Six Standout Night Photography Tips to Help You Master the Craft

Six Standout Night Photography Tips to Help You Master the Craft

Photo by Grant Kaye/180-degree panorama of Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park, CA.

Photographers who specialize in night photography and stair trails are somewhat of a special breed. This isn’t so surprising when you realize how much in-depth understanding and science know-how they must possess in order to get the job done – not to mention the specialty gear required to get a quality shot at night.

But don’t let the fancy equipment or the prospect of staying up all night discourage you from pursuing night photography. After speaking with Lake Tahoe-based time-lapse and night photographer Grant Kaye, who was featured in our Selling Nature Photography guide, we compiled the top 6 night photography tips to help you master the craft.

Background

Grant started to seriously pursue night photography when he was working fulltime as a volcano specialist – meaning the only time he had to photograph was after work when the sun had already gone down. “I gravitated to night photography after realizing that I could still make images on days that I had to work until 6pm,” says Grant. “Once I got hooked, I had to learn everything I could about shooting at night.”

Four years ago, Grant gave up his work with volcanoes and started to pursue photography fulltime. But how did he make the move from enthusiast to professional? That’s where Grant’s night photography tips for both style and technique come in handy.

1. Combine elements to create an artistic interpretation.

Grant rarely photographs just the night sky alone – he almost always seeks out unique elements in the landscape to combine with his night shots. The result is images that are based on reality, but contain his artistic interpretation of a scene. “I prefer to shoot in places that have both dark skies and interesting things in the landscape to combine with stars and other extraterrestrial objects,” explains Grant.

The elements that Grant chooses to include in his composition come in all shapes and sizes. It’s often the rugged or funky-looking trees native to the American Southwestern deserts, or a group of jagged rocks alongside a placid lake. The elements don’t take away from the starry skies, but actually add a focal point that draws the viewer into the entire image.

Photo by Grant Kaye/White Mountains, CA.

Grant encourages aspiring night photographers to play around with their surroundings, and not to give up when they don’t see their ideal composition right away. “No one can create great night images without experimenting and learning by trial and error!” says Grant.

2. Gain a solid understanding of lunar & planetary motions.

We can’t harp on this one enough – good, let alone great night photographers have a solid understanding of what the moon and stars are up to at any given time during the year. “Thorough knowledge of moon phase and rise/set times prior to going out shooting is crucial to achieving whatever kind of night shot you want to create,” Grant advises.

“Some images require a rising or setting moon, some a new moon, and some a full moon,” says Grant. “For example, shooting the bright center of our Milky Way galaxy requires dark skies and little-to-no moonlight to really bring out the colors in the ‘dust lanes’ of the galactic center. What’s more, there are only certain times of the year that the middle of the galaxy presents itself high enough above the horizon to shoot it in the dark part of the night.”

To get those stellar star trail shots, night photographers know that it’s all about the rotation of the earth. “A camera fixed on a tripod is actually moving along with everything else on the planet,” explains Grant. “So, if you start a long bulb exposure at night in the northern hemisphere facing in a northerly direction, the stars in the sky will appear as trails in concentric rings around the north star as result of the earth rotating on its north-south axis.”

Photo by Grant Kaye/Middle Velma Lake, Desolation Wilderness, Lake Tahoe, CA – star trails stack with a set of images for stars and one exposure for foreground,at full moon.

Because stars appear the brightest when there is a new moon or the moon has yet to rise, photographers must make a tradeoff: no moonlight might mean better star trails, but you won’t get much illumination on the landscape. Grant suggests photographers pre-visualize how they want the image to come out, and marry that with their understanding of the lunar and planetary motions.

Grant says you have to ask yourself, “Are you shooting stars, or a moonlit landscape? Do you want star points, or trails? Is the moon up? If so what phase is it, and when does it rise and set? How much light pollution is around in the direction you are facing? Each one of those things requires a different strategy.” Proper planning means a better chance of getting the image that you want.

3. Invest in gear with low light capabilities.

Photographers frequently ask Grant if they need to spend boatloads of money on gear to produce images like his. “The answer is mostly no,” says Grant. “All you really need to take photographs at night is a camera with manual mode, film or a memory card, and a tripod.”

Personally, Grant is a Canon shooter and currently uses his trusty 5D Mark II, though he recently purchased a Mark III and has been “blown away by the low-light capability.”

“In the last five years, shooting at night with digital cameras has improved one thousand-fold if not more,” says Grant. “Full-frame, low-noise sensors in cameras with fast RAW processing hardware and speedy storage cards have brought us into a new era of night photography.”

In addition to the Mark II/III, Grant also suggests the Nikon D3s and D800. When it comes to lenses, his go-to is the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 lens. This gives him the possibility to shoot quality images in low light.

“The use of a wider-aperture prime lens will allow you to let in more light and bring down noise levels,” says Grant. “The Canon 24mm f/1.4 is excellent, but if this is out of your price range, consider getting the ‘nifty 50’ Canon 50mm f/1.8 for around $100. You’ll be shocked at what a difference there is in your night photography between f/2.8 and f/1.8.”

Photo by Grant Kaye/Mono Lake, CA – star trails and long exposure at new moon.

Beyond the body and lens, there are several pieces of equipment that Grant says can help improve the quality of the images you create:

  • Cable release
  • Intervalometer for creating time-lapse
  • Motion control system (for adding an element of foreground motion to time-lapses)
  • Sturdy tripod for wind resistance
  • Headlamp with a red LED
  • Flashlight for light painting
  • Photoshop or Lightroom for noise removal, frame stacking, dodging and burning, etc.

While the above gear isn’t technically necessary, serious professionals should look into investing in a few of these to further improve their night photography.

4. Fall in love with high ISO.

“There really is no catch-all recipe for camera settings and night photography,” admits Grant. “You really have to go back to pre-visualizing what kind of image you want to create, based on what landscape and astronomical features you hope to bring together.”

Still, the general rule for night photography is to use the lowest ISO possible and the widest aperture available. “Digital SLR sensors will start to suffer from high noise at higher ISO values,” says Grant, “and also when performing long exposure at lower values.”

“To throw any potential night shooters a bone… for the most part, you will be shooting at or above ISO 800, below f/6.7, and exposing for at least 10 seconds. Start there, make a guess, check your histogram and LCD screen (don’t bother with the light meter), and give it a try!”

Photo by Grant Kaye/Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, CA – short exposure, wide aperture, high ISO, just before moonrise.

Since star trail images are made with either long exposures or stacking multiple short exposures, noise can be a big issue. And that’s where your post-production skills come in.

5. Master post-production.

The truth is that no matter how high the ISO or how wide your fancy lens can go, it’s pretty difficult to get a totally clean night shot. So Grant suggests creating a “dark frame” and subtracting the noise from your photo.

“Let’s say you want to shoot a long, 15 minute exposure to make a star trails image, and there is a half moon,” says Grant. “You might be at f/2.8, ISO 400. After you make your 15-minute exposure, put the lens cap on, cover your viewfinder with your hat, and then make another 15-minute exposure, or ‘dark frame.’ Then take this image into Photoshop or Lightroom as a layer above your star trails image and change the blending mode of the dark frame to ‘difference.’” This post-production technique removes the noise and gives a cleaner final image.

Photo by Grant Kaye/Racetrack Playa, Death Valley National Park, CA – long exposure of star trails at new moon with dark frame subtraction.

Another method is to stack multiple images shot with as short of an interval that you camera/card combo can handle. “One second is ideal,” says Grant, “and then you can fire off a sequence of a few hundred shots. Others may want to do less post-processing, and they should shoot 3-5 minute exposures with a very short 1-5 second interval between frames, and then stack these.”

Photo by Grant Kaye/Alabama Hills, CA – stack of 279 exposures from a timelapse.

“With either technique,” says Grant, “dark frame subtraction is essential to mitigate noise as a last processing step.”

6. Find the “infinity point”.

Focusing and composing – they’re some of the most basic photographic techniques; but things get tricky when there’s no light to guide you. So instead, night photographers must find the “infinity point” on their lenses.

“I typically start out by temporarily setting my camera to the highest ISO it is capable of,” says Grant. “I then switch the camera into Bulb mode, adjust the focus to approximately where I think the infinity point is, and hold down the shutter with my finger for 2-6 seconds. The resulting image isn’t useable due to extremely high levels of ugly pattern noise, but it will tell you what is in your composition, and whether or not your focus is at the right point by whether the stars are crisp dots or fuzzy.”

From there, you can make small adjustments to your focus until you get it right, and then switch back to usable ISOs. It’s a departure from the “normal” routine, but then again, so is much of night photography.

Photo by Grant Kaye/Bribie Island, Brisbane, Australia – short exposure, just at break of dawn with heavy light pollution and rare astronomical phenomenon.

Additional resources

Want more tips to build an outdoor & adventure photography business? Be sure to check out our guide Building Your Outdoor and Adventure Photography Business with more tips from pros to market your work, master storytelling, develop a solid workflow and attract the clients you want.

2014-05-07_AdventureGuide_blog

Next Post:
Previous Post:
This article was written by
There are 46 comments for this article
  1. James Gilligan at 3:12 pm

    Hey Lauren.. quick Q
    So I’m taking a photo- its night time- (thru the viewfinder.. or use my LCD; which would u suggest)… #2 looking thru @ my subject or sky.. I can’t see a thing.. (should I switch off the AF to MF.. ) and then whats the best way to achieve a crisp clear focus without running a full exposure and finding it too soft?

    ~sidenote nice article Keep up the good work PhotoShelter… and I have the 50mm 1.4 Canon lens I think its probably 1 million times easier to take an image then my Kit lens 28-135mm which consequently doesn’t have a lock for the focal length– ie setting up on a tripod the lens would fall back upon itself.. So u frame your composition and just got the focus right and then Doink! the lens slides back into itself- and u have to start over or spend precious time manipulating it to a desired composition again.

  2. Sharkpixel.com at 7:17 am

    There was a great seminar on this at Photoshop World in DC. Lots of the same great information. Dr. Brown makes a cool action that will stack a bunch of shirt (4 minute) exposures on top of themselves and create much longer star trails! So smart!!!

    Kristina Sherk

  3. John Dunne at 4:05 pm

    Great article with plenty of useful tips.

    To answer James’ question…
    1) Neither as you are pretty much blind in the dark. As Grant suggests you need to set your camera at its highest ISO and take a quick shot check composition and focus and then fine tune the composition as needed.
    2) You should use MF and focus on infinity

    One other useful tip that Grant did not mention is the rule of 600. If you want crips images of the stars there is a max exposure time before the rotation of the earth kicks in and causes the stars to appear blurred in your final image. Simply devide your focal length by 600 to calculate the max exposure time e.g. 20mm / 600 = 30sec exposure (Just make sure you allow for crop factor).

    Cheers
    John

  4. Pingback: » Arnestad Photography | The Blog
  5. Ryan at 12:18 pm

    @James Gilligan- you can always set your iso as high as possible then take multiple short exposures until you get your lens in focus before you take your actual shots. hope that helps!

  6. Jeff Cruz at 12:09 pm

    Great article! Night photography is the reason I got back into photography in the first place. Here’s my first crack at star trails and I think it turned out great! Offering it as a free wallpaper as well!

    http://bit.ly/KSjUYl

    Field notes: Nikon D800 / Nikon 16-35mm f4.0 @ 16mm/f4.0 / 1hour, 10min exposure.

  7. Andes Lo at 12:20 pm

    Very like your article!! One question: you said do a dark frame with another 15mons of exposure with cap on to remove noise in photoshop. What is the different between using a black shape layer as the dark frame? Thanks!

  8. Michael Flaherty at 2:31 pm

    Thanks for the tips. I’ve been playing around with it off and on for about a year, and really need to get a noise-reduction workflow down, so that dark frame & reference to photo.net’s article.

    I just bought a vixen polarie because I prefer simply capturing one or two images. I don’t generally like star trails, and often find I want exposures longer than the 10-15 seconds where stars begin to seriously blur. If I can get real good at aligning the polarie, I’ll try some stacking of shorter exposures.

    Shooting at f/2.8 now but I’m thinking of trying my Zeiss 50. Can’t afford a super-fast prime wide-angle right now. When I can it’ll be tough between the Zeiss 21mm & the Canon 24.
    Thanks for the post.

  9. Murray Bolesta at 4:51 pm

    Very fine advice, thanks. In terms of marketability, though, I sell art prints and there is not much of a market for night photos. Not too many people interested in putting dark stuff on their walls. So, not a lot of motivation to go through the tribulations of producing them…

  10. Stewart Allen at 12:06 am

    With regards to the ‘dark frame’, could you shoot it the next day by copying the exposure details, and therefore save valuable time during the night shoot ?

  11. Steven Christenson at 1:17 pm

    About the Dark Frame:
    1. You must shoot it at the same temperature, ISO and exposure length for best results. So the next day may not work unless it’s also the same temperature. Why? Because noise is highly temperature specific.
    2. Black (dark frames) aren’t magic. They work best at removing CONSTANT noise (like stuck pixels and “amp glow”) and are not helpful for removing random noise which is usually the thing people suffer most with.

    (See http://blog.starcircleacademy.com/2010/10/exposing-for-stars/ and http://blog.starcircleacademy.com/2010/10/trouble-with-long-exposures/)

    PS Thanks, for linking to my star trail guide! It’s a bit old, but I do update it from time to time. Grant Kaye tells me it was his “Bible” for a while – but I can’t take any credit for his excellent work!

  12. Grant Kaye at 2:37 pm

    Hello everyone! Somehow I missed all of your comments and questions. If anyone has any further, specific questions, please feel free to shoot me an email at grant AT grantkaye DOT com, and I will do my best to answer them. Don’t hesitate to go to Steven Christenson’s site above for more info!

  13. Tom Dwyer at 2:35 pm

    I’m about to take of on an intergalactic journey looking for tips for starting out in night photography or “Astrophtography,” which until yesterday I have never heard of. Being in photography as long as I have been, I was like wow! Someone coined a new word.

    I made a list of sites to start researching on and this one is the first! Lauren, Thanks! This is a well put together post and I’m feeling inspired even more to work on this project.

    I’ll be back, often to read the comments so that I can make a great how to get started in night photography piece for my photo coaching web site.

    If anyone reading his has positive input for such an article – I’d love to hear it.

    Cheers!

    Tom Big Daddy Dwyer.

  14. Pingback: Grant Kaye on Low Light Photography
  15. Pingback: Photo: 2/26/13 | Miss Newman's Class
  16. Pingback: First night shot, I
  17. Kristina Blacke at 4:29 am

    Grant’s Alabama Hills, Lone Pine actually reminds me of some of the shots of nebula we see in newspapers, beautiful work!

    One of the most helpful guides focused on how to capture the stars I’ve stumbled across lately. Thank you! So much better to read through something like this and know what to expect before you drive miles to your location and freeze all night long waiting for the long exposures. Night photography has a certain draw to it, no doubt, I also enjoy urban night photography quite a bit. Here is a nice post about night cityscapes from Vancouver, if anyone is interested.

    Cheers,

    Kristina

  18. Michael Flaherty at 9:36 am

    I’m always surprised how few night photographers track the stars, instead preferring to use high ISO. I use a tracking mount and don’t really like trails much. Long exposures even at low ISO still produce noise, so the dark frame technique is still worthwhile. But I still have a usable image even without dark frame subtraction. That’s nice if I want to post it right away as part of a blog post, for example. A big benefit of lower ISO (in my opinion at least) is that the sky I get during partially moonlit nights more closely resembles what you and I see. You can make out constellations, which is nearly impossible with the super dense starfields you see in high ISO images. I prefer natural moonlight much more than light painting. Of course the super dense starfield shots generally get more “wows” than mine with fewer stars, but two things: (1) I cannot stand when photogs. crow about it being a single exposure, and that is what they saw (bull, no way you saw that super dense image captured at ISO 3200, give me a break! The famous Wally P. is even guilty of this outright lie); and (2) I think compositing two images (as I must do when I track – one for the sky and one for the landscape) is not in any way cheating. I mean, using the camera’s high ISO low-light technology is closer to “natural” while a simple and natural composite is not? My images are far from where I hope to be in the future, but I’m going for a more natural look. As I get better at including well exposed and interesting landscapes, I think that to chase super-dense stars at this point would be counter-productive. I would be getting away from my emerging night sky style. If you like, check out my blog (above) and search under night photography for relevant posts and images.

  19. Jonathan F.V. at 12:18 am

    @ John Dunne: About the rule of 600… I highly doubt this rule is right. The shorter the focal length, the less you see the movement of the stars, and the longer you can expose. So the exposure time is inversely correlated to the focal length. The rule of 600 as you explain it would imply that the longer the focal length, the longer you can expose, but it’s the opposite.

    I suggest people just try various exposure times with their lenses to figure out how long they can expose before seeing the movement of the stars. On my 19mm f/2.8, I can expose for nearly 30 seconds. On my 50mm f/1.8, I have to keep it lower than 15 seconds.

  20. Pingback: Six Standout Night Photography Tips to Help You Master the Craft | ericphieler
  21. Mike Long at 5:07 am

    Some relevant info here, but I would highly recommend you visit Joerg Bonner’s site:
    http://blog.joergbonner.net/2012/06/deserts-sky.html

    Follow the simple procedures and provided links and you’ll learn a lot. His free “starstacker” script download works very well, and his compositions appear more thoughtful and organized, and definitely less “overcooked” than those here.

    The first time I attempted to use his techniques I produced this, which is to say this type of photography is not complicated and you don’t need to know much about astronomy: http://photoblog.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/06/25/19139171-alpine-observatory-provides-a-peak-experience?lite

    Contrary to what Murray Bolesta posted above (“Problem is, there’s not much of a market for this type of picture.”) I now sell night sky prints weekly. This is now a very popular photography genré

  22. Lindsay Allen at 8:43 pm

    Fascinated by the idea of creating a “dark frame” however can you explain the difference between a 15 minute exposure with the lens cap on and a 1/100 sec exposure with the lens cap on. Surely if there is no light reaching the sensor/film it’s the same thing? Or have I failed to grasp something basic?

  23. Pingback: PHOTOGRAPHERS EXHOUSTIVE GUIDE AND TIPS | Photo Rig Studio
  24. Pingback: Night photography tips | LynetteBrunt Insperasie
  25. Pingback: Night Photography | WWU Photography
  26. Pingback: More image stacking stuff. | rotato faster bananba
  27. Pingback: How to stack images | rotato faster bananba
  28. Pingback: Monday Photo Tips » The Marigold Room
  29. Pingback: Fotografie Tipps - Nachtaufnahmen | Easyprint Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>