Photographing the stars and landscapes after dark is my absolute favourite time of day for photography. The dark skies act as a blank canvas, allowing you to tap into endless creativity. Shooting at night is also the toughest aspect of landscape photography, here’s a guide to help you master it!
Camera Requirements for Photographing Stars and Landscapes After Dark
What kind of camera is best for capturing stars and landscapes at night?
These aren’t hard and fast rules but more so ideals. Like anything, don’t let your lack of gear stop you from getting outside and creating images or just experiencing the awesomeness of nature, especially if you might see aurora borealis!
I use a Sony A7RIII which is a high resolution camera, it has a 42mp camera sensor which is great for capturing a lot of digital information. Having too many megapixels can actually be a bad thing in the case of extremely low light. In my experience, it works fine for capturing stars and landscapes after dark. Eventually I would like to invest in a low light specific camera like the Sony A7s III which is a 12mp camera sensor.
The reason TOO many megapixels can be an issue is because each megapixel is essentially divided by lines. Those lines act like a barrier to light. The more megapixels, the more lines, the more lines, the less light is reaching the camera sensor.
Basically any full frame camera sensor is capable of capturing night skies. I would argue that glass is more important than your camera specs for night skies and photos after dark.
What kind lens will I need for capturing aurora?
Lenses faster than f/4 like a 2.8 or faster is preferred. I typically use a 2.8 24mm. This comes down to preference. A lot of people love shooting really wide to capture as much of the night skies as possible. If I’m backpacking or traveling, I only travel with an f/4 wide-angle to save on weight in my pack. I’ve used the f/4 wide-angle for many of my aurora photographs and it has served me just fine. Again, not ideal but it’ll do the trick, so don’t stress about it too much if you only have an f/4 lens.
I personally find myself shooting at either 24mm or 16mm nearly 50/50 at night. It really depends on the elements in the sky. Maybe I want to remove the moon from my composition so I’ll shoot a little tighter at 24mm. Perhaps the milky way is out and it’s a new moon so I want to capture as much of milky way galaxy as I can!
Having the option to choose from a wide angle and a super wide angle or fisheye is really convenient and will serve you well for night time shoots.
Equipment You’ll Need for Shooting Stars and Night Skies
There’s no getting around the need for a good quality tripod for shooting stars and landscapes after dark. You can get creative and pile some rocks or use your camera bag to prop up your camera in a pinch, but you will get have almost no flexibility with your compositions unless you invest in a good tripod with an adjustable ball head.
I use a carbon fibre Peak Design travel tripod. It’s so light I don’t even notice it in my pack and it’s worth every single ounce in my bag. You don’t have to have the best tripod out there but something truly sturdy is crucial.
It’s obviously difficult to see after dark outside. That means having to take multiple test shots and adjust your compositions based off of what you see in your camera playback. You want a tripod that can be adjusted easily and quickly.
You need some kind of means to capture your exposure without causing any camera shake. Intervalometers are great, and they can also give you the capability to shoot longer than 30 seconds without having to either hold down the shutter release or click the shutter once to begin, and once to end the exposure.
That said, I’m a really big advocate of less is more – it’s not about the resources you have, it’s about how resourceful you can be. I leave the intervalometer at home most nights. Preferring to use my cameras’ self-timer.
Shooting at 24mm for longer than 30 seconds will create start trails. Star trails occur when the capture time is so long that the stars in the sky continue to move relative to earth’s rotation. It can create some really unique photos when done intentionally and when stacking multiple long exposure shots on top of one another. However, if you’re not intentionally creating start trail images, you want to make sure the stars are sharp and not creating streaks or blur.
Setting your self-timer for 5 or 10 seconds will ensure there is no camera shake in your exposure. It’s also nice to do things in camera. More equipment means more can go wrong, or missing, or broken, or have batteries dying etc.
Planning Your Stars and Night Skies Photoshoot
In ideal circumstances, planning is an essential step in capturing the best stars and night time photos! There are a-lot of variables to consider for planning your shoot. Location being chief among them.
Understanding Night Skies
Every aspect of the skies is important. The more you know, the more tools you have to pull from and use to your advantage for creating great compositions and working with the night skies instead of against the night skies.
Sunset and sunrise
This might seem obvious to you, but depending on where you live, this is an important step. Where I live, the sun rises and falls at drastically different times of day depending on the time of year. In the winter it’s dark by 5pm and in the summer it’s still light out around 11pm.
That’s important to keep tabs on when planning for a night time shoot outside because even if the sun doesn’t fully set until 11pm, I usually have to wait another 90-120 minutes before the stars are fully revealed.
Unlike the sun, the moon’s phases every night change dramatically from one week to the next. The moon phase is an extremely important element to consider when planning for your night skies shooting. For example, if your goal is to capture the milky way galaxy, don’t bother during a full moon. The ambient light of the moon will greatly outshine the majority of the stars in the milky way.
A full moon can also be great for providing some “fill” light on your landscape and provide interesting shadows or highlight the context of the environment if you’re focusing more on the landscape and the foreground rather than the night skies.
No matter what your goal is though, it’s very important you at least know what to expect before you head out to your photography destination for the night.
Depending where in the world you are, this might be the most challenging variable. Light pollution from nearby towns, cities, airports, etc. are a big problem. There are less and less wild places where we can escape the light pollution from all of the city lights and get a clear view of the solar system above.
Luckily here in Canada dark skies are abundant if you’re willing to drive out a little. I’m in the middle of two pretty massive dark sky preserves where light pollution is actually being suppressed in order to preserve the natural beauty of the heavens above!
Light Pollution Map – Dark Sky is an app that’s available in the app store and android stores. The app will show you what the light pollution looks like around you and your city or where you would like to shoot the aurora. You can also use lightpollutionmap.info on desktop.
If you can get at least 25-50km away from any towns or cities, you should have pretty clear skies, at least clear from light pollution.
Tracking and Anticipating Weather
Clouds can be a real bummer if you’re hoping to capture star filled skies. It’s a good idea to know your local forecast for where you intend to shoot. Clear skies are always ideal. That doesn’t mean you can’t create some great stuff with clouds moving through your exposure!
If it’s calling for rain though, there isn’t really much you can do outdoors after dark. Unlike during the day when rain and in-climate weather can make for epic photos.
How to Focus Your Lens for Capturing Night Skies and Landscapes After Dark
Getting a sharp focus is the toughest, and most crucial step in capturing the stars and night sky photographs! If you can, setup your composition in daylight, well before the skies are dark and while you can find an autofocus point far away like a distant mountain or something at least 300 meters away.
Anything beyond 300 meters is where you’ll want to focus on. If you manual focus later to infinity, you’ll actually end up with a soft focus. There’s a bit of a sweet spot just before infinity. If you can dial that in during the day, you won’t have to mess around after dark.
But, if you’re like me, I often get to my locations after dar for auroras. You just can’t plan for these things! If that’s you, focus on the brightest star in the sky. Zoom in if you have a zoom lens.
I recommend always using focus peaking if your camera has that option. Focus peaking will turn the star to whatever colour you set your focus peaking to, like red or yellow. That will indicate the star is sharp and you have achieved perfect focus for your night skies.
If you don’t have focus peaking, you can take a few test shots and then zoom into your starts to ensure they’re sharp. If they look a little soft when you zoom in 200% in preview, adjust until they’re totally sharp. This is more time consuming for achieving focus, but it will do the trick.
If your subject mater in the foreground is really important to the overall composition. Try focusing on the foreground and rolling off your wide open aperture just a bit. For example, if you’re focusing on a truck in the foreground 20 ft away, shooting at f4 from 20 or so feet away should still have stars in the night sky appear sharp.
Taking Test Shots Prior to Shooting Stars and Night Skies
No matter what method you use to achieve focus, always take test shots before you begin shooting for real. I usually shoot a handful of high ISO test shots to quickly ensure I have good focus. After I confirm my focus is perfect I’ll work on my composition. If I arrived after dark and it’s the first time I can see my composition, I’ll shoot high ISO test shots and adjust until I find something I love.
After I have I confirm I have all the elements I need to make a great photo, I’ll finally lower the ISO to a better, more usable value. I’ll then also adjust all my other camera settings that are optimized specifically for shooting aurora!
Camera Settings for the Best Aurora Borealis Photos
Shutter speed is your big player in photography after dark. You want to allow as much light as possible to hit your camera sensor and allow you to take a properly exposed photo. The sweet spot for me is typically about 20 seconds long. That’s if there’s a new moon and my aperture is at 2.8. – ISO 800-1600.
If you can avoid it, try not to shoot any than about 25-30 seconds for sharp stars. Anything longer than 30 seconds will create star trails. There’s actually a formula for understand star trails and focal length. Focal length and exposure time will directly impact the amount of time it takes for stars to begin dragging or blurring in your shots.
Cruise around a few photography forums or watch enough YouTube videos and you might be discouraged to use ISO. There’s this false idea that even a little ISO can degrade the quality of your photos, especially at night. That’s simply not the case. Remember, you can always edit the noise and grain from ISO in post-production.
For my test shots at night I’ll bump up my ISO to around 48000 so I can shoot a quick 1-3 second exposure. This just helps with efficiency and makes my time outside more productive.
Once I have all my stars aligned -pun intended- I’ll lower the ISO to about to 1600-3200. 3200 is my “safe zone” on the A7R III. 6400 and up I’ll start to introduce noise and limit the amount of good digital information I have to work with in post-production. In some cases, it’s a fair trade-off – like when I’m photographing the aurora borealis and need a quicker shutter speed to keep the detail in the aurora as it moves across the sky.
Modern day cameras have such incredible ISO potential. Don’t be afraid to push your ISO and get a proper exposure. The more experience you have pushing your ISO, the better you’ll be at gauging for yourself what ISO values you are comfortable shooting with.
Aperture is an easy one. Shoot wide open. Whatever your lens capability will allow for. If you have a 2.8, go to 2.8. What about 1.4? Even better! Don’t over think this one. Sometimes you can get a little too soft if you go beyond 1.4. If you have a 1.2 or 1.0 lens, maybe roll it back just a touch to make sure all of your elements are still sharp!
I’m all about efficiency, I’m an advocate for shooting in auto white balance (AWB) as often as I can. The cameras are so smart, they’ll usually have a good idea of what’s going on. I typically only switch the a manual kelvin mode if the camera is way off.
That said, if you have the time and would like to prepare before-hand… I recommend setting your white balance (WB) kelvin (k) values between 4000k-5500k.
I like to have the WB represent the night sky accurately. I like a true representation of what I’m really seeing. Sometimes in post I might cool down the image by 1000k-2000k. It’s not uncommon for many photographers to use a little creative liberty and cool it down by a value of 3000k-5000k. Try it out, it’s not for me, but sometimes it looks great for night skies and landscapes after dark.
Understanding the 500 Rule For Achieving Sharp Stars Every Time
The “500 rule” is used to discover the maximum amount of time a lens’ focal length can take an exposure (shutter speed) without creating unwanted star trails behind your stars.
- Step 1 – What’s your sensor size? full frame sensors are 35mm. If you don’t know your sensor size, Google your camera specs.
- Step 2 – Calculate the shutter speed exposure time. 500/ your focal length and crop factor. A 35mm has no crop factor. 500/35mm = 14 seconds +/-
Example 1 – 500/35mm = 14 seconds +/-
Example 2 – 500/14mm = 35 seconds +/-
Use the 500 rule to quickly understand what your maximum exposure capabilities are without having the waste the time of shooting a bunch of long exposures to discover on your own.
Composition Techniques to Taking the Best Aurora Photos (Insider Content)
Become a Life Outside Insider
Life Outside insiders get access to our premium content. Subscribe below to become an insider, and join our community.