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.