How to Improve your Night Photography
Shooting at night is one of the most wondrous things you can engage in, especially while exploring the great outdoors. While spending a night over in the wilderness, you will undoubtedly get to know and fall in love with the heavens above. Although beautiful to the naked eye photographing the celestial bodies can be a tad on the difficult side – with many mishaps and hiccups along the way. This was true for us as well, when we often kept looking at pictures on Flickr and National geographic, as well as on Instagram and always scratching our heads, wondering how such fantastic feats were achieved.
A few years later, and more extensive forays into the wilderness later – we’re still getting to grips and learning on the go. But for anyone who’s interested – we’d like to share some pointers we have come to put as guidelines when taking a decent night capture; It will streamline your kung-fu in the night photography arena.
1. Scope out your location when it’s still light
It’s always a good idea to get to know where you are shooting before you start anything – especially when there is still light. This will allow you to get an idea on how to position yourself for the best compositions, as well as give you the opportunity to ty out some test shots. Doing a few test shots are a pretty good idea, because you will come to see what will fill the frame of your composure – as well as give you a heads up into what and where obstructions are, and how to avoid them. Some times I’ve done multiple long exposure shots from low to the ground, only to discover tall grass or a hump in the ground – if you’re investing more than 15 seconds for each shot or doing a dedicated time lapse, it’ll vastly improve your effectiveness and overall outcome.
And plus – you won’t end up down a crevice or trip over a fallen log, because you will have had the time to reconnoiter and get a “feel” of the place. This will improve your safety and make sure you are relatively safe moving around in the night – good news for you and your camera equipment alike.
2. Use dedicated apps for remote Functions and night sky forecasts
A moonlit light can ruin your chances for a great night photograph, or make for an interesting element. It’s always a good idea to plan out a rough idea of what kinds of shots you will be making – a time lapse perhaps? or a picture of your camping tent? – Since light is the key element in night Photography, it makes sense to have an idea on how much light you will have to work with.
Apps such as StarWalk2 and Stellarium are excellent tools to use. These allow you to plan out and see where the celestial objects are, in relation to your overnight location/ Locations. This can be a lifesaver; you can always use a moonlit day for photographs, granted the moon sets before dawn comes up. Many were the times we were saved by this – we use the moonlit times to have some shuteye, and get up when the moon is ready to depart the horizons.
Also dedicated weather apps and save a lot of heartache when it comes to clouds and overcast sky – clouds at night can be great to capture, especially for a time lapse. Adapt and make the best out of every moment under the stars, be it they are visible or obscured under clouds.
For multiple exposures, and for exposures with you in the background /foreground it’s a good idea to get a remote operating software for your camera up on your smartphone. Currently we’re using the default apps (Sony Imaging Edge mobile for the SONY and Camera Connect for the CANNON) plus we use a few remote software platforms optimized for multiple long exposure captures. Camoodoo is highly recommended, although you should prep beforehand and fine-tune your settings.
Always be an astute disciple of Murphy’s Lay – what can go wrong, will go wrong. Prep, do a few runs prior, work the bugs out and hope for the best - with your chances being high for success.
3. Use a Good Tripod
Not much explain here- it’s basics 101; a solid base gives you crisp and sharp images. Make sure to have a sturdy frame that can support your rig when it’s windy outside. We’ve encountered this issue a few times, with our prior tripod getting “wobbly” with repeated usage plus wear and tear (it was the lightest one we could find, not necessarily the sturdiest)
Weighing down your tripod or using some stones to anchor it in place is a good idea too; it keeps the tripod from shaking and ruining your shots.
4. Don’t use your shutter button.
This is one other simple trick we’ve learnt from multiple mistakes. The camera can shape when you’re pressing down on the button itself, so the image can come out slightly blurry. To avoid this use a dedicated remote/Remote app or if you’re out of options simply use the timer to shoot with a delay of about 5 to 10 seconds ( multiple shots if possible); this allows the entire rig to be free of the vibrations when you are operating it, resulting in better output pictures.
5. Remember about Light Pollution
Night photography is all about collecting the available light – within a set time period on your camera. It always is a cat and mouse game with all the minute settings that determine the sensitivity of the camera. For a dedicated insight into the technical aspects of this you can read our blog post on how to sheet the milky way ; it is an easy and comprehensive guide on what to do , and how to get it done.
Always keep in mind that even the tiniest light would look really bright after a prolonged exposure; things such as the light inside your tent would be too bright and end up overexposing your picture. So, it’s always a good idea to get a few individual shots – of varying exposure levels so that you can get a better picture after post processing ( I will write on this later ; about exposure bracketing in night shooting)
It’s always an issue nowadays since everywhere seems to be occupied by humanity, and dark skies become rare and rare. Even shooting from mountains can become a challenge – because of the residential lights that seem to pp up like fireflies on your picture. A good trick is to do the shooting between 1am and 3 am when the sky is dark, and most of the lights have been turned off.
6. Focus Manually
This is a cardinal law when it comes to taking night sky photos; especially since the auto focus does not really focus correctly – This can cost you in multiple fronts, with you ending up with an out of focus picture and your batteries running out faster due to the servos running in your lens(s).
An important tip to remember is to take a few pictures and get them on your phone , rather than use the camera LCD for sharpness (etc) this gives you an opportunity to fine tune your settings and get a more sharper image ( that you ca zoom in and check the sharpness)
7. Adding a human element
It’s always interesting and fun to add that extra special element to your pictures, and adding a human to the composure lets your bring a whole new level of comprehension that you are able to relate to instantly. But getting a person is not all together easy , with the person having to say still for an extended time; for this it’s a good idea to let the person ( if you are not going t be in the frame itself) know the elapsed time – so he/she will be more relaxed .
For example, let’s say you’re shooting for 15 seconds, and you have someone in the frame. Start a countdown so that he/she knows the amount of time remaining to stand still, this helps a lot to make your shots far better.
8. Post processing
Post processing is where everything comes together. Usually you would be using Lightroom for the most part, but as we have come to experience, editing from Photoshop (Using the RAW filter especially) and overlaying multiple images to get both a time-lapse or/and a better composition is bay far more achievable through Photoshop, as opposed to lightroom. It takes a little getting used to, with many manual inputs and minor tweaks here and there, but with time you can get far better results.
We hope there few pointers are helpful to you to improve your night photography. We will be following on with a more detailed blog post on the technical aspects of shooting at night, with all the step by step processes involved – especially post processing. Till next we meet on the blog – here’s us saying adios and happy trails!