There’s something special about capturing photos of the night sky that the naked eye can’t quite catch. The endless stars, the colors of the milky way, and the experience of being out in nature on a dark, silent night. It’s something I wish I could do more often. There’s a lot of patience and planning that goes in to photographing the night. The conditions have to line up, setting up compositions takes longer, exposures take longer so I have a true appreciation for night images. If you’re getting in to night photography more and more, these are some useful tips to help you to be more successful getting those stellar images.
Learn your hyperfocal length.
This is incredibly useful when shooting at night and a lot of inexperienced photographers don’t seem to know about. The definition of hyperfocal length is the closest distance at which a lens can be focused while keeping objects at infinity sharp. In other words, how close to your lens an object can be in focus while maintaining everything past it in focus. It is determined by your focal length, aperture, and the distance from the lens that you want the focus to begin. As you may know, the lower your aperture (wider open to let in more light) then the shallower (or less) depth of field you have. Also, the higher your focal length, the shallower your depth of field. This may seem really confusing, and it is confusing. There is a mathematical equation to figure this out, or you can just guess and check (miserable experience), or you can simply download an app on your phone that will take care of this for you. I have always used the free app “Simple DoF Calculator”, but there are several different ones on the market. You simply put in the desired focal length and aperture and it tells you at what distance you have focus, or your depth of field.
Check local conditions.
Before you head out, be sure to check local weather and moon phases. Shooting landscape photos at night isn’t something that should be unplanned. You want to make sure the skies will be clear and if you want to see the stars best, go out on a new moon so that the sky is the darkest. Other conditions you can check are the winds because high winds can cause a lot of haze and particulate in the air making the sky less clear. Lastly when you really want to get technical for that stellar shot of the milky way or moon, you can download augmented reality apps or check websites online that will tell you exactly what time and where the moon or milky way will be.
Bring a good headlamp/torch.
It’s really important to have a strong light with you out there. You need something that can illuminate a good distance away so that if you are out wandering in the night, you can find your way back. I learned this the hard way once. I was out in Arizona on a really dark night, I realized I had forgotten a good flashlight, so I just used my iphone’s flashlight to go out to the spots I wanted to shoot. So I went way too far from camp and realized I didn’t quite know my way back to camp in the black night. The light on the trusty iphone really only lights up about 10-12 feet in front of you, so that didn’t really help much in finding a trail… Long story short, I was lucky there were lots of mountains/buttes in the background that I recognized as to what general direction the camp was. Anyways, avoid doing this so you aren’t stuck out in the dark nights having to wait until the sun comes up.
Turn LCD brightness all the way down!
It’s real dark out there, make sure you turn your LCD brightness down. When shooting in the dark night, you want your eyes to adjust as much as possible to the dark so you can see everything that much better. Turning your brightness down will keep your eyes from having to adjust as much to staring at the LCD and then back in to the dark. Also, it will help you from thinking that you are overexposing your photos. When out in the dark, your screen will appear so much brighter than during the day, so often you will take a photo, and it looks way too bright making you think you may have overexposed even if it is properly exposed. Which brings the next point…
Always check your histogram.
This applies to shooting in the bright day as much as at night. You should never trust your exposure based off the way it looks on the LCD. If you’re very experienced, you can eyeball it better, but it’s reckless. Always pull up your histogram of photos, especially at night to make sure your exposure is lying where it needs to be.
Test shot with high ISO for composition.
This is a good little trick for setting up your composition. Instead of blasting the area with a big torch to light it up while you compose, it’s easy just to pump up your ISO to the max, set it on a quick shutter speed and just snap a photo to check your basic composition. I always do this when I am composing my photos in the dark. There’s nothing like waiting 5, 10, 20, a minute, etc just to see that you need to shift the tiniest bit to the right, then doing it only to find out that you’re still off. This can be ultra frustrating and can waste some much needed time. \
I hope these tips help you in some way to bring your night photography to the next level. Now get out there, explore, and shoot!