Photography for Beginners Part 15: Types of Night Photography

Each post in this series builds on information discussed in previous posts. See the Photography for Beginners page on the menu for links to all the posts.

Part 14: Night Photography

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I had put many hours into writing and editing the second part of Night Photography and it was ready to post last November. Then my tablet died. I not only lost the completed post itself, but all my outline notes I’d been working from. I was demoralized back then, and it took me this long to finally attempt to recreate the post. Now, many more hours later, here it is.

This is a continuation of Part 14. In that post I covered a variety of tips for shooting at night. In this post we’ll discuss some specific types of night photography.

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Cityscapes

Shooting urban scenes at night can be done even with a basic point and shoot camera. It’s a good way to practice shooting at night with any kind of camera because it’s easier than other types of night photography.

If urban subjects don’t interest you, try it to start with anyway. You’ll learn a lot from just a few outings, and that knowledge will serve you well when you tackle something more difficult.

Things to concentrate your practice on: Using your camera controls by feel, setting a correct white balance, manual focusing, and getting comfortable with Manual Mode.

I have no suggested starting point for your camera settings as they will vary a lot by location and subject. Think about whether DOF or shutter speed is more important and go from there.

Subjects to consider: city skyline, historic buildings, tourist attractions, carnival rides, quaint shopping districts, lit fountains, sculptures, locally famous signs or businesses, public plazas, modern architecture, bridges, boats.

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Astrophotography

Capturing the sun and moon is easy to do with almost any camera with a long lens. But otherwise, astrophotography is one of the most demanding types of photography in terms of gear.

Recommended Gear: Full frame camera body with top-rated high ISO performance. High quality, fast, wide-angle lens (f2.8 or better). Very sturdy tripod.

Reasonable Gear: Micro 4/3, APS-C, or entry-level full frame camera body. Wide-angle lens (f3.5 or better). Dependable tripod.

You can get decent photos with practice using reasonable gear. You don’t want to invest in expensive gear just to dabble in taking pictures of stars. If you develop a passion for astrophotography then you’ll want to lay out the cash.

This is a category where most point and shoots with their tiny sensors and sub par lenses can’t do the job. If you have a high-end P&S with a 1″ sensor, fast lens, and a manual focus ring you can give it a whirl and see how it goes.

When it comes to lenses there’s a thing called “coma”. Stars appear not as round points, but more like ovals or teensy comets. Only a few lenses are really good at minimizing coma, though not necessarily the most expensive ones. Rokinon/Samyang make very good budget lenses for most camera brands.

To reduce coma with a so-so lens stop down.

The Milkyway is the most popular astrophotography subject, but there are other celestial objects to shoot like planets, galaxies, nebulae, and transits of the International Space Station. For most of these you’ll need a very powerful telephoto lens and a star tracker for your tripod, or a telescope with a camera adapter.

The most important thing for astrophotography is a dark sky. The darker the better. People living in the eastern half of the US, much of Europe, and far east Asia are at a real disadvantage because there are no remaining places free from at least some light pollution.

Dark sky also means avoiding the moon. Light from the moon washes out the sky so that only the brightest stars are visible. New moon nights are best.

Air pollution (natural or human) and humidity also negatively affect astrophotography. The best shooting locations are at higher elevations on low humidity nights.

Even if you shoot only in JPEG for every other thing you photograph, always shoot RAW + JPEG for astrophotography. If you have no clue what to do with the RAW files for now, at least you’ll have them saved for when you do learn how to process them.

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Milkyway

When people shoot the Milkyway what they’re usually after is the bright, glowy core. For part of the year you can‘t see it. Milkyway Season runs from mid-March to mid-October.

In addition to knowing when the season is, you need to know where in the sky to point your camera. The Milkyway’s position and angle change throughout the night and year. There are apps and websites that tell you where it will be in your sky on a specific date and time.

To start: manual focus to infinity, aperture wide open, Kelvin WB around 4000. (If you only have WB presets, use auto WB or try tungsten or fluorescent.)

This online exposure calculator for the Milkyway will give you a starting point for the exposure settings based on your gear.

After you take a test shot check everything. Did you nail focus? Do you need to stop down the aperture to get sharper stars? How is the WB color? Are you getting star trails? Is the exposure too bright or too dark? (Overexposing is better than underexposing.)

Based on your test shot make adjustments to your settings and try again. As a beginner you will probably have to take multiple test shots before you fine tune your settings for the conditions you’re shooting in.

To get the arc of the entire Milkyway in a single photo shoot a panorama.

When you’re starting out you can go anywhere with a dark sky and an open view of where the core will be and shoot images. But if you get serious about it you will quickly realize that composition makes the difference between an okay photo and a wow photo.

The best Milkyway photos aren’t the best because the stars were captured with high-end gear and the RAW file was tastefully processed. They are the best because the photographer carefully planned and executed a stunning composition that includes landforms or foreground subjects.

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Star Trails

Star trails can either be a goal, or something you try to avoid.

Stars in photos should usually be pinpricks of light. But if your shutter is open too long they start to elongate because of motion blur due to the earth’s rotation. If your shutter is open long enough they become streaks of light. Star trails.

So the key to avoiding star trails is to never set a shutter speed longer than is appropriate.The tricky part is that the appropriate max exposure time isn’t the same for everyone. It depends on the focal length of your lens.

To determine the max exposure time for your focal length the usual suggestion is to use the 500 Rule.

For a full frame sensor, divide 500 by your focal length to get the max time in seconds. With a 24mm lens it’s 500/24 = 20 seconds (rounded down).

If you have a crop sensor, look up the full frame equivalent focal length for your lens and use that number to divide into 500, or first multiply your focal length by the sensor’s crop factor and then divide 500 by the result.

Example: My camera has an APS-C sensor with a 1.5 crop factor. My widest lens is 12mm. (18mm FF equivalent.)

12 x 1.5 = 18. 500/18 = 27 (rounded down). So 27 seconds is my max exposure time.

A lot of photographers are more conservative. The 500 Rule can be a bit too generous at times and result in slightly elongated stars, so they use 400 instead.

If you use more than one lens do the math for each one. You only have to do the math once. Write the answers down and stick the note in your bag for reference.

Your camera may not let you set the 500 Rule time. My max is 27, but my camera only allows 30 or 25 seconds. It’s always safer to go lower than higher.

What if you want star trails? You’ve seen photos of night skies filled with the white streaks of star trails. To do this you need to either leave your shutter open for an extremely long time (30 minutes to over an hour) for a single shot, or take multiple shots (often over 100) and use software to stack them.

The single exposure advantages are that you get to do it all in camera, and the trails don’t look so artificial. The disadvantage is that with exposures over 10 minutes the camera sensor heats up and creates additional noise.

The advantage of stacking is being able to use reasonable exposure times. Free star stacking software is available and it’s supposed to be easy to use. The disadvantages are having so many image files to deal with, and the result looks much more processed and artificial. (Though a lot of people prefer the stacked look because it’s more dramatic.)

The final thing to note about star trails is that what the streaks look like depends on where you point your camera. Point your camera at the north or south pole (depending on hemisphere) and you get circles. Point to the east or west and you get straighter trails.

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Aurora

The most difficult thing about photographing the aurora is that it’s visible only a few nights a year in the mid-latitudes, and it’s a rare sight further from the poles. (In cloudy, light polluted western Washington we’re talking 0-4 times per year, on average.)

For the mid-latitudes you need: A strong geomagnetic storm, little to no moon, and few to no clouds on the north horizon. (South horizon in the southern hemisphere.) If you don’t have all three of those you won’t be shooting the aurora. Even with all three it’s still often a bust.

For a shooting location you need a clear distant view of the north (or south) horizon. The darker the sky the better, especially on nights with a weak aurora display. But avoiding light pollution isn’t as critical for the aurora as it is for the Milkyway. Exceptionally strong aurora displays are bright enough to partially overcome the city glow of downtown Seattle.

The high-end gear listed for astrophotography will make the best aurora images, but crop sensor cameras with budget lenses still do a really good job. You can capture the aurora with a point and shoot, but it usually won’t look good due to excessive noise.

Camera settings depend on how strong the display is. The aurora tends to brighten and fade, and in turns be active or stagnant. So you have to adjust settings while shooting.

To start, let’s assume the aurora is present as a green band without active spikes or dancing: Aperture wide open. Manual focus to infinity. Shutter speed 20-25 seconds (or the max for your focal length). WB between 3200 and 4800 Kelvin. ISO between 1600 and 3200.

Take a test shot. Leave shutter speed alone for now and concentrate on the other stuff. Did you nail focus? Do you need to stop down the aperture to get a sharp photo? If the colors look unnatural adjust your white balance up or down to suit the conditions. If the exposure is too dark or bright adjust ISO.

It’s easiest to settle on an ISO that works well and then not worry about it too much for the rest of the shoot. Though if the aurora grows a lot brighter you may want to reduce ISO to get cleaner images.

Shutter speed is your key setting. If the band of aurora starts showing some activity, try reducing your shutter speed into the 10-15 second range. If it really goes off and is dancing fast try shutter speeds between 4 to 10 seconds. Keep checking the exposure to make sure your changes aren’t too drastic.

The reason for faster shutter speeds when the aurora is active is that you want to capture details of the changing shapes. If you choose to stay at 20 seconds so you can reduce ISO by a lot you’ll just end up with a boring green blur.

If your camera handles high ISO really well, you can keep it high and use shutter speeds as short as 1 or 2 seconds for a really active display.

Just like with shooting the Milkyway, the most important thing for a beginner is to find a good spot with a clear view. But if you turn into an avid aurora chaser you will want to start thinking about where to go to create more interesting compositions.

If you travel to the far north to shoot the aurora everything is easier, except for time of year. You can usually only see the aurora fall through spring because the sky doesn’t get dark enough in summer.

The aurora is present frequently, though you can still get skunked, especially on a short trip, because of a no-show or clouds. It’s easy to find dark sky. You can often shoot using a lower ISO than at mid-latitudes. The aurora is usually high in the sky so there are fewer limits on shooting locations.

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Moonscapes

Yep, shooting moonlit landscapes is a thing. It‘s not that different from shooting landscapes in daylight, you just have the added challenge of doing it in the dark.

The closer the moon is to full the better off you are. Full moon nights and the three nights on either side are best.

You can do this anywhere the moon is the strongest light source, but the best photos usually come from locations without significant light pollution. State Parks and National Parks are good places to give it a go.

Moonscapes don’t require high-end gear. If your camera can capture a quality landscape in the day, there’s a good chance it can produce at least a decent one at night. Though a camera that handles higher ISO well is a plus.

The scene should be exposed enough that it looks similar to daylight while keeping the sky just dark enough that you can still see some stars. If you can’t see the stars it just ends up looking like a kinda weird sunny day photo. (Though if that’s what you want, go for it!)

You’ll get the best results using a wide-angle lens because depth of field isn’t much of an issue. You can try starting at f8, but if you need more light stop up to f5.6 or f4.

For the brightness of your exposure there are two approaches. If you don’t mind a bit of star trailing, set a nice low ISO of around 400 and use really long shutter speeds. If you have a point and shoot you’ll need to go this route to avoid excessive noise.

If you want pinpoint stars, you’ll need to set your shutter speed to the max seconds recommended for your focal length and use ISO to increase the brightness of your exposure.

If you will be using exposure times of over 30 seconds you must set your camera to Bulb mode and use a remote shutter release. You’ll also need a timer of some type so you can time how long you keep the shutter open.

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Light Trails

Everyone has seen night photos that include light trails from cars, buses, trains. You don’t need fancy gear. A decent point and shoot will work. Though ideally you should also have a remote shutter release (relying on the camera timer delay can mess you up), and use a lens hood if possible.

The most important thing is to find an interesting composition that has traffic going through it. Unusual intersections, bridges overlooking roadways, and spots with unique buildings in the background make good choices.

After you frame your composition, manually focus your lens and determine your base camera settings for aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and WB. You can try using auto ISO and auto WB to make things easier, but if the resulting exposures aren’t right set them manually.

As a starting point: aperture f8 and shutter speed between 10 and 20 seconds.

Try some test shots. Based on your initial results, start playing around with shutter speed and the timing of when you trigger the shutter to see how those things affect your images.

The amount of ambient light, the speed of traffic, and how far traffic has to travel through the frame will affect which shutter speed works best.

The look you settle on is up to you. Some photos include the ghostly images of passing vehicles by using shorter shutter speeds. Some show only a bright river of light using a longer exposure. Play with it and take lots of shots.

A different type of light trail is when a person waves a light source through the air to be captured with a slow shutter speed.

This can be as simple as a child waving a sparkler around on the 4th of July to as complex as a precisely planned pattern that stretches over a distance created by using colored light tubes.

As always, you’ll need to experiment each time to get the settings right. And you’ll need to do even more experimenting with lights and patterns. But the creative possibilities are almost endless.

Some people call this light painting because you draw patterns in the air with light, but light painting is more commonly understood to be what is described below.

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Light Painting

Light painting refers to using a light source to illuminate a subject in order to get a balanced exposure.

While the shutter is open during a long exposure the photographer or a helper moves a beam of light over the subject, like they’re waving a giant brush to paint the light on.

An example of when you might want to light paint is you’re out shooting the Milkyway and you’ve included an old barn as part of your composition. You expose your shot for the Milkyway and then “paint” the barn so it’s not just a black silhouette in the image.

Try to “paint within the lines” by not splashing light on surrounding objects like the ground in front of your camera or bushes to the side of your subject.

Also think about the color cast of the light you use. If it’s too warm or too cool it can detract from the photo. There are specialized neutral light flashlights that help with that.

You’ll have to experiment for each shot to get the right amount of light. Sometimes just a quick brush does the trick and others you might paint the entire time the shutter is open.

It’s easy to get it wrong at first, but the more you practice the better you will get. You can find lots of bad paint jobs posted online. Learn from the mistakes of others before you give it a go.

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Some Night Photos

Part 16:  Learn From Your Photos

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4 thoughts on “Photography for Beginners Part 15: Types of Night Photography

    • Thanks, Kate!

      I’ve only done a little night photography myself but it’s something I want to do more of. Especially now that I know my camera well enough to use in the dark. For me it’s less daunting if I at least have an idea of where to start with my settings.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. That’s a lot of good information! I took a seminar last November on night star photography that included going out very late at night to practice. Unfortunately by then it was sleeting, so that part wasn’t so fun. I need to try it again sometime when it’s not horrible weather. I also just need to go out and practice on my own.

    Like

    • I remember your posts about that! It sounded like one of those “miserable at the time but good story to tell later” types of nights. 🙂

      I highly recommend practicing, even just with mundane stuff. Actually, especially with mundane stuff when it doesn’t matter if you get it wrong.

      I often make dumb mistakes. Like when I didn’t realize that I’d get motion blur at 6 seconds during a lunar eclipse. All my blood moons blurry! (sobs) It still saddens me almost 3 years later. You can bet that’s a mistake I won’t make again! (Though I can probably come up with a new one without trying hard.)

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