The night sky is something that has captivated people for centuries. Throughout the years, there have been many advancements in camera technology and lenses which have made it easier and easier to get great results from a night photography session and achieve amazing pictures of the night sky.
The good news is, you only need basic gear to become an amazing night photographer. Whether you want to shoot pics of the milky way, city lights, or just get an amazing night sky this blog post will help you find the perfect camera settings for your night photos and will give you night shots that will be the envy of all night photographers.
Shooting at night? Get prepared.
Before you run out the door to start your night photoshoot, there are a few things you should do to help it go smoothly.
Double check your memory cards and ensure you have ample amount of storage space. There’s nothing worse than setting up to shoot and realizing you only have room for a few images.
Make sure you have plenty of battery power. More than likely you’ll want more than 1 battery. I usually bring at least two and I will charge them up during the day when I know I’m going out that night.
Prep your gear using a specific case or backpack. It’s VERY easy to sit things down as you’re shooting and not realize you’ve left something behind in the dark. If you have a dedicated for each piece of gear it’s really easy to make sure you have everything.
Best Camera Settings for Night Photography
Before you do any night photography (or any other photography for that matter) be sure to set your format to RAW rather than JPG. This will save your bacon if you grab a picture that you love and want to bring out highlights or shadows. I NEVER shoot in jpg mode unless I know I’ll never need to edit it.
The best camera settings for night photography are:
– Aperture: ƒ/12 or higher. This will give you a deep depth of field and keep both the foreground and background in focus as well as capturing more light than say f/32.
A lens with an aperture range of at least f/16 to f12 is recommended so that you can change your aperture without making your background blurry.
What ISO should I use for my night photos?
If you’re using a small-sensor camera like the Sony A6000, it’s best to use iso 100 or 200 for night photography.
For cameras with larger sensors such as the Canon EOS R and Nikon D850, it’s recommended that shoot at an ISO of 800 or higher is typically the best iso setting. Just for reference, the higher the ISO, the faster the exposure (and the shorter the shutter speed). However, that speed comes at a cost of added noise.
Setting ISO to iso 400 is a good starting point. It’s going to take a bit of experimentation to get the perfect exposure depending on the other settings you’ve made. If you set to a lower number like iso 100 for instance your shutter speed will be lower but you’ll end up with even less noise.
Don’t get too hung up too much on iso 100 vs iso 400, as long as you’re not getting completely noisy photos, you can fix it in post.
White Balance Settings
This is less important if you’re shooting raw but you can still set this to night.
A good starting point is 3000K for warmer tones and 5000K for cooler, blue tones.
You’ll want to adjust your white balance depending on what colors are in the sky (try 5700-6500 K). This will help capture a more natural atmosphere. Again, if you’re shooting RAW you can change this after the fact, but it’s good to get it in the ballpark to start for each exposure.
One option is to turn off any automatic features that could cause a lot of noise in your photos such as auto white balance and autofocus. This will help ensure that your night photos are crisp and clear.
One of the most important settings is white balance, so make sure you take a few minutes to look at the different types and find one that’s right for your shoot before heading out. If you’re shooting RAW it’s usually not much of an issue.
If you’re going manual mode you will have to manage your exposure settings but you’ll typically get much better exposure. Manual mode ensures that you’re in control and the camera isn’t guessing if you want to expose for the street lights, the stars, or the entire night sky. Learning to craft custom settings for each exposure is a skill that takes time, but is a key to get perfected results.
If you’re first learning manual mode it can be tricky to figure out the right camera controls to change, but one thing that really helped me was to really understand the exposure triangle and how it works. After I got a good grasp on the exposure triangle I found myself shooting in manual mode more and more to get my photos to look the way I wanted in-camera as best I could. This saves time on post-processing and makes you feel like a general camera badass.
Aperture Priority Mode
Aperture priority mode automatically sets your aperture to give you good exposure and avoid blurry over or underexposed images.
For night photography using aperture, mode will give you the most control of the final image. This mode lets you control the depth of field and lets the camera choose an appropriate shutter speed.
So, before shooting in low light the best option is to change your lens aperture from its widest setting (lowest number) to a higher one which is typically around f/8 or above. The higher the number, the more depth of field you’ll get..aka if you use a higher f-stop your background will be less blurry. A lower f-stop equals more blur through the field of view.
Picking Shutter Speed
Most of the time, the shutter speed should be set to a minimum of 15 seconds.
A 15-second shutter speed will give you a good balance between freezing action and capturing light trail cars or even the milky way. If you prefer to get very long light trails(like star streaks) more than likely you’ll need to shoot in bulb mode which essentially leaves the shutter open for an indefinite amount of time.
Don’t be afraid to shoot multiple exposures. You can always stack them in your post-processing software. Also, a few test shots never hurt anyone to double-check you’ve got things set up correctly.
Night Photography Gear
As I wrote in the beginning, there’s not much gear you need to get started and you don’t even need fancy camera gear to get started photographing at night.
It goes without saying that for night photography a solid tripod is required. One of the best ways to ensure your tripod is sturdy enough for night photography is by getting a quick-release head. A good tripod head will have two handles, one which tightens and releases the camera screw mount on top, while another handle can be tightened or loosened to lock the tilt axis in place.
You can try to hand-hold your camera for night photography, but if you’re shooting long exposures or really want to take the sharpest possible shots (or both), it’s best to get a tripod.
You don’t need to spend a lot of money on your tripod, but make sure to get one that can hold the weight and size of your camera. There are many types of tripods available for night photography, but I recommend a sturdy tripod with an attached head so you can adjust your composition easily.
Check out our guide choosing the right tripod to learn more.
Picking the right lens for night photography can be tricky, The lens you choose should have a sharp focus capability, especially in low-light settings.
The best lenses are ones that have at least f/stop of around f/12 where the depth of field (DOF) will be maximized and sharpness can still happen.
The focal length of the lens you choose will have a large impact on how your night photo turns out. A wide-angle lens is great for capturing sweeping landscapes, but may not be ideal when photographing stars or buildings because it can make them look distorted and stretched. The “sweet spot” is about 17mm to 35mm.
Pretty much any kit lens will get the job done.
Remote Shutter Release
You’ll need to use either a wireless shutter release or cable release in order to keep from shaking the camera when pressing the shutter release. This will allow you to have both a long shutter and a lower iso to get an image with almost no camera shake and little to no noise.
Alternatively, you could set your camera on timer mode so that you’re not jostling around while taking a long exposure of the Milky Way or Northern lights.
Ideas for night photography shoots
So, you want to conquer the night and do some shooting? Here’s a list of subjects that are perfect for a night photography shoot.
The Milky Way
It’s not hard to get an Instagram-worthy photo of it, and w location at night where there will be little light pollution during long exposures: this may mean driving for 45 minutes outside of town.
City Light Trails
Every night photographer dreams of having a long exposure light trail shot. To capture a photo like this, you’ll need a long exposure which means using an open shutter and a rock-solid tripod to avoid camera shake.
Anyone can take pictures of the Milky Way or the night sky, but one way to create a unique series of photos is to use a technique called light painting. This technique is when you use a long exposure to take photos of objects lit by an LED, firework or flashlight.