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Easy Guide to Night Photography

A guest article by Jesse Summers

Not many photographers realize that they are able to take stunning night photos with standard camera gear. “Is that even real?” is a well-intentioned skeptic’s question, that I field multiple times a day, when they’re first introduced to my work.

In fact, a lot of times I come across my work posted on blogs and photo-sharing social media sites with hundreds of skeptical comments. So is it possible to get these shots without severe photo-manipulation and blending in stock imagery of outer space? To answer as succinctly as I can, absolutely!

Jesse Summers guide to night photography

Taking shock-and-awe-worthy photos of the night sky with your normal DSLR – is a lot easier than you think it is.

To learn how here's an easy guide to night photography for you:

CAMERA GEAR

Let’s start with your camera gear. Are you shooting with a cropped sensor or full-frame camera? This is an important distinction that you’ll have to make before you keep reading. You’ll need an ultra-wide lens with a wide aperture too. Ideally, at least 16mm and f/2.8 for full frame cameras or 11mm and f/2.8 for cropped sensor (APS-C). The Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 lens is an inexpensive ($299 for Canon to $399 for Nikon) and fantastic manual focus, ultra-wide lens, for both full frame and cropped sensors.

Are you ready with your camera body and ultra-wide lens? Great. Pick up a stable tripod and you’re ready to go. Do you need the most expensive rig in the world? Definitely not. I shot some of the best images in my portfolio on a little plastic, $30 tripod. I also missed a lot of great shots in that time period due a combination of wind and an unstable tripod. However, using a sturdy tripod and very stable ball head will make your life infinitely less frustrating and you’ll cease to miss shots due to wind, or water induced vibration and movement.

Now you’re all set. You have a camera, tripod, and a fast wide-angle lens. You could add more gear to your rig, but you’re new to this, so we’re keeping it simple. You'll also need to bring a flashlight and a laser pointer (green if you can find one, it goes farther). Next, decide when and where to go shooting, and where to shoot when you’re out there. Let's cover that now.

Milky way without star trails

FINDING A GOOD LOCATION FOR NIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY

Where to shoot at night: You need to find a place with low light pollution using the handy Dark Sky Finder.

When to shoot: Plan to shoot on a new moon when all the conditions are good. Use cleardarksky.com to determine when that will be at a location you’ve previously selected.

As soon as the conditions line up, toss your rig in the car and drive out of town. An hour passes and you're approaching the spot where you plan to shoot. Maybe it’s a lone tree, some rocks, a mountain, or another interesting compositional element. Using your flashlight or a red headlamp, set up your gear and look south. Can you see the Milky Way with your bare eyes? It will look like a whitish cloud streaking across the sky? If not, use a constellation-finding app and aim for Sagittarius. That's it!

Now you’re ready to shoot.

Long exposure photograph of a waterfall with the night sky as a backdrop

CAMERA SETTINGS

Set your camera to Manual mode and your lens to MF (manual focus) mode. We’re going full manual. Are there any lights, bright stars or planets in the distance, anywhere? If so, then you can use your camera’s LiveView to focus on that distant light. This could be a city light, boat, or tower. No luck? Take out your handy laser pointer and shine it on something far away. Focus on the bright green dot using LiveView (nifty trick: if you press zoom (+) on the back of the camera, it will zoom the display in so you can see it larger, making it easier to focus, but it does not zoom the lens)

Now you’ll have to set up your camera to capture the stars. Your focus is locked in, and it’s time to get your settings right. You’ll want to your sensor to “take in” all the available light. How do you do that? Start with the following settings:

  • ISO – set it high. Really high. Anywhere from 1600 – 6400, depending on what you’re comfortable with for your camera. Start with 1600 and go up. Experiment to find what works best.
  • Shutter Speed – set it to between 20-30 seconds Start at 30, then zoom in and review one of your photos. Are the stars little streaks? Lower it to 20 seconds. Bump the ISO up a stop to compensate if you can. A handy trick is to divide 600 by your focal length to get the maximum amount of time in seconds you can leave the shutter open for, before the stars start to arch. (e.g.: using a 15mm lens for example, 600 divided by 14 = 40. So using a 15mm lens you can expose safely for 40 seconds)
  • Focal length – zoom the lens wide! As wide as it goes. Ideally, 24mm or more on a full frame camera.
  • f/stop – open the aperture wide! As wide as it goes. Is it f/2.8, or maybe even f/1.4? You might want to consider renting a lens if your maximum aperture is f3.5 or greater.

Milky way photography without star trails in the shot

SHOOTING AND SUMMARY

Now, you’re all set. Put your camera in mirror lockup and long exposure noise reduction if you know how. If you don’t, don’t worry about it for now, Look it up before you go shooting again. That’s all there is to it!

By following my instructions precisely, I GUARANTEE that you’ll get an amazing Milky Way photo of your own. So grab some warm clothes, your gear, and a couple friends and give it a shot!!

Jesse Summers astral night photography 03

Jesse Summers is a landscape photographer who leads night photography workshops in Florida and California.  To see more of his work or to get in touch with him, please visit his website or connect with him on his Facebook page. 


Darlene's notes:

For more reading on night photography check out:

You are here: Night Photography » Easy Guide to Night Photography


  • akshay kasodariya

    Would you please suggest the best lense for milky way photography for canon APS-C?

    • This is mentioned in the article: “You’ll need an ultra-wide lens with a wide aperture too. Ideally, at least 16mm and f/2.8 for full frame cameras or 11mm and f/2.8 for cropped sensor (APS-C). ” So get something really wide.

  • I have a very curious question. I really don’t have the ability to travel too far (in the military and they limit us) to get dark dark skies. I shoot with the 24mm Rokinon f/1.4 set at f/2. I am surrounded by heavy light pollution always. I have a hard time setting my ISO, I’m usually between 320-800 which is too low. Any higher and the light saturates the shot. I still capture the Milky Way but not in its grand illusion that captivates us all. I have read in a few different discussions on Google searches about setting the WB to Tungsten. What are your thoughts? Any advice for heavier light pollution’s (besides move or travel)? The Milky Way is my white whale.

  • Janca

    woooow I want to be able to not only see but take photos like that

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