Have you ever visited a famous spot for landscape photography such as Utah’s Delicate Arch or Bryce Canyon and found yourself jostling for position, barely able to snap what you’ve traveled so far to capture? One of the best methods of getting around this photographer’s nuisance is to visit these spots at night.
While night photography can be intimidating, which is one reason why many photographers shun it, if you adopt a willingness to persevere and have patience, you’ll be snapping brilliant night photos in no time. To help you on your journey, here are a few tips.
1. Night photography is full of its trials and errors, with each location and scene posing individual and unique challenges, so try this starting point the next time you find yourself ready for the challenge: set your lens aperture to the lowest possible F stop (e.g. F/2.8), the shutter speed to 30 seconds, and the ISO to 1600. Make sure your focus is set to infinity. Take a couple of shots, review the images, and start making adjustment to your liking. If you set your shutter speed to over 60 seconds, the stars in the sky will begin to look like they are moving, and your photo will depict star trails, which can be a desired effect (see below).
2. Photographing the stars is great, but having a foreground subject makes a huge difference in taking your night photos to the next level. Try illuminating these foreground options with a flashlight or other light source. While it will take some trial and error to figure out how much light you should shine on each object, as a general rule of thumb try lighting the foreground object for a few seconds (usually less than 10 seconds) during the exposure. If you left the light on the entire exposure time, it would completely overexpose the foreground object, as the light is so much brighter than the rest of the scene. You also want to evenly distribute the light over the entire object and not just illuminate one spot. This effect is called “painting with light,” where you brush the light back and forth and up and down all over the object for a few seconds, thus evenly illuminating the entire foreground object.
3. Some of the basic tools you’ll need to take night photography include a sturdy tripod (it’s impossible to hold a camera still for even a half second, so a tripod is a necessity); a camera with manual controls so you can adjust shutter speed, ISO, and aperture value; a cable release, which will allow you to release the shutter without touching the camera and causing the photo to blur; a flashlight; warm clothes; an intervalometer, which is a remote that allows you to control the length of time your shutter is open; and a bubble level to keep the horizon straight.
4. When taking night photos, you’ll want to remember that you want clear skies, low humidity, and no light pollution, which is caused by big cities and street lights. High mountains and empty deserts are ideal locations. You’ll also want to brush up on your knowledge of the stars and moon phases so you can know what you’re photographing. (There are many phone apps available that help users navigate the night sky.)
5. Unlike with your daytime shot, night photos can take anywhere from a couple of seconds to a few hours to create a single image. Be sure to have all your batteries fully charged and to bring plenty of warm clothes to stay comfortable as your camera is capturing the light.
6. Don’t forget to sit back and enjoy the view. The world is beautiful at night, and if you gaze up at the sky long enough, you’ll probably see a few shooting stars or maybe a satellite or two. Plus, when you travel out to isolated locales far away from big cities, it’s almost like traveling back in time, as you’ll be staring up at the same night sky that people throughout all of human history used as a guide to cross oceans, grow crops, and even worship their gods. This sky is lost to most modern folks, who often cannot see a single star thanks to light pollution and city haze.