Monday, April 13, 2015

Get started with nightscape photography

I often get questions on how I take my photos and how one can get started taking similar photos of the night sky. I thought it might be a good idea to write up an article or two on how to get started in what’s called nightscape photography. What’s nightscape photography you might ask? It a photo genre where you combine a landscape foreground with a night sky scene, some use the name starscapes.

In this article I will share some of my experiences and give you some tips on how to get started in nightscape photography. I will focus on nightscape photography, I won't talk about deep sky photography since this requires some sort of tracking device for the camera to eliminate star trails due to Earth's rotation.

A camera and a tripod is pretty much all you need
to get started with nightscape photography.

To be able to take photographs at night you should have camera that allows you to change exposure settings manually, like exposure time and ISO value. A wide angle zoom lens is a good start and it doesn't matter if its manual focus since using auto focus in darkness can be a bit tricky. I strongly recommend that you start with your shortest focal length. You also need a tripod for your camera since we're working with long exposures. A shutter release is also a good thing to have to minimize camera shake during exposure. If you don’t have a shutter release you can also use the timer release on the camera.

Plan your trip

When doing any kind of night photograph there are some things to bare in mind. First of all I recommend that you learn the position of all your camera buttons and dials by heart. In darkness it can be frustrating to change settings when you having trouble finding the right buttons. You want to focus your energy on taking pictures, not trying to take them. A headlamp is a good help for this but its always better if you can manage without it since it will ruin your night vision every time you turn it on. A headlamp with red light preserves night vision much better than one with white light, so try using one of those.

Planning a photo and scouting locations is
really fun and rewarding in many ways.

If you're going to a remote dark site it can be a good idea to scout the location during daytime or go there before darkness. In that way it's much easier to find interesting foregrounds to work with and to see if there's anything blocking the view in a certain heading. You can also study locations using Google maps or similar services.

Exposure settings

Regarding white balance the camera can have a hard time getting the correct value at night so I recommend using Fluorescent as your default setting. Use RAW file format if your camera supports it, then you have the option to change white balance in post process. As always, do some test shots and see if the white balance matches what you're seeing.

As for exposure settings it varies depending on the situation and how dark your location is. Always aim for a low ISO value since raising your ISO reduces the camera's dynamic range and adds noise to your image. Start by increasing the exposure time and then raise the ISO the get the shot you're looking for. Take some test shots to see what exposure works best. My experience is that it's usually better to overexpose than underexpose since increasing exposure in post process will also bring forward the noise in the shadows.

A good rule of thumb for avoiding star trails is if you divide 500 by you focal length (Don't forget to include the crop factor on smaller sensors), you get the number of seconds you can expose. For example, if you're using a 50mm lens on a full format camera, you divide 500 by 50 and since that equals 10, we know that we can use a exposure time of 10 second and still get round stars. You can also experiment with really long exposure times to get star trails in you image. Those trails are very beautiful to add in you image.

Doing really long exposures will show star trails due to Earth's rotation.

Choosing lenses

As I mention earlier I recommend that you use wide angle lenses, one of the biggest advantages is that you can use longer exposure times before you get star trails, in that way you able to gather more light and being able to see fainter objects. Using longer focal lenses not only shortens your exposure time but it can also introduce stability problems, especially if it's windy, then you will need a sturdier tripod. So keep the gear light and portable, that way you are much more mobile and can easily change your position and composition.

A longer focal length is better when shooting a sunrise/sunset or moon rise/moon set, then you get larger celestial bodies to go along with your foreground. Remember to be very careful when shooting near or at the Sun since it can harm your eyes.

A longer focal length can give a dramatic effect when used
together with an exciting foreground.

Planning your shot

Search the Internet for interesting astronomical events and study when the Sun and Moon rises/sets. Try working with different Moon phases, a crescent Moon is often more interesting than a full Moon. Here's some examples of interesting events to take photos of

  • Meteor showers. There are several yearly meteor showers to keep track of
  • Comets. Now and then bright comets appear in the sky. At the moment there is a bright comet to watch out for.
  • Aurora. If you're at high or low latitudes you can watch out for northern and southern lights.
  • Milky Way. Our own galaxy the Milky Way is a very pleasing object to take photos of.
  • Sunrise/sunset and moon rise/moon set.
  • Planets. Check what planets are visible and in what heading they are.
Aurora is beautiful to experience and take pictures of. Since they cover a big
part of the sky, a wide angle or fish eye lens is best to use.

Don't forget to dress warm if it’s cold outside. You quickly get cold when standing still taking photos. Keeping the fingers warm is usually the biggest problem so bring a hand warmer if you like. Keep your extra batteries in a pocket close to your body, in that way you keep them warm and they will last longer. And bring a friend or two, it makes things much more fun and especially if you're a bit scared of the dark, then a friendly company can help you make the shot. You can also use them as models in your photos which usually makes the image much more interesting.

Useful gear to bring along

  • Warm clothes and something warm to drink
  • Headlamp, red and white light
  • Binoculars, to take a closer look at the night sky
  • Sleeping pad / chair
  • Compass and star map, smartphone filled with useful apps
  • Extra batteries and memory card

This should get you started. The most important thing is patience. Don't give up if things doesn't work out as planned. Keep shooting and don't be afraid to experiment with you exposure settings. Raise you exposure time and ISO value to the extremes just to see what happens, in that way you will learn how it affect your images and how your camera performs at different settings.

I hope you enjoyed reading this article. Feel free to drop me a line ( and tell me what you thought of this article and if there's something else you would like me to write about in the future.

For some inspiration you can follow my work on Instagram or visit my gallery on my webpage.

Good luck and clear skies!


  1. I'm not a pro, but I think that the most optimum aperture for nightscape photo about 11-16, the limit of 18, but on this value may appear diformations. I photographed the night runs with the diaphragm 12 to 16. Your article helps me. I use aurorahdr to make some processing on PC and I get great results with nightscapes.

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