PHOTOGRAPHING THE NIGHT SKY

You may wish to photograph the night sky or perhaps capture cities or architectural features after dark. Each require different settings and a different thought process. There are a few key settings to remember with night photography

Landscapes and the Night Sky

You will mainly be looking to photograph the stars or other sky features. Light pollution should be at a minimum. Unless photographing Star Trails (explained below) the important thing is to ensure that you use a short enough shutter speed to stop the stars moving

 

An example of Landscape, Architecture, Travel and Tourism Photography, using dramatic lighting and striking composition by Nigel Forster ABIPP. Commission Nigel Forster ABIPP to capture your business, event, attraction or location with dramatic use of light and striking composition.

An example of Landscape, Architecture, Travel and Tourism Photography using dramatic lighting by Nigel Forster ABIPP. Commission Nigel Forster ABIPP to capture your business, event, attraction or location with dramatic use of light and striking composition.

Night Sky Photography Settings

If you simply want to photograph the night sky with no perceptible movement in the stars then the following settings are best:

  • Use Manual focus set at infinity; autofocus won’t work at night. If your lens doesn’t have an infinity marker you’ll need to do this by eye. Remember that lenses focus beyond infinity to allow for autofocus function.
  • ISO 3200 (or the highest you can go to). Different cameras will vary with varying amounts of image noise). Use of a high ISO will result in some level of image noise, further evident due to the dark tones and shadows Use NR software in post processing rather than in-camera as you have more control over the amount of reduction and you can select the parts of the image that you wish to reduce noise in.
  • Typical exposure will be 5 sec at f2.8 – f4 at above ISO although lenses can vary in their ability to transmit light so you’ll need to experiment.
  • Exposure 10 secs max although ideally below 5 secs to prevent star movement.
  • White balance – set to Tungsten to avoid too much post-processing adjustment

Additional Tips

  • The moon will affect your picture. It’ll weaken the brightness of the stars but will fill in the foreground, which may be helpful. Either way, don’t include it in your picture as it’ll be too bright.
  • Try to use a strong foreground feature (whether close up or distant). Experiment with light painting of foreground with a torch or ambient light. Alternatively take 2 exposures, one for foreground detail and one for background & blend them in post-processing.
  • Use the widest angle lens you have to capture width of sky
  • Use a remote release or self-timer to avoid any camera vibration / movement
  • Carry a torch – you’ll need to see what you’re doing! But turn it off during exposure.

 

 Nigel Forster Photography Car on Tor y Foel

Mixed Lighting and the Night Sky

With this example of my own car, I used a torch to add light to the car and left the interior light on.

You will find that the interior light is brighter and exposure needs to be carefully controlled

Star Trails

This has the effect of turning stars into curved or circular lines of light. It’s achieved by taking a series of images each at 30 seconds exposure, without a break between images. This is achieved by putting the camera onto continuous release and locking the shutter with a cable release. You them blend the images using post-processing software.

Star trails above a snow covered Pen y Fan in the Brecon Beacons

Star trails above a snow covered Pen y Fan in the Brecon Beacons

Key points:

  • You need to find a location where there is as little light pollution as possible and no traffic as car headlights will ruin your image. You’ll also need a clear sky – clouds will come out as blurred streaks
  • If you can identify the Pole Star, all other stars will effectively rotate around it. Try to form your composition to do this if you can. Around 90 mins of exposure (180 images) will create a full circle.
  • If you decide to ‘Light Paint’ a foreground feature with a torch or flash light, do this at the beginning of the exposures and not in the middle. This requires some degree of guesswork and trial and error so if you need to try again you won’t waste a whole shoot. Likewise, take an exposure test shot to make sure you’ve set the right aperture and ISO settings for the light level.

Key settings for Star Trails:

  • 30 secs exposure using continuous release setting & shutter release locked in. This will ensure a continuous series of exposures
  • Open aperture (f2.8 – f4) to allow maximum light in.
  • ISO 400 – 1000 depending on your maximum aperture (as low as you can)
  • Manual focus (autofocus won’t work) to infinity symbol on the lens and not beyond.
  • White Balance set to Tungsten as it creates image closest to reality. You can always correct on ACR / LR in post-processing anyway.
  • Block viewfinder off as you can get light through it.
  • Use StarStaX (http://.findmysoft.com) or startrails.de for processing. If you identify the Pole Star, all other stars will effectively rotate around them

 

Architecture, Cityscapes and the Night Sky

Here, you will get a mix of artificial light and the night sky. The significant aspect to this is the transformation from Daylight, to Blue Light (effectively twilight) and Darkness. Examples of the effect of these differing light sources are shown below.

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A night panorama of the River Clyde in Glasgow with the Finnieston Bridge and Squnity Bridge. An example of Landscape, Cityscape, Architecture, Location and Tourism Photography using dramatic lighting by Nigel Forster ABIPP. Commission Nigel Forster ABIPP to capture your business, event, attraction or location with dramatic use of light and striking composition.

You’ll find that the key aspect is balance of lighting between natural light and artificial light. The presence of urban lighting with a glimmer of daylight remaining usually works best and there as a period of a few minutes when this balance is at its optimum. Experiment by taking a series of images from the same spot at intervals.

 

An example of Landscape, Architecture, Travel and Tourism Photography, using dramatic lighting and striking composition by Nigel Forster ABIPP. Commission Nigel Forster ABIPP to capture your business, event, attraction or location with dramatic use of light and striking composition.