Without light, there is no photography – so how would you achieve taking a clear, sharp photograph of a landscape at night with the little light that is coming from moon and stars, opposed to when the sun is out? You will ask yourself those questions especially when you’re new to photography. But even those who already have their daytime shooting figured out might have some burning questions.
Not only are star- and moonlight less bright than the sun per se, another challenge for photographers is the aspect of light pollution, a rife-becoming issue of especially inner cities and suburban regions. As you may have noticed, if you’re living in a place with lots of street lamps, illuminated buildings or other light sources, you need to be really lucky to get to see a decent night sky – or any stars – at all.
Therefore, your first step, even before setting up your camera, shall be moving away from the light polluted areas as far as possible. The deeper you get into the countryside, the better. It won’t help you to just “keep the street lamp out of the frame”, as one may first think – the waste light coming from the huge amount of artificial lighting even from farther away will still illuminate the atmosphere; a rural nightsky would the best result possible, not more.
In case you want stars to be clearly visible in your frame, you shall as well pay attention to natural light sources getting in the way: The moon. Shoot your picture including the starry sky once the moon cycle ended; the last thing you need is a bright source of light as the moon that will illuminate the sky and make all the other orbs disappear.
If waiting for it to be new moon is not an option for you at the moment, or your only chance during new moon to shoot is an overcast or very humid day, you could consider using a H-alpha filter. If money is not an issue for you, obviously. H-alpha filters are being used to reduce light pollution in astrophotography a lot. If you’re a beginner, though, I would not recommend to buy equipment as this right away.
The equipment you really do need is just three essential things: your camera, a night lamp and a sturdy tripod. A shutter remote wouldn’t hurt, either, but I’ll explain the reason later. For now, you’ll need a decent tripod that allows you to set up the camera in that one fixed place and angle, in case there’ll be wind. To make exactly sure, you can attach weights to your tripod, especially when you’re shooting in a non-perpendicular level, for example, when you’re shooting rather towards the sky or the ground. If you’re not entirely sure if your camera is set up in a perpendicular angle by eye, a small bubble level might help you.
Now, you’re probably wondering how on earth you’ll be able to see the buttons on your camera and your settings once you’re out there in complete darkness. That’s where the night lamp comes in. There’s special lamps for photographers with a specific type of red light that allows you to see just as much as you need about your camera, but still not enough so that the whole place will be illumined and will serve as light pollution. You can get them for really cheap on the internet.
If you’re still not sure how to determine if your place and time will be perfect to snap decent photos, there’s online apps that provide real-time information about the night sky and what’s visible and light pollution in certain areas. What’s also really important is that you look up the weather conditions because ideally, you’re shooting in a clear, cold, dry night (especially when you plan on recording star trails).
As I mentioned, humidity is not ideal, as it can blur the sight a little and long-exposure photos aren’t guaranteed to come out clean. If you’re going to take a long-exposure photo that has in fact an exposure time of multiple hours (which would, for example, happen when you’re shooting star trails), you also need to make sure in advance that there’s going to be no impending clouds crossing your frame, otherwise you will have wasted your time outside in the cold with your fingers numb.
The next step of planning involves deciding what exposure to use. There’s no fixed setting for all the scenarios, it depends on what you want to shoot, what the concept of your image is, and what ends up being the best decision for those will show in the final results, so I’d advice to experiment a little. However, here are some basic rules that shall give you an idea:
Let’s talk about fast shutter speed and why you are going to be using it most for night photography. The landscape in your frame isn’t going to move before your very eyes if you follow it, because your tripod is in fact in the same ground. While stars, for example, move by 15 degrees an hour in relation to your location. Clouds move even faster. So if you follow the stars, your landscape ends up blurry. The only way to make your stars thus still show up as points and not white lines is by using a fast shutter speed. In combination with that, you will obviously need a narrow aperture size.
A slow shutter speed you would use if you wanted to go for displaying motion in an artistic way. Star trails are the most popular option you have here, but clouds flowing about their way can be pretty interesting and smooth as well, depending on the concept of your picture. Your landscape will be super sharp, while your clouds would be reminding you of a large woolen blanket or cotton pads floating across the firmament.
No matter what you decide on in the end, the aspect of editing is a very crucial part you have to take into account for your final result as well. Even if your raw shots do not ooze perfection yet, nothing’s lost yet: if you followed all the steps above, chances are pretty good that with a bit of adjustment, your pictures will turn out decent in the end.
Changing the color temperature of your overall image into something colder will give most nocturnal images a more clear and interesting feeling. My personally favorite tool is the curve tool in adobe photoshop that allows you to bring out highlights and shades in your finest desired nuances, and further allows you to alter the coloring of the image into something more magical that perfectly reflects the sentiment of your day of shooting.