A Personal Experience Guide to Taking Great Night Sky Photos.
Have you ever looked at someone else’s breathtaking night photos and wondered how they did that? I know I did. A lot. So a few years ago, I just decided to start tinkering and see what I could get. I wasn’t smart like you by going online to search for some teaching resource to learn how to do it. I just pointed my lens at the night sky and started shooting. And then deleted most of what I got because it was terrible. Every now and then, I would get a keeper, but I think it was more luck than knowing what I was doing. In this post, I’m going to share the discoveries I’ve made on my own through lots of trial and even more error. Before I start though, let me just say that this is in no way intended be a comprehensive how-to guide, but this is how I do it and what has worked for me to create images that make me happy.
The first thing to keep in mind should have been fairly obvious, but it kind of took me by surprise – you’re trying to capture an image that’s beautiful to look at, so it’s not really enough to simply frame a bunch of empty sky with billions of tiny dots of light. What you’re REALLY doing is landscape photography – in the dark. What I have found, is that it’s not just the night sky that you want to capture, (as amazing as that is) but the interaction of the sky with the landscape or some physical element that will serve to give the image some sense of dimension and depth. It’s about seeing everyday things (or not so everyday things) in a way that our human eyes can’t. So with that in mind, you’ll want to take your time and compose your frame just right to capture that relationship between earth and sky.
The next thing should be even more obvious – you’re shooting in the dark, or at least, in VERY low light, so your camera set up needs to be like a vacuum cleaner sucking in as much light as possible. That means shooting at high ISO speed and wide aperture. It’s also usually easier if you use a wide angle lens since you’re trying to capture something huge – the sky. I’ve seen some images by people who shoot with mid to long lenses and then made multi-image panoramics which were incredible, but if you’re going to attempt that, be prepared to give yourself a lot of time for setting up each shot. For myself, I usually stick to shooting wide angle. My preferred lenses are too expensive and I don’t own them yet… so here’s what I do have. (I shoot Canon btw.) I use the 17-40mm f/4, 24mm f/2.8 and my Sigma 35mm f/1.4. This image was a self portrait from a few years ago using my 1D MkIII and 17-40 with a 30 second exposure.
Personal note – My ideal wish list gear for Night Photography would be:
- Canon 5D MKIII
- Canon EF 24mm f/1.4
- Sigma 18mm-35mm f/1.8
- Remote Shutter Release
- Pistol Grip Camera Tripod
…Someday when… Anyway, moving on.
This image also represents an interesting personal discovery. The light on me in the photo was coming from a building I was standing next to. I had to white balance for the tungsten light and the resulting image with the tungsten white balance produced a much better looking sky. Previously, my night sky photos were always very warm and didn’t look right. One would think that when shooting outdoors, you would want to use daylight or maybe cloudy white balance, but not so at night. I discovered that since the sky is already a deep blue at night, the camera automatically interprets that as being a cool toned scene and will compensate by warming the image to what it thinks is right. So if you want blue night sky, you want to use tungsten white balance.
Another aspect on the topic of exposure is the balance between ISO speed and shutter speed. The basic set up I mentioned above is with the intent to get as much light as possible with the shortest possible shutter speed in order to reduce any motion blur. You may have seen images where the stars look like millions of long streaks of light instead of tiny dots. That’s accomplished with a slow shutter, low ISO speed and the streaks are produced by the rotation of the earth. You have to decide beforehand which look you want. Crisp tiny dots, or long sweeping streaks of light. Then, set your camera accordingly.
Achieving proper focus at night is a challenge. It’s usually too difficult for the camera’s AF. It’s hard to see through the viewfinder to focus manually and there’s not enough light to use LiveView because it will just look black. I used to just get it close and then stop down my aperture so that focus wouldn’t need to be exact, but that resulted in two problems. First, you’re losing a lot light by stopping down so you have to expose for a much longer time to get the same equivalent level of exposure. Second, by doing so, you lose the possibility of getting crisp stars. The longer shutter will always produce streaks from the stars. So what do you do?
The image in the header at the top of this post is a good example. I really wanted to keep my aperture wide open at f/1.4. I wanted the sky to pop with light and color and I wanted the teepee we were camping in to be out of focus. After several attempts at “guessing” to achieve focus and failing miserably, I had to come up with a solution. Here’s what I did: while standing there thinking, I noticed that there were a few building lights far in the distance. I thought they looked bright enough to see with LiveView and far enough that they looked similar in size to the stars. So I pointed my camera at the lights and switched on the LiveView. The lights just barely showed up on the screen so I focused on them and then recomposed my frame where I wanted it. I got lucky. It worked. It’s not quite perfect, but it’s pretty good. Of course that technique won’t always be possible in every scenario, but that’s how I was able to capture that image.
In cases where I’m focusing on the landscape, I usually look for a good spot where there’s the most contrast between the land and the sky and focus there.
Another idea to try: plan your shoot ahead of time and find your focal distance in the day light and mark it on your lens. Again, not always possible, but it could certainly help.
One drawback of the high ISO speed method, (at least for older camera models like mine) is that you’ll likely end up with a lot of digital noise. The higher the ISO, the more noise. Some people have difficulty understanding this so here is a little mental picture that helped me. Imagine that light is being gathered into your camera by worker bees. The lower the ISO setting, the fewer bees you have working for you and the higher the ISO, the more worker bees. But, how many bees do you want in your photo? You want as few bees as possible, right? So there’s always this balancing game of having just enough bees to gather the light you need, without having so many that they become a distraction. Newer cameras and technologies have greatly improved this digital noise problem, but for many of us, we don’t have the cash on hand to be able to upgrade just yet. So here are some techniques that I have discovered to help.
The most important thing is to get the best possible exposure in-camera because correcting in the editing phase can only do so much to help you if your exposure is inadequate. It’s better to err on the side of over-exposing than under exposing. It’s almost always easier to darken an over-exposed image than it is to brighten an under-exposed one without losing quality. I usually set my ISO between 2500-3200 on my 5D MkII and then adjust the shutter until the light meter is pegged all the way to the right. Then I go a little further as long as it won’t result in too slow of a shutter and create streaky stars. You can usually use a shutter as slow as 30 seconds without significant streaking. Anything slower than 30 seconds and you’re likely to not get the crisp stars you want.
So, to wrap it all up, here’s my step-by-step guide for night photography:
1) Before taking the photo, go into your camera settings and make sure that the “Long Exposure Noise Reduction” is turned on and on the highest possible setting. Do the same for the “High ISO noise reduction” setting.
2) Compose your night time landscape frame and do your best to achieve focus. Then try to over-expose the image in-camera.
3) Import your images and apply whatever editing preset you like to use (such as VSCO Film, ASE, etc)
4) AFTER applying your preset, go to the Details palette in Abobe Camera RAW or Adobe Lightroom and use the noise reduction tools. Keep in mind that most presets have their own settings for this palette, so if you change presets, you’ll probably have to go back and do this again. For high ISO night sky photos, I typically use settings like this:
5) Go to the Basic panel and make adjustments as you like. I can’t really tell you what to do here because every image will be different and have different adjustment needs.
6) Improve the sky and digital noise even more by using the color Hue, Saturation & Luminance palette. By adjusting the sliders here, you can do a lot to brighten the sky and blend away noise problems. You’ll most likely need to make adjustments to the aquas, blues and purples. Again, do this part AFTER applying your preset.
If you follow these ideas, you can definitely shorten your learning curve. It’s not going to make you a master overnight, but I hope that this gives you a boost to take your Night Photography to the next level.