Tips for shooting great night photography
If you want to impress yourself and your friends, open up your shutter and shoot at night. But don’t be intimidated. Night photography is much easier than you might think. I am going to teach you the tips and tricks to get some stunning night time photos. If you just need to know the rules and camera settings, scroll all the way to the bottom.
First the tools you’ll need a bit of explanation on each of them:
- Camera with manual control – you need a camera that you can control the manual settings on. Fortunately most modern DSLRs have a manual setting labeled (M) on the dial.
- Prefer to shoot in RAW – I recommend that you shoot your night photos in RAW. More on that later in the article
- A sturdy tripod – You will need a tripod to keep the camera stable. There are so many different ones you could buy. I list a few below.
- A remote shutter button – Some cameras will interact with your smartphone, some with wires and some with remotes. It is really great if you don’t physically tough the shutter button when shooting night photography. I list some below that work very well.
- A wide angle lens – Since when we talk night photography tips, we’re usually talking about stars, cityscapes and landscapes, a wide angle lens is the best option.
Get a Camera
Almost any DSLR is appropriate for night photography, but some are better than others. With some cameras, you can jump way up in ISO. This will help to improve your star photography for example. Some cameras handle ISO better than others, but not to worry. ISO is only important when you exceed the rule of 600. (more on the rule below)
Below are a few DSLRs I recommend for great night shots.
- NIKON D 800 D800 36.3 MP Digital Camera Body Shut. Ct. 61,946 Excellent w Grip
- Padded Shockproof DSLR SLR Camera Insert Bag Protect Case Pouches
- Nikon D7200 Digital Camera + 18-55mm + 70-300mm + 30 Piece Accessory Bundle
Money saving side note: There are hundreds of great camera potentials. Most often, I buy my camera stuff on eBay from trusted sellers. I get great deals on the not-so-latest gear! In my opinion photographers go after the latest and greatest before mastering the art. When they do that, they sell their older stuff at extreme discounts.
Shoot your night photography in RAW
RAW is going to give you more dynamic range when you’re processing your photos. Shoot in RAW rather than jpg for the best results. I have seen arguments about jpg vs RAW. This article is not the place to argue those merits. I am suggesting that you shoot in RAW for the dynamic range. Your choice.
Get a nice tripod
Tripods vary in quality. And, if you’ve ever owned a cheap tripod, then you know why it was cheap. Because you’re using expensive gear, I recommend an appropriate tripod. Good tripods are sturdier and they offer a wider range of options. Many have legs that are more adjustable for lower or off-beat angles. There’s nothing like uneven ground to make you question your tripod purchase.
Below are a few really nice tripods
- Manfrotto Bogen 3046/3040 tripod silver color center leg section replacement
- 501PL Sliding Quick Release Plate 1/4″ & 3/8 Screw for Manfrotto 501 503 701 HDV
- Manfrotto 7301YB 4 Section Aluminum Tripod w/ 3 Way Head and Quick Release Plate
Buy a remote shutter release
What is a remote shutter release? A shutter release fires the camera without touching the button. Some cameras can fire with a smart phone app. Others use a rudimentary wire with a button.
Whichever you choose, you should consider a remote release for your night photography. It is important to not touch the camera when you use slow shutter speeds. Thus, the chance of camera shake is almost none. The nemesis of open shutters is camera shake.
I am not going to compare every different shutter release option. Just do a bit of research and find a shutter release that works for your camera.
Get a wide angle lens
Here is where you can save a few bucks. You will not need to shoot at f1.8 for night photography. Instead, you will find yourself using the higher f-stops. I have shot several night shots at f16 or higher. So, don’t be afraid to take your wide angle lens that “only” goes to f3.5. It is completely ample for shooting these photos.
Okay – Now that we’ve gotten through the set up stuff, are you still with me?
Picking your location – One big tip for shooting great night photos is to pick a great location. Cities have great lights, but get too far away and they’re just lights in a distance. Get too close and the buildings dominate the shots. Picking your location is a the most important part of getting the right shot.
If you’re planning on being in the mountains at night, know where you’re walking. Are you shooting in a rocky terrain? It is smarter to get there and set up before nightfall. Trekking in the dark is dangerous.
Cityscape Photography – Cities are so fascinating because of the structures and lights. Go to a place where you have a great view and you’ll be able to shoot a beautiful cityscape.
Keep in mind I am going to let you know the settings for taking these at the bottom. I am saving boring technical jargon for later. For now, I thought it best to wow you with some photos first, then tell you the settings.
Light Trails – Light trails are when a vehicle drives through a scene with an open shutter. They are dramatic and gorgeous.
Star Photography – There are important rules for photographing objects that are millions of light years away. One is your focus. You have to be aware of your focus when photographing stars. First, you want to focus to infinity. Next, remove your VR or IS on your lens or camera body. turn off any anti-shake systems functions. Last, turn your lens to “Manual Focus.” You want to focus on the stars and not on the foreground. Do not trust auto-focus or your screen.
The other big rule for photographing stars is the rule of 600. (better applied as the rule of 500) Let me explain.
When photographing stars, divide he focal length of the shot you’re taking. Let’s say that you’re shooting a scene at 600 by the focal length of the shot. The number you come up with is your shutter speed in seconds.
Uh oh, math. Let’s say you’re shooting at an 18mm focal length. Then you’ll divide 600 by 18 which equals 33. It is even better to divide 500 by the focal length to get 27.
500/18 = 27 second shutter speed.
You will avoid the little trails stars leave by not exceeding 27 seconds. (if you want the trails, you’d ignore this rule)
Focus on the stars. Set your shutter speed. With these two things, you should get crisp, clean stars. (unless you’re going for light trails from the stars.)
This is when you need to know about ISO. ISO is a setting that allows a bit more light to affect the sensor of your camera. In short, bumping up your ISO will allow more light to affect the sensor. Start with the lowest ISO that you can and bump it as necessary.
Photographing the night sky can be super rewarding. Do this right and you’ll have some stunning star photos. One big thing I forgot to mention. Make sure it’s DARK outside for best results. Lights from just about anything can spoil your star photography.
Side Note – Certain cameras struggle with longer shutter speeds. Bump your ISO to shorten the time the shutter is open.
Lists specific camera settings
Let’s get into some specific camera settings for night photography. As you may know, shutter speed is what you adjust for ambient light. The slower the shutter, the more likely camera shake will affect your photos. I always suggest shooting on a tripod or other stable surface. You cannot hold your camera still enough to not get blur at slower speeds.
For night photography, I like to start at 1/3 of a second, ISO 200, F8. I like to keep my ISO low and my f-stop set to give me as much depth of field as possible. I am not at all opposed to raising the f-stop above that number. I tend to prefer shutter speed over the other settings.
These are not hard and fast night photography rules. Rather, they are a starting point. For stars, see the above rules to figure out your starting points.
Try your best not to raise your shutter speed if you have specific goals. Let’s say you want streaking car lights, then you’ll need a certain open shutter. Too fast of a shutter and you won’t see the streaks.
Say your shooting a scene where cars are driving by. Look through your shutter as they drive past. Count how long it takes for the vehicle to enter the frame and leave the frame. That should be your shutter speed.
Skies play a huge role in your night photography. An uninteresting sky can kill a concept. Maybe you want more sky. Open up your shutter. Stars and buildings? You’ll have to shoot two shots and combine them in post-production.
Focusing to infinity
It is especially important to focus on the subjects of your scene. If the subjects are buildings for example, then you should absolutely avoid using a low f-stop. Lower f-stops like 1.8, 2.8, 3.5, etc are going to give you too shallow of a focal plane to allow for crisp buildings. Use a higher f-stop. You will most likely need to focus manually rather than relying on auto focus.
More to come. Just ran out of time. Below are some subjects that I will continue to write about
Light painting is when you open the shutter and purposely move light. The key to light painting is to have enough time with the shutter open for the light to form streaks on the exposure. In this shot by Amen Panesar of NRG Studios the shutter speed was a full 6 seconds. Here are the exact settings – ISO: 100 | f3.5 | 6 sec | 16mm | jpg. Taken with a Sony A6000.
As you can see, Amen created an umbrella of light through the use of shutter speed. He started his ISO at 100 because he neede to get the shutter to 6 seconds. The most important aspect of night photography is shutter speed. It has to be your priority.
If your ISO was 100 and you had your shutter speed at six seconds, then your f-stop can be adjusted to make the exposure work. I would take this shot with a few different f-stops to get the desired outcome. Then, delete the ones you don’t want.