One of the most fun times for photography is at night. It’s also one of the most challenging.
In this article you’ll learn how to get the best results. By using the best night photography settings.
What’s Your Night Photography Niche
Photographing at night is a very broad area. And the best settings for night shots depend on the type of image you’re after.
Some of the most popular genres are street photography, blue hour cityscapes, and astrophotography, including star photography.
Or you can get creative. Use light painting techniques to make your photographs pop!
Night Settings for Street Photography
Street photos that you produce at night will have mood and atmosphere. For this, you’ll need to best utilise the available light sources.
For equipment, stick with prime lenses. And for camera settings, you’ll need a wide open aperture and a shutter speed fast enough for sharp images. And an ISO that isn’t too high.
If you want to learn more about nighttime street photography, check out this article.
Mixing genres like light painting and astrophotography can be fun. You just need to make sure you have the correct night photography settings.
Photography Settings for Astrophotography
Photographing the Milky Way is easier than ever. It’s not the only form of astrophotography though. Try photographing the northern lights or star trails.
Or how about the moon? It presents its own unique challenge as a bright object in the sky. Sometimes, there are even lunar eclipses to photograph!
Photographing the Milky Way
You’ll need to choose a night with a new moon, or one or two days either side of the new moon.
You’ll also need to go somewhere dark. Doing this in a city is out of the question.
Luckily there are some nifty apps that will help you here. Use them both to find a dark sky, and to locate the Milky Way.
Now you have your location and time of year all set. You’ll need to think about your night photography settings.
It’s all about the ISO, aperture and shutter speed here.
Photographing the Milky Way requires a dark sky. The desert can be a good place for this.
You should use the largest aperture you can get.
As you’ll be using a wide angle lens, this aperture is likely to be f2.8. It’s possible to use smaller apertures. But this will lead to longer shutter speeds, or higher ISOs.
It’s often not desirable to push the other two settings up, so investing in a lens with a large aperture is best.
We’ll talk about the shutter speed last. But this can only be around 25 seconds. You’ll need to work with the ISO to expose your photo.
Those with newer camera bodies that have full frame sensors will cope better with a high ISO.
If you’re using a lens with a maximum aperture of f4, you’ll need to push your ISO up towards 6400.
In practical terms this means you’ll need a camera body that can handle a high ISO without introducing too much noise. Or a camera lens with an aperture of f2.8.
The rotation of the earth means there is a maximum length of exposure you can use. This will depend on the focal length of your lens, and the type of camera body you’re using.
What happens if you go over this exposure length? You’ll start to see movement in the stars. Your Milky Way photo will no longer be as sharp.
How do you know what the maximum focal length you can use is? There’s a simple equation for it.
- Full frame camera sensor – You divide the focal length of your lens by 500. So for a 16mm focal length – 500/16 = 31.25
- Crop camera sensor – This time you’ll divide the focal length of your lens by 300. Once again with 16mm this is – 300/16 = 18.75
This all means you get more than ten seconds extra for your exposure time with a full frame camera using a 16mm lens. Not to mention a larger scene to photograph.
These are big advantages for the full frame cameras.
Another approach to photographing stars is to take a long exposure. This way they move across the sky.
Of course the Milky Way is not the only set of stars you can see in the sky, but it does provide a focal point.
One of the most popular approaches is to capture the rotation of the earth. This means using longer exposures.
There are two ways to go about producing a photo that shows star movement in the sky.
The first involves an ultra long exposure. The second involves stacking many photos together.
- Ultra long exposure – You’ll need to expose for 20-30 minutes if you wish to do this with one photo. It’s possible to get the photo this way. But it makes it difficult to control the bright foreground lights. You will need to use a small aperture to achieve such a long exposure. The worst aspect of this approach though is that it can damage your sensor. While it can work, photo stacking is a better option.
- Stacking photos – This replaces the ultra long exposure. Instead, you’ll take many 30 second exposures. You’ll likely be using the same settings you photographed the Milky Way with, so a high ISO and a large aperture. Once you have the photos you’ll need to merge them together. A great piece of software for this is StarStaX. You can read our full StarStax review here.
Including interesting foreground elements in your night photography will give the photo more impact.
Photographing the Moon
Photographing the moon can be a little challenging.
You have to decide if you’re just photographing the moon. Or you wish to include landscape elements in your photograph. Or you’re going to photograph a lunar eclipse!
Here are the best night photography settings for each scenario.
The Moon Is Your Main Subject
With this type of photography, you’ll need a long telephoto lens. It’s best to use one that has a focal length beyond 1000mm.
If this is not available to you, and you’re using a basic 70-300mm lens then cropping in is an option.
Photographing the moon when it’s full is popular. But you might get nicer images during a different phase of the moon.
So what night photography settings do you need beyond a long focal length?
- Shutter speed – The moon is moving fast, so you’ll need a slower shutter speed of around 1/125th second. And you should use a tripod to avoid camera shake. Remember to turn image stabilization off if you do use a tripod.
- Aperture – That faster shutter speed, and the brightness of the moon means using a smaller aperture. Choose an aperture of f8 as a starting point. This is the sharpest for the majority of lenses. If your lens is sharper at a different aperture, use that aperture.
- ISO – Your aperture and shutter speed are set, now adjust your ISO settings accordingly to correctly expose the moon. The higher the ISO, the brighter the image but also the more noise you’ll have. Stick with ISO 1600 as most modern cameras can handle this. If your image is still too dark, go up to ISO 3200. If it’s too light, drop down to a low ISO, like ISO 800.
The Moon Is Part of a Landscape Photo
Photographing the moon as part of a landscape photo takes a lot more planning and preparation.
The settings you use will be different as well, because you might be photographing during blue hour. But your aperture should stay around f8.
- Control the light – One of the easier times to photograph the moon is during the blue hour. The moon won’t overpower the rest of the photo with it’s brightness. In this case you will likely be able to take a single frame, and get the correct exposure. The trick is knowing when the moon will be on the horizon during the blue hour. Alternatively you may need to take a mixture of photos of the same scene, but at different exposure levels. And then use digital blending to merge the photos together.
- Moon position – As with the position of the sun during a sunset photo, you will also need to carefully consider where the moon is in the sky. The PhotoPills app will give you this information. When the moon is lower on the horizon you may be able to zoom in on it, and juxtapose a foreground object against the moon using compression.
- Focus – With the moon and your foreground elements likely to be in different focal planes, you will need to use focus blend to keep the entire image sharp. To do this take a photo that focuses on the foreground elements, and then another with sharp focus on the moon. Once you have both of these photos, blend them together using layers in Photoshop.
Photographing the Lunar Eclipse
Once in a while you’ll be lucky enough to see a lunar eclipse.
Many of the settings are similar to moon photography in general. But you’ll be dealing with a much darker object when the moon is in full eclipse.
Let’s look at the night photography settings for this.
- Aperture – This will play a much more significant role with the darker eclipsed moon. You’ll need a lens with a larger aperture. For a telephoto this means f2.8. This larger aperture allows you to open the lens to say f4, and still retain a sharp image.
- Shutter speed – The slowest you can realistically go is 1/125th of a second. Should you be struggling to get this as the moon enters the eclipse, increase your aperture and ISO accordingly.
- ISO – Each camera will have a maximum ISO, but this will almost certainly be too noisy. If your camera goes to ISO 6400, using ISO 4000 is realistic.
Photographing the phases of an eclipse can be interesting.
Showing Different Moon Phases
A lunar eclipse is a dynamic event that lasts several hours. You’ll see the moon in different phases of the eclipse.
You might choose to focus on one great photo of the moon in full eclipse. An alternative to this is a sequence of photos merged together in Photoshop. Show a progression of the moon, as it goes through the eclipse.
If you decide to do this, make sure the background area around the moon is at the same level of exposure for each photo.
So now your know your night photography settings, it’s time to become a night owl and get those night time photos!
What’s your favourite type of night photography? Do you enjoy photographing the night sky, as this article details? Perhaps you enjoy cityscapes, or street photography more?
As always we’d love for you to share your work with others in the comments section, together with any techniques you use for your work.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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