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Light Up the Dark!! Night Photography Lesson

Published July 27th, 2011

Just because you can’t see the light, does not mean there is no light!

The photo below was taken about an hour before the sun came up. I literally couldn’t see anything of the photo I was about to take, but in my mind’s eye I basically knew what the image would look like. It can be a little difficult to learn how to take pre-dawn photos, but once you get the hang of it; it can yield incredible results. Not only do you have the chance to show off the stars, but moving clouds and in this case smoke, can make an otherwise ordinary photo extraordinary. I will give you a few basic tips to get started.

First off, you must have a tripod and a cable release. Most night photography exposures are between 20 seconds and 1 hour. If you have the equipment you need and find a night sky to shoot, the next step is to focus your camera. At first that would seem to be a difficult task as the scene will probably be to dark for your cameras auto-focus; however, all you have to do is focus at infinity. If you can set your lens to infinity manually then that’s all there is to it. If not you’ll need to try and focus on the moon or a very bright star. If your subject is closer then say 50 feet, you’ll need to try and focus on the subject itself. I normally use a powerful flashlight to light the subject enough to lock focus when that is the case.

After you have focused try and set up your composition. This can be very difficult at times, and often you are forced to do some trail-and-error experimenting. Many times it is possible to see the horizon or lights in the distance to use as a reference. Of course the wider the lens you’re using the easier it is.

At this point you will want to go to manual mode in your camera and set your exposure. You almost always want shoot at the largest aperture possible. F2.8 for example. Next, you usually want to set a higher ISO then normal. You’ll need to experiment, but anywhere from ISO 320 to 6400 on a camera with good high ISO performance will be best. The higher the ISO is set the brighter the stars will appear, but the more noise you will have to deal with in the shadows during post-processing. As far as the shutter speed, if you want the stars to look “real” (as in single points in the sky) around 30 seconds to a minute is about right. If you want star trails, anywhere from 15 minutes to 1 hour will give you nice long trails across the sky.

I normally shoot with long exposure NR (noise reduction) off. If you leave this feature on, you will have to wait for the exact same amount of time as your exposure to take another photo. So if your exposure was 15 minutes, it will take your camera an additional 15 minutes to to process. 30 minutes total.

That’s pretty much it! Of course there are a lot of fine points not covered here (which season is the best, how to paint with light, etc.) but the above should get you started. I will try to cover this topic in more depth in future posts. The most important thing is to simply, Go Shoot!!! The more you experiment the more your will learn.



  • June 30th, 2011
  • Nikon D700
  • 20mm / f/2.8 / 30 sec

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Norm Cooper  over 5 years ago

the lens barrel "infinity" mark on most lenses is not really the best 'far focus' point. I;ve found on most of my Canon L lenses, the true sharpest 'infinity' focus is about 1/8 in to the left of the mark... I also always use the Liveview option, and then zoom in to the tightest point and find a bright lights (streetlight, moon, star) for focusing. Be sure to turn off IS, too.

Ennjee .  over 5 years ago

Thanks for sharing great techniques...

Jim Boud  about 6 years ago

Nice advice Dan....been wanting to try star trails...but I can hardly see the stars in Houston! Need to head back out to Colorado!

Patrick Thuillier  about 6 years ago

J'ai vu ta superbe image et lu ton texte attentivement ( avec google traduction ! ;) . C'est riche d'enseignement ! Thanks !!

Dan Ballard  about 6 years ago

Hi Arthur, Yes digital can make life much easier at times.

Of course I often change my aperture as the conditions change, normally wide open (with a high quality lens) is the best trade-off for brightness and quality however.

I normally use the self timer and not a cable release if my exposures are under 30 seconds. Normally I expose for over 30 seconds though when I am shooting at night. My camera (as is common) only allows for 30 second exposures without a cable release or off-camera timer.

Arthur Havrilla (inactive)  about 6 years ago

Be glad you don't have to deal with reciprocity failure...And if you're shooting digital and modifying the iso on the fly, you can play with apertures so you're not stuck wide open. Also, you don't ::need:: a cable release, especially if your camera has a timer, which most digital cameras do. 1 Second delay should be enough to remove most of the vibration caused by pressing the shutter; most cameras have 2 or 10 second delay, so whichever suits your style.