distant object and focus on it. That works very well when it is really dark. Now whatever you do don’t point laser pen at people or at high flying aircraft. A green laser light will travel for miles in the air. If you strike an aircraft with it you are inviting the Feds to visit you and charge you with a felony. 

Tip #10. ISO and Exposure Settings. If you have owned your camera for a while you should be familiar with how high you can go on your ISO setting before the picture turns into a muddled mess of pixels. 

Exposure is also important because the Earth is in motion and the stars appear to move in the sky through the night. Using your ISO setting and knowing the right exposure time together is key to exposing the sky correctly for maximum brightness. I can’t tell you how many photos I see of the core of the Milky Way and it is faint compared to the landscape. If anything it should be balanced with the landscape if not a little brighter than the surrounding landscape as it is you implied light source if there is no moonlight available.

I'll talk more about that in my next blog on How to Make Star Trails. Come back soon!