5 expert tips for photographing the great outdoors after the Sun goes down
Photography at night used to be the preserve of those with high-end cameras. Not so anymore, with arguably the major photographic advance in recent years being modern cameras’ ability with high ISO. Add to that the proliferation of lenses fast enough to cope with darkness – and even ‘night modes’ on smartphone cameras – and wonders of night photography are now open to anyone brave enough to venture out into the darkness. Here are some of our top tips to get you started...
1 Making a plan
Why, when and where are you heading out at night? The whole point of night-scape photography is that you include the night sky in your photos, which means you should prioritize somewhere with very little light pollution. Check a dark sky finder or a light pollution map for ideas, while a Dark Sky Place (global) or Dark Sky Discovery Site (in the UK) can give you some ideas and PhotoPills can help you plan a specific shot. However, be sure to head out in the week before New Moon and the few nights after to maximise darkness. Obviously you’ll also want a clue as to what you want in the foreground because night-scapes should never be just photos of the night sky on their own.
Don’t get lost! More than any other type of photography it’s important to be well prepared for landscape photography at night. As well as taking precautions such as dressing up warmly and taking along a companion, it makes sense to scout the location in daylight. Whether you plan to visit a remote churchyard, hike up a mountain or head down a trail, things will be much simpler and safer if you know in advance what you want to photograph, roughly where you want to position yourself, how you’ll get there and, if relevant, where you’ll park your car.
2 Keep it steady
Night-scaping requires you to open the shutter on your camera for multiple seconds or even minutes to let the few photons around strike your camera’s sensor. When you’re shooting long exposures at night you need a sturdy tripod to keep your camera perfectly still. Most have three or four-stage legs that open like a Russian doll with the final leg that touches the floor actually the narrowest and weakest.
"For extra stability – and particularly if you have a lightweight tripod, or if it’s a windy night – hang your camera backpack on the hook that’s often provided underneath the centre column."
So unfurl those legs in reverse, extending the top left, then successive legs to reach your desired height, only using the final, slimmest leg as a last resort. It’s also not recommended to use a tripod-centre column for long exposures because although the extra height it gives you is useful it’s usually not a particularly strong support. For extra stability – and particularly if you have a lightweight tripod, or if it’s a windy night – hang your camera backpack on the hook that’s often provided underneath the centre column. The extra weight will add more stability.
One type of night-scape that’s both popular and simple – if a little time-consuming – is the star-trail. For this you don’t necessarily need the stars to be sharp; it’s much more important that your foreground is in focus. Use a compass to line-up a shot looking north and then take the same image 200+ times. Use continuous shooting and a shutter release/intervalometer and you can leave your camera completely alone for an hour or more. Drag your 200+ photos into the free StarStaX software and you’ll be left with a single merged image showing the rotation of the Earth.
3 How to make stars sharp
This is one of the challenges of night photography. A wide-angle lens is preferred at night to get as much of the night sky in as possible, but whatever lens you do use you need to make sure the stars don’t trail and remain sharp. It’s not the stars that are moving; it’s you standing on a revolving planet! Calculate the maximum exposure time for your specific lens by using the 500 rule; if you have a 24mm lens then divide 500 by 24 to give you a maximum exposure time of 20 seconds. Any longer than that and the stars will trail.
"...make sure the stars don’t trail and remain sharp. It’s not the stars that are moving; it’s you standing on a revolving planet!"
Then shine a flashlight on something in the distance and autofocus your camera using live-view on the LCD screen (you can also try temporarily ramping-up the ISO). Zoom-in on the finished image to check the focus, then switch to manual to lock it in. In practice, infinity focus (∞ on the focus ring) can work just as well, but don’t assume that. Set the aperture number as low as you can to let in as much light as possible (f/2.8 to f/4.5) and bet on around ISO 800 (though vastly higher if you’re in a really dark place and your camera can handle it).
The 500 rule will only gets you so far, and if you want to take much longer exposures – up to several minutes – to reveal detail within a very dark landscape then you’ll need to use a star-tracker. These small contraptions go between your camera and the tripod and prevent stars from trailing. To do that successfully they need to be aligned with Polaris, the North Star, around which the stars appear to circle as seen from the northern hemisphere.
4 Imaging the Milky Way
Summer is the best time of year for seeing the Milky Way from the northern hemisphere, but it’s more complicated than that. You also need to be under a dark, clear sky during the week before the New Moon or a few nights after, when a crescent Moon sets soon after sunset.
The very best months are August and September, when the Milky Way is at its brightest and highest in the sky soon after dark, so can be photographed streaming down towards the southern horizon at a fairly convenient time.
It’s sometimes a matter of taste, but generally it’s best to opt for ‘tungsten’ white balance for night photography. It creates a cool blue landscape, which may or may not be the effect you want, but either way it’s easy to tweak the white balance in post-processing.
5 Capture a magical moonscape
While profound darkness is preferred for a starry sky and most would-be night-scape photographers want to capture the Milky Way, that’s not what photographing landscapes at night is necessarily all about. If you’re somewhere very dark without streetlights, houses and farms (which tend to overuse LED lighting) on a clear night you can take advantage of beautiful moonlight to take wonderful photographs.
"On nights when the Moon is big and bright (such as on the night of the full Moon) you’ll find entire landscapes and seascapes lit-up for you, with buildings and objects often nicely illuminated."
On nights when the Moon is big and bright (such as on the night of the full Moon) you’ll find entire landscapes and seascapes lit-up for you, with buildings and objects often nicely illuminated. A long exposure can create a virtual daylight effect. In fact, any kind of moonlight in a clear sky will render some lenses too fast; stop down to between f/5.6 and f/8 and ISO 400 as a starting point.
Get to know the Moon’s phases. The Moon orbits the Earth every 27 days and rises approximately 50 minutes later each day, going from a New Moon to First Quarter (a half-Moon) to full Moon to Last Quarter (half-Moon). A few days before and after the New Moon you’ll see a slim crescent Moon just before sunrise and just after sunset, respectively. It will look great in wide-angle photos, but won’t give-off much light. Between the First Quarter and Full Moon, and for a few nights after, is when to plan a late-night Moon-lit shot. Either way it’s wise to not only know the phase of the Moon, but exactly where it will be in the sky when you’ll be shooting.