I’ve been photographing for over 20 years, from disposable cameras to plastic lomo cameras and 35mm SLR, to digital and DSLR, now back to film, but I didn’t get into night photography until a few years ago when I combined backpacking and shooting night skies. When I was starting out, I did extensive research with lots of trial and error, so I hope these tips for night photography gear and techniques (plus lots of examples!) will help you play with your settings as you learn how to capture the night sky on your overnighters and other dark-sky adventures.
I love the thrill of getting out of my tent in the middle of the night and seeing the stars so bright and being able to capture it with my camera, and I hope you will too. Here’s my best advice for starting out:
I find that it’s really important to learn and teach from other photographers—it’s the only way we will ever grow in our field and master our craft. On top of that, the most important thing in mastering night photography is just practicing. Lots of trial and error and getting out there to shoot over and over again.
First and foremost, I learned everything I know about night photography from Paul Zizka. He lives in Banff, Alberta (Canada) with his family and basically shoots everything there (or elsewhere in the most remote and darkest places of the world).
I was drawn to all of his beautiful mountain and Aurora Borealis photos and would look through his portfolio for hours. In 2013, I was clicking around his website and saw that he was offering a workshop in Banff. I immediately texted my friend Jenny and told her we had to do it. Another friend, Dorothy, had always wanted to go there as well, so the three of us decided we were going to make it happen. I emailed Paul and the next thing we know, J, D and I were booked to take his workshop up in Banff!
My dreams were finally coming true and becoming a reality. I can’t emphasize how much you can learn at a workshop. There is nothing like watching someone you look up to do what they love first hand, and actually practicing the techniques and skills in the field. Best of all, it’s with people who are just as passionate as you are, it’s SO much fun and an experience you will never forget.
Gear does play a big part in photography, but you don’t really need anything specific. Here are the basics that I’ve had good luck with:
Any SLR full-frame camera will work when paired with a wide lens that stops at least to 2.8. I started with a Nikon D800 body, I think it’s discontinued but they have a new D810 now. I chose Nikon because I have been used to it for so many years and understand their system.
Never cheap out on a lens. Good glass is worth the investment and will make all the difference in the focus and clarity of your photography. 24mm is wide enough on a full frame and works just fine. I opted for a Nikon 24mm 1.4.
After shooting with the 24mm for a while I wanted something wider. I wanted more sky so I looked into a lens that was wider but also two in one. As much as I hate zoomies (primes forever), I didn’t want to lug around two lenses every time I went out overnight so I went with a NIkon 17-35mm 2.8. I do have to shoot at a higher ISO than my 24mm but the wide angle is just so good, no distortion.
Always get a tripod with a ball head and don’t settle for anything else. I started with the fairly basic MeFOTO Roadtrip tripod before I started backpacking. It’s 3.6 lbs and perfect if you have a car to drive to your location.
For something more backpack-friendly I swapped for the smaller JOBY GorillaPod SLR Zoom. Let me just say, this tripod is fine and gets the job done. Yes, I have to basically lay on the ground and shoot from my stomach but hey, it works.
This is totally optional, but if you’re worried about blurring images by manually starting or stopping a long exposure, using a shutter remote can be really helpful.
Some DSLRs have bluetooth and mobile apps so you can use your phone as a remote, but if you don’t have bluetooth or don’t want to rely on your phone battery in the wilderness, a remote like this Basic Shutter Release is a perfect simple option.
Before I head out on overnighter, I usually do a certain amount of research so I’m prepared ahead of time with notes. This is especially important since you’ll likely be somewhere remote without cell service to look up things while shooting.
You want to choose any area without light pollution, though some glow from afar can look really pretty. Other good things to know about are whether or not a northern lights show might be possible, and the weather forecast.
Before I head out on an overnighter, I usually look up all my moon and sun times here and write them down on a sheet of paper. It’s just good to know around what time the sun/moon will be rising. Sometimes if I plan on taking intervals, I’ll google some websites and write down some exposure times to practice with.
So in order to get to these really beautiful remote locations with all their dark sky glory, you’ll need to hike out with all of your heavy camera gear. It’s always worth it in the end: The higher you climb, the better the stars, the better the peaks.
The hardest part will always be having to crawl out of your tent in the middle of night, especially in 12-degree weather. Pack extra layers for when you come out bc you’ll be frozen while you’re idling when you shoot, so it gets cold fast.
I set an alarm for every 2 hours usually from 11pm-4am to get up, depending on what the sky is doing. I like to shoot before and after the moon comes out. That’s why it’s nice to have the times on hand so I know when to come out or not.
Sometimes if it’s overcast, I will just peek outside and see if there are any stars. If not, I’ll let out a sigh of relief and go back to my warm sleeping bag. And if the sky is unpredictable, sometimes I’ll go set up my tripod somewhere and set intervals for throughout the night and hope at least something comes up. I’ll check it in the morning, hoping the wind/some animal didn’t knock it over, but the lens is usually fogged up most of the night.
My favorite part is coming home and loading all the photos on my computer. There’s so much to see and bring back once you’re at the screen. I love how every trip is always a surprise, you literally never know what you’re going to get that night! So much fun.
I believe post-processing plays a huge part in photography, but I didn’t learn how to edit until I was in college because that was the standard for getting photos compatible with print. I truthfully never liked editing and felt it was hard to keep up with the new technology, but know now it’s so worth it to learn some basics because it makes a world of difference in making night photography shine.
For software, I edit all my raw images in Lightroom. For presets, I use a combination of VSCO and Priime. I also believe creating a style of your own that portrays your personality is important. Who cares if someone else doesn’t like it, as long as you think it looks good in your eyes, it’s all that matters. Editing night skies is fun because you can adjust colors too.
I think it’s really hard to learn how to do these things without going out and trying it out over and over again until you get the hang of it, but I wanted to share some images and their data—with variation to showcase different exposures.
Night photography is one of those things you have to learn by doing, but I hope that with these basics you feel better equipped to get outside and try it out! There is so much more detail and specs to get into, but experimentation and practice are really vital in improving your night photography. Have fun out there!
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