Night photography is something I'm fairly new at but also very interested in, like anything else it just takes practice and some patience. My recent post of the Milky Way I shot from Roan Mountain really seemed to get a lot of interest so I thought I would do a blog post on the subject of night photography.
Now let me be clear what I'm going to be discussing is night photography as it pertains to landscape photography not astrophotography. Like I said this is something that's fairly new to me but I will share with you what I've learned so far.
A few things you'll need:
Let me explain why I listed these things.
A dark place: Preferably somewhere pretty far from any city lights. The further you are away from the city lights the more stars you are going to be able to see and the less light pollution your camera is going to capture. If you are just trying to photograph stars and not necessarily the Milky Way then you can get by with a little light pollution. If you are wanting to see and ultimately capture the Milky Way then you need to be in a really dark place.
A sturdy tripod: I think this one might be self explanatory but when doing night photography you're going to be taking some long exposures, so that would be pretty much impossible without a tripod. As a landscape photographer a good sturdy tripod is something you should have anyway, if not then put that on your Christmas list and maybe Santa will bring you one.
A remote release: This isn't necessarily something you have to have but it's going to make things much easier. Most DSLR cameras will let you take up to a 30 second exposure without a remote release but if you want to go longer you'll need one. If you're not using a remote release then you'll need to use your camera's self timer to keep from shaking the camera as the shutter button is pressed.
A flashlight or headlamp: It's going to be dark so you're going to need some way to see what you're doing. If you have one with a red light this can be better because the red light won't affect your eyes as they adjust to the dark. After you get your camera set up you're going to want to let your eyes adjust to the dark for a minute or two, this helps you see the stars much better and sort of see what your camera's going to see.
A wide angle lens: Like I said before when you're doing night photography you're going to be shooting some long exposures. Since the earth is constantly spinning if you were to shoot a long exposure, say 30 seconds with a 50mm lens then the stars would look more like lines going across the sky. With a wide angle lens you can get by with shooting a longer exposure before you start getting "star trails" or seeing movement in the stars. Have you ever noticed when you're shooting with a telephoto lens that the slightest movement is very noticeable and not so much when shooting with a wide angle, well it's kind of the same thing.
"Under The Stars" Canon 5D MKII 17-40mm lens, 17mm f/4 25sec iso1600
For this image I wanted the tent to be the main subject, with the starry sky as a backdrop. I wanted to convey a feeling of being on the mountain camping out "under the stars", and I think I succeeded. One of the biggest questions I get asked about this image is how did I light the tent up. The first couple of shots I done that night I tried using a flashlight to "paint" the tent as the shutter was open, this technique of "light painting" can achieve some good results but I didn't have much luck at it. I have a small battery powered lantern that I take with me when camping so I took that and placed it inside the tent. With my first couple of shots the tent was way too bright so I adjusted the lantern so it wasn't as bright and laid it on it's side so it wasn't lighting up the tent as much. When doing landscape photography checking your histogram after taking a shot can really help, when doing night photography your histogram isn't going to help you out too much since most of the scene is going to be pure black. Instead of checking your histogram just check your images on your camera's lcd after you take one and try and see what you might need to adjust.
When you're trying to capture stars your going to want to shoot with a pretty large aperture and high iso, to capture as much light as possible. For this image I chose to shoot with my lens wide open (f/4) and an iso speed of 1600, you'll probably need to shoot at an iso setting of at least 800 then just check your images and increase if you need to. I left the shutter open for 25 seconds which seemed to be a good balance of capturing stars and exposing the tent correctly.
"Appalachian Milky Way" Canon 5D MKII 17-40mm lens, 17mm f/4 41sec iso2500
For this image of the Milky Way I had to increase my iso to 2500 and use an exposure of 41 seconds. When you're shooting the Milky Way you're going to want to shoot with your lens wide open (largest aperture) and start with an iso setting of at least 800, I started out at iso1600 then increased to iso2500. Once you get your camera set up and compose your image, this part can be a little tricky since it's so dark but after you take a test shot check to see if your horizon is straight then adjust accordingly. Make sure your lens is set to manual focus and focus to infinity, then start with an exposure of 30 seconds. Depending on how wide your lens is you might be able to shoot longer than 30 seconds and not get star trails, it's pretty much just trial and error. Shoot a frame then check your lcd, zoom in and see if you can see trailing in the stars and also check to make sure you're in focus. If the stars are in focus and you don't see trailing (movement) then just keep increasing your exposure, I was able to shoot a 41 second exposure at 17mm (full frame) and not see any trailing in the stars.
Now increasing your iso and shooting longer exposures is going to generate some digital noise. Most newer DSLR's handle high iso settings pretty good, some better than others. I did have some digital noise in both of these images but it wasn't too bad, I use a Photoshop plug-in called Imagenomic Noiseware to reduce noise and it does a wonderful job.
Another thing to note about capturing the Milky Way is you want to shoot when the moon is not present in the sky. Like I said before you need to be in a dark place and the light from the moon can hinder your ability to see as many stars and the Milky Way. The night that I shot these images there was a new moon so I didn't have to worry about any light from the moon. You don't necessarily have to shoot during a new moon but you're going to want to shoot at least an hour after or before the moon sets or rises in the sky.
As you can see a lot of time and preparation goes into capturing the Milky Way, it's not just something you can go out in your backyard on any night of the week and shoot. Like many situations in landscape photography it usually comes down to having all the elements fall right into place, then just being there to capture it. This is just one of the many challenges of Landscape Photography and it's something I embrace, if I didn't love it I wouldn't be doing it.