How to Take Amazing Night Photography Like a Pro
Carl Sagan famously said “We are made of star stuff.” I’ve always liked the idea.
With that in the back of my mind, I’ve been exploring star photography and have put together this guide for anyone interested in shooting the “star stuff.” It’s not quite as intuitive as you would think—even for an experienced photographer—but it’s easy enough to achieve with just a few pieces of equipment and a little planning.
- A camera with manual settings: Typically the bigger the sensor, the better. I’m using a Canon 7D which has a crop sensor. It’s not ideal, but good enough for the job.
- A shutter release: This could be optional, but it’s nice, especially if you need to go over a 30 second exposure. Most cameras are only programable in-camera to 30 seconds. I’m using an inexpensive wireless Promaster remote shutter.
- A sturdy tripod
The ideal time to shoot the stars is during a new moon because there is the least amount of light pollution. There are plenty of resources out there that will tell you the exact night a new moon falls on to coordinate your next shoot (one such resource here). Location is more subjective, but you will want to get far enough out of town to avoid light pollution from the city as well.
You’ve probably seen two types of star photos:
- Stars stretching across the image as the camera captures the rotation of the earth
- A glowing skyline with the Milky Way sweeping across the picture plane
For the purposes of this article, when we are addressing exposure, we are talking about the latter.
The longer you expose your image, the more of earth’s rotation your are going to capture. You can start seeing this effect between 30 and 90 seconds. To avoid star trails we use The 500 Rule:
***500 divided by the focal length of your lens = the longest exposure (in seconds) before stars start to leave trail***
For example: Let’s say you’re taking a shot with an 18mm lens on a full frame camera.
500 / 18 = 27.7 seconds (which you can round to 30 seconds)
See the chart below for a quick reference:
With traditional landscape photography, you typically see photographers using high apertures to create wide depth of field (everything in focus). Just think of any postcard of a mountain reflected in a glacial lake. In this case, we want let in as much light as possible, so a low aperture is required (f2.8 is typically considered adequate). If your camera’s aperture doesn’t go that low, set it as low as it goes (f4, etc.).
As photographers, we usually want to keep this number as low as possible to reduce the digital noise, but as stated earlier, we want to let in as much light as possible; 1600 ISO is a good starting point.
The way your exposure settings are going to work together will look something like: 25 seconds at f2.8 with 1600 ISO.
You’ll definitely want to shoot in RAW to capture the most digital information possible. I like shooting in RAW + JPG.
Keep an eye out for Part 2 where I talk about post processing and and share some of my images!
Feel free to reach out or share your images too.