See the Stars Anew: Settings & Tips for Sparkling Night Photos

See the Stars Anew: Settings & Tips for Sparkling Night Photos

Night photography has special benefits. You can keep shooting throughout the winter or keep up with your hobby without having to give up daytime work or other chores. Night photography also has its own special challenges. If you’re feeling a little in the dark about where to start, here are the most essential gear tips and settings to start the evening off right.

Tripod camera taking a shot in the night.

Choose Wide Angle Lenses for Night Photography

Star photography and night landscape work is usually done with wide angle lenses. The most important thing you want in any lens, no matter how wide, is a fast aperture. The wider your lens’ maximum aperture is, the less you have to depend on ISO and shutter for exposure. Most zoom lenses open up to f/2.8, while prime (single focal length) lenses are faster at f/1.4 and f/1.2. Because you’ll be focusing manually, you can choose from among both autofocus (which can shoot manually) and manual focus-only lenses.
Budapest Parliament on the back of a camera

Choose High ISO Cameras with Live View for Night Photography

Night photography, and particularly Milky Way shooting, requires a camera with very high ISO capabilities. You will usually shoot at an ISO of at least 3200 all the way up to 12, 800 and beyond. You will also want a camera with Live View. Seeing and focusing on stars through a viewfinder (whether electronic or a pentaprism) is extremely difficult. Instead, use your camera’s Live View LCD to zoom in on a bright star and manually focus your lens until it is a sharp point of light.

Get a Shutter Release Cable and Tripod Before Night Shooting

Connecting your camera to a shutter release cable allows you to more easily take long exposures without creating unwanted camera shake from actually touching the shutter button. Shutter release cables connect usually with a 3 or 10-pin port on the side or front of your DSLR.
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Tripods are also essential for any shot where your shutter speed is set at a number lower than the length of your lens. For example, if you’re using a 14-24mm lens, you won’t easily be able to get a sharp shot hand-held with a shutter speed any slower than 1/30th of a second. Since night shooting often requires very slow shutter speeds at any lens length, you will need a tripod.

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Settings to Use for Night Sky Photography

Over time, your night shooting settings will be set according to your own taste. For beginners, start with the following setup:

  • Set ISO between 800 and 3200 (higher for cameras you know can support it without too much noise).
  • Set your aperture between f/1.2 – f/5.6.
  • Set your shutter speed between 15-30 seconds (not to be confused with 1/15th – 1/30th of a second).
  • Use Live View to zoom in and focus on your stars.

Man Framing Shot In Camera Screen

A common beginner’s recipe for star photography is a 30 second shutter speed, ISO 3200, and the widest possible aperture your lens will do. Use the magnifying glass buttons on the back of your camera to zoom into your area of focus when using Live View. Keep your lens in manual focus mode (or just use a manual focus-only lens if you want).

Additionally, shoot in RAW file format to maximize the amount of data written to the sensor for easier image editing later. In RAW, you can shoot with Auto White Balance and change it later but Auto White Balance tends to skew warm. If you don’t want to keep seeing orange skies upon image playback, change your White Balance from Auto to Tungsten or Fluorescent.

Composition and Effects to Try for Night Sky Photography

Cazando estrellas
Choose a scene with a great foreground, like large trees. Have a flashlight (it doesn’t have to be very powerful) nearby to “paint in” light into dark foreground areas while taking a long exposure. This will help balance a bright, starry sky with a practically pitch-black foreground. Also, seek out water for your night images – whether for landscape or urban shooting. The reflection in water brightens the entire scene and makes foreground/background exposure balance a little easier.

Rocky Mountain lake under starry skies
Stars begin to blur when your exposure is longer than about 15 seconds. You will depend on higher ISO settings for exposure and on faster shutter speeds to keep stars sharp. If you want star trails, or blurry stars, use a shutter release cable for an exposure as long 30 minutes or more. To prevent overexposure during these extremely slow shutter speeds, you will want to stop down your aperture (f/8 or f/16) and lower your ISO (100-400, as needed).

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If you’re shooting urban night photography and want that starburst-style effect from lampposts, again, use a narrow aperture (f/8-f/16). Wider lenses produce larger bursts than telephotos.

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Add your own flare to night photography by using artificial light selectively in your scene. Whether you’re using a set of sparklers, a flashlight, or a special light painting stick, you can achieve unique images by simply stabilizing your camera and shooting with a very slow shutter speed alongside reasonable ISO and aperture settings (ISO 100-400, f/4-f/8). Allow your background scene to expose for awhile during this long exposure before bringing in your bright lights to paint with. In other words, your sparkler, flashlight, or light painting stick will get used toward the end of your exposure time. This helps balance the exposure of your dark environment with your light tool. For more information on how to do this, see our Intro to Light Painting tutorial.

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Night photography isn’t just for the pros, though there are some gear limitations. You will want to use a camera with good ISO sensitivity, a fast, wide angle lens, and a tripod. Add in a flashlight, a shutter release cable, some notes taken from this tutorial, and a friend (safety first!) for a great experience while experimenting with style. Step out of your comfort zone and go boldly into the night for shining results.

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Alexandria Huff's photography and lighting tutorials can be found on 500px and her blog. She is a Marketing Coordinator for BorrowLenses.com and also writes for SmugMug. She learned about lighting and teaching while modeling for photographers such as Joe McNally and has since gone on to teach lighting workshops of her own in San Francisco. In a past life, she shot motorsports for X-Games, World Rally Cross, and Formula Drift. See her chiaroscuro-style painterly portraits on her website.

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