5 Tips to Help You Do Better Nighttime Photography

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Nighttime photography offers the opportunity to observe and photograph some great astronomical subjects including the moon (as a whole or during different phases), stars, the Milky Way and even celestial events such as the Northern Lights. If you are new to night photography or want to improve your shots, here are 5 tips to help you on your way:

1. Decide on a subject

Nighttime photography 01 - northern lights over mountains and a lake

Capturing beautiful images at night is not as easy as you might think and camera techniques and settings differ greatly to photographing during the day. Turning up to a location in darkness and hoping to shoot as you would in the daytime can lead to disappointment. You won’t be able to see much by nightfall and finding a scene to shoot will be extremely challenging.

Whether your dream night shoot is to photograph the stars, the moon, meteors or the Milky Way, for example, decide on a subject first and then where you would like to shoot it.

It may seem obvious, but if you want to photograph the moon, there are different phases of the moon to consider.

Nighttime photography 02 - full moon landscape at night

You also need to be aware of the changes in light that can occur with a full moon or a new moon. Photographing under a full moon will make the sky and landscapes brighter. This means that you won’t be able to photograph as many stars as you would with a new moon but you will see a beautifully lit landscape with fewer dark shadows.

Neither of the phases is more photogenic than the other, they simply offer different opportunities and variations in lighting. Research the moon’s phase and plan where you would like it to appear in your image by using an app like PhotoPills or The Photographer’s Ephemeris.

Nighttime photography - stars and tree at night

2. Choose your shooting location during the day

Exposing yourself to a location and its surroundings during the day will help you decide what you want to shoot later at night.

Find a location before dark to avoid the frustration of seeing blind at night and a likely lack of decent images from the shoot. Give yourself time to find your spot and come up with a composition during the day to help you capture better images by nightfall.

Nighttime photography - star trails over a mountain valley

3. Include other elements

Once you have chosen a subject and found a decent location to shoot, your next task is to find a composition you like and that will work well combined with a beautiful night sky. Look for other interesting elements to add to your shots. Other subjects you can include with the moon and stars might include architecture, trees, the landscape or an interesting water source.

Nighttime photography - northern lights over mountains and waterfalls

4. Use a tripod

To stabilize the camera and capture sharper images, always use a tripod. You will need to operate your camera in near darkness and allow for longer shutter speeds in order to record a brighter image than the blackness you will initially see with your naked eye.

A tripod will help you to get the best image quality and a sharper shot. If you don’t have a tripod with you, you could improvise by finding a spot to put the camera down such as on a wall or ledge to keep it from moving when taking the photo.

Any image blur and camera movement can ruin nighttime photography. Even if your hands are as steady as a surgeon’s in the operating theatre, you will move the camera slightly while pressing the shutter button. So in addition to using a tripod, a remote trigger to fire the camera is another good idea.

Nighttime photography - crescent moon and clouds

5. Raise the ISO

You will find that if you want to shoot striking photos after dusk, you may need to use slow shutter speeds (long exposures). In order to maintain the quality of a photo that you can capture during the day when using a low rating of say ISO 100-200, this is necessary.

Sometimes a long exposure may not suit the subject you are photographing so to help you shoot faster (in other words, use a faster shutter speed) during low light, you will need to increase the ISO setting to accommodate.

Nighttime photography - stars and waterfall

The advantages of increasing the ISO to 3200 or 6400 include more detail in the image and a brighter exposure with a shorter shutter speed. However, this comes at a price as the higher the ISO you choose, the more noise will be evident in your image, impacting the overall quality.

I would recommend going for a balance between a slightly slower shutter speed from 1 to 30 seconds and a medium ISO setting of around 1000 or 3200 to get the best image possible without compromising too much on quality. Note: This will depend on your subject though as star trails or the Milky Way may require it higher.

Nighttime photography 08

Conclusion

Once you have experimented with these tips you will soon discover that photographing in the dark can be just as enjoyable and easy as shooting during the day. So what’s stopping you from getting out there and capturing your best ever night shots?

Do you have any nighttime photography tips you would like to share?

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Jeremy Flint is a UK based award winning travel and landscape photographer, known for documenting images of beautiful destinations, cultures and communities from around the world. He recently won the Association of Photographers Discovery Award 2017 and the Grand Prize in the 2016 National Geographic Traveller and F11 Your Vision competitions. His pictures are represented by 4Corners images and have been featured in National Geographic Traveller, Outdoor Photography, Digital SLR Photography and national newspapers.

  • What would be your recommendation in terms of focal length for shooting star trails and at what ISO speed? Also, any specific lens which you feel does a good job for shooting star trails

  • Jeremy Peter Flint

    Hi Govind, for the subject of star trails I recommend a focal length of anything between 16-70mm on a full frame camera. A 16-35mm lens would be a good choice or a 24-70mm lens. In terms of ISO, it can vary depending on your shutter speed. For optimum image quality, try to use a lower ISO, say from 100 – 1600.

  • Thanks Jeremy for your recommendations!!

  • pam

    If you would like an idea of where to do milky way photographer here is a page with some good milky way locations with images to see what kind of images you can create. https://photomagx.com/photography-hot-spot-locations/milky-way-template/

  • Michael Barnes

    stunning examples!

  • Jeremy Peter Flint

    Thanks Michael!

  • Mark

    Do fixed lenses make a better choice due to the inability for zoom to creep when pointed upwards?

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