Night photography is a fascinating genre of landscape photography. You’re standing outside in total darkness but the camera display shows something else: a starry sky and the beauty surrounding you.
Photographing the night sky isn’t quite as straightforward as one might want, though. In fact, it is in many cases quite opposite of ‘regular’ landscape photography. Using the ‘wrong’ settings might lead to complete black images, and from experience, a lot of frustrations.
To capture beautiful images of the night sky, you need to choose the right aperture, ISO and shutter speed. These are the settings you want to use:
Use an Open Aperture
While we tend to shoot with a narrow aperture for regular landscape photography (in order to achieve front-to-back sharpness), night photography requires a faster aperture.
Wide-angle lenses with a fast aperture such as f/2.8 are preferred for night photography but, unfortunately, they are often double the price of lenses with a maximum aperture of f/4.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t get good pictures with an f/4 lens, though. It just means that you need a higher ISO or slower shutter speed to get a similar result.
You Need a High ISO
Night photography is in many ways the opposite of regular landscape photography. During the daytime, a low ISO is preferred due to less noise and grain. During the night, however, it’s often pitch black and using the same settings as in the daytime will result in, you guessed it, pitch-black images.
That’s why we need to make some compromises.
Using a higher ISO means that the camera sensor is more sensitive to light and allows for a shorter shutter speed in order to get the same exposure. A high ISO also means introduces a significant amount of noise and grain to the image; which is why we tend to keep it as low as possible.
Read More: Introduction to ISO in Landscape Photography
Depending on the moon phase and artificial light, I typically use an ISO between 1600 and 3200. In certain scenarios, I might get away with using a lower ISO such as 800 or 1000.
The Shutter Speed Shouldn’t Be Too Slow
Right now you might be asking: why can’t I just keep a low ISO and narrow aperture, but a very slow shutter speed instead?
The answer is quite simple.
A too slow shutter speed will result in blurry stars. Shutter speeds of several minutes, or even hours, are often used to create star trails.
To keep the stars sharp you need to calculate the maximum shutter speed for your lens. Luckily, there’s a formula! Take the number 500 (for full-frame sensors) or 300 (for crop sensors) and divide it by the focal length:
14mm: 500/14 = 35 seconds (300/14 = 21 seconds)
16mm: 500/16 = 31 seconds (300/16 = 18 seconds)
20mm: 500/20 = 25 seconds (300/20 = 15 seconds)
24mm: 500/24 = 20 seconds (300/24 = 12 seconds)
Use the formula above to calculate the maximum shutter speed for your lens to keep stars sharp. The use of a slower shutter speed will result in the stars appearing as blurry oblong trails.
Personally, I avoid using an exposure time longer than 30 seconds even at 14mm.
The Best Settings for Night Photography
By now you should have a fair idea of what settings to use the next time you’re out photographing the night sky, but let’s summarize:
While the exact settings will change from picture to picture, the ideal settings for night photography is a high ISO (typically starting at 1600), an open aperture (such as f/2.8 or f/4) and the longest possible shutter speed as calculated with the 500 or 300 rule.
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More Night Photography
Are you interested in learning more about night photography? Then be sure to have a look at these in-depth courses that will teach you everything you need to know about mastering photography in the dark: