Night Photography Basics Part 1 – New Moon and Milky Way

April 25, 2012
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NOTE: I’ve revised and rewritten this tutorial in much more depth, which can be found here: http://blog.freeroamingphotography.com/5717/how-to/night-photography-explored-part-2-the-milky-way-galaxy/
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Light pollution from Jackson, Wyoming extends up into the Milky Way Galaxy. (Mike Cavaroc)
Light pollution from Jackson, Wyoming extends up into the Milky Way Galaxy.

There’s an expression in photography that goes, "Don’t pack till it’s black," implying that as long as there’s light in the day, there’s still something to shoot. While it’s certainly true, one of the most exciting times for photography is when it has actually gone black, or during night time hours. Whether there’s a new moon, full moon, or something spectacular in the sky, there’s still plenty of light to do something interesting. This is the first part of a two part series that will focus on how to do night photography with a DSLR camera. The first part will focus on the basics, such as recommended gear and ideal settings, and will get into how and why to use it under a new moon, or no moonlight. Part two will focus on what to do during a full moon, northern lights, meteor showers, and star trails.

Applying Settings for Night Photography

First and foremost, you should be shooting in the RAW format. This can be set in the menu of your camera, if it’s not already. If you don’t know why, a simple Google Search will show you a plethora of reasons, but more specifically, for this purpose, it allows much better flexibility when processing on the computer. It allows you to alter the White Balance in a program like Photoshop or Lightroom, as well as giving you more allowance to brighten the image, if necessary, just to name a couple of examples. Since a JPEG is compressed inside the camera, it’s sort of already processed, applying a few, simple post-processing applications inside the camera, whereas processing in RAW gives you the freedom to make those adjustments in the manner that you feel most appropriately suits the image. The difference between shooting in RAW and JPEG is sort of like the difference between cooking a fresh meal and reheating leftovers. If you do choose to leave your camera in JPEG for whatever reason, you’ll want to make sure you set your White Balance to Fluorescent.

Next, you should set your camera to Manual mode. This is best night mode because the light-meter built into your camera is only worth anything during daylight hours, and thus, will give you improper readings during night hours as well as very dark exposures on the automatic modes. Likewise, many rules of photography are thrown out the window during the night because the faint light available changes a number of things. Why not Bulb (B)? Bulb mode is great for a number of applications, however, anything longer than 20 or 30 seconds will leave noticeable star trails. Even if star trails are what you’re wanting to accomplish, there are better ways of going about them than with long exposures, which I’ll detail in the next section. With your camera on M, you now have control of three essential elements: aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. I’ll provide a few basic understandings for anybody new to working in M along with the recommended settings for each and why they should be set as such.

Aperture

The aperture is a device in the lens that opens and closes based on the setting to allow more or less light in for an exposure, and is usually controlled with the dial on the back-side of the camera. To get an accurate picture of how it works, think back to the original Alien movie (if you saw it) where Ripley was crawling around in the air ducts with circular doorways opening and closing behind her. The aperture actually looks the exact same as those doorways. A Google Images search for lens aperture will also yield plenty of other examples. With regular landscape photography, you’d want it set to something like f/16 or f/18, which will have the aperture closed down quite a bit and will capture a much better depth-of-field than something opened up more. However with night photography, especially during a new moon, we need it opened up as much as possible to allow in as much light as possible, and thus, the aperture number, or f-stop, should be as low as possible. If you don’t have a lens that goes lower than f/5.6 or f/4, you won’t see much of a Milky Way, nor as many stars as are actually up there, but you’ll get the essence of it. Otherwise, you’ll want to set it to something between f/1.4 or f/2.5 if possible. This will allow the Milky Way to really come out nice, assuming you’re a good distance away from light pollution.

ISO

ISO controls how sensitive the sensor is to the light coming through the lens when it’s exposed. For night photography with no moon present, you’ll want something pretty high. Fortunately, many newer cameras can accomplish relatively extraordinary ISO settings allowing for some great night photography. On my Canon 7D, I typically do night shots around 4000-5000. With something like the 5D Mark III, or the equivalent Nikon, you could probably get away with something even higher. There will be noise produced in your image, but this can be reduced both in the camera and in post-processing. On the 7D, look under the Custom Functions and go to the second menu, Image. The second option in that is High-ISO Noise Reduction. Usually, if I set the ISO to anything higher than 1000, I’ll set that setting to Strong. Most newer cameras should have a similar setting as well in a similar area. As mentioned, your image will still have noise in it, but this will greatly reduce the amount of noise, allowing a post-processing application like Adobe Lightroom to handle much of the remaining noise. When finding an ideal setting, your camera will max out at a setting that will probably produce too much noise, so it’s best to dial it down two or three steps from where it maxes out. It will take a bit of experimenting where you eventually feel comfortable leaving it since every camera handles ISO differently, so take a number of different shots at different settings and see which one works best with different combinations. Eventually you’ll find a sweet spot that you know and trust.

Shutter Speed

The shutter speed is what controls how long the sensor is exposed to a given scene. This can range anywhere from 1/some-thousandth-of-a-second, to 30 seconds, and is typically controlled with the dial closest to your index finger. With night photography, you typically don’t want to exceed 20-30 seconds for a single exposure because stars move a lot quicker than you think, and anything longer than that will cause you to pick up noticeable star trails. You might be going for a star trail look, but there are actually better ways of going about it using digital cameras than with one exposure, which, as mentioned, will be explained in the next post. In addition, if you leave it open for more than a minute, the sensor noise becomes pretty bad, making it hard to find a practical application for the image itself, so keeping it between 20-30 seconds is ideal. If you have a lens that can open up to something less than f/2.8, I’d recommend an exposure of no more than 20 seconds. If you don’t have a lens that can open that wide, then your best bet is to stick to 30 seconds.

Peripherals

Tripod

Since your camera is going to be taking longer shots than any human can physically hold still, you’ll need to set it on something. For night photography, a tripod is essential. This will allow you to easily switch compositions and move around in the sky to capture different angles. A good tripod can get pretty pricey, so if you have the money, and you plan on getting serious with your photography, it would be a good investment to go ahead and make since a tripod has many more practical uses than just night photography. If you’re on a budget, or simply plan on keeping photography a hobby, you can find a good one ranging from $100-$200 with some searching. I have a similar tripod to this Dolica tripod, and while it may not be the best tripod you’ll find, it’s great for anyone on a budget and lightweight enough to carry around. Plus the most important factor is that it was made to support the weight of a DSLR camera. Spend less than $100 on a tripod for a DSLR and you’ll be replacing it sooner than later.

Intervalometer

An intervalometer is a device that plugs into your camera and can serve a few different purposes. For this instance, it’s a great thing to have so that you don’t shake the camera by pushing the shutter button down. No matter how still you think you can be, there will still be a little shake in lifting your finger off the button, so with either an intervalometer or remote plugged in, that will be eliminated. Also if you’re interested in doing time-lapse photography and/or star trails, this will be a necessity. Though I’m not 100% certain, from what I understand, many Nikon cameras already have the intervalometer functionality built in, but you’ll still want to eliminate shaking, so some kind of remote is highly recommend for night shots. The official Canon model can run around $150, however you can find third party alternatives, such as this one, with a bit of searching. Just make sure your camera model is listed in whichever one you’re looking at.

Lens and Focusing

Wide angle lenses work best for new moon night photography because this gives you the opportunity to pick up many more stars and is also much easier to deal with focusing. My primary lens for night photography is a Sigma 20mm f/1.8. Though not up to speed with Canon’s L Series lenses, it still does a great job for anyone on a budget. If you’re in the market for a good, new wide angle though, the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L lens would make for a great night lens as well since it can go down to f/2.8 and also give you 16mm to capture plenty of stars. Either lens would be best suited on a full-frame sensor, such as a 5D Mark II or III, but currently I only have the original 5D, so to take advantage of combining it with a high ISO, I choose to put it on my 7D. No matter which lens you have, 24mm is about as zoomed in as you’ll want to be for night shots, though you’ll typically want it zoomed out all the way regardless. To focus, it’s best to set your lens to Manual Focus so that you can set it to infinity and not have to worry about it wanting to readjust with each shot. The auto-focus will want to look for something with contrast to lock onto, but with such a dark scene, it won’t find anything and will either leave the scene completely unfocused, or won’t find anything at all. If your lens doesn’t have a reading for the focus ring, then while there’s still daylight, find a mountain peak or object as far away as possible and then with the lens as wide as possible, focus on that object. Then when night comes around, make sure you haven’t altered anything on the lens, including the focal length, unless you know to put it back where it was.

Start Shooting!

If you’re in an area with no light pollution, you should let your eyes adjust for a few minutes so that you can see the ground and other objects more clearly that are lit only by the stars and Milky Way. This will help when you’re looking through your camera trying to find a suitable composition. Since stars are the dominant factor, you don’t need much ground at all, but just enough to "anchor" the scene. If you’re nearby an object that you’d like illuminated in the foreground by light-painting, this will be discussed in the next section. The most dramatic Milky Way shots are when it seems to be emanating from a particular area or spot. Therefore, if you have a good view of the Milky Way, it might be best to move around whether on your feet or in your car to find the perfect composition. Otherwise, line up your horizon just above the bottom of the viewfinder (it might take a couple of test shots), make sure your lens is on manual focus and set to infinity and begin shooting! Remember to open up your aperture as much as possible (which is a lower number), bump up your ISO, and shoot for a shutter speed of 20-30 seconds, depending on your configuration. Happy shooting!

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