Intro to Nightscapes

November 30, 2018

 

 

What is a nightscape?  Well, by definition it is a landscape... taken at night!  Although, sometimes I stretch the true definition to include images of the night sky, without any foreground elements.  If you're interested in this type of photography, chances are before long, you will want to dive deeper into the night skies as well.  For now, we'll keep it very simple.

 

Ever since I started photography, browsing the endless galleries and groups on Facebook, I would see images of the milky way, stars, and star trails... wonder how on earth they were captured.  How can I take a picture of something I can't see?  How do I show the rotation of the earth and the path the stars take in the sky?  With a little help from friends, and some experimentation, I believe I now have a solid understanding of how, and I want to share it with you.

 

First and foremost, lets start with gear.  Depending on the type of nightscape you want to tackle, your gear will differ quite a bit, but for the sake of this informative excerpt lets stick to the basics:

 

- Camera capable of manual functions 

- Tripod

- Shutter release (this is not required but definitely helps with long exposures)

- Flashlight

- Fast, wide angle lens, 24mm or wider (f/3.5 or faster)

 

That's it! Very basic equipment can be used to achieve beautiful nightscapes.  I've included a picture below of what my typical load out consists of for any given night.  Granted I may not, and commonly don't, use every trick in the bag, but I like to be prepared for whatever obstacle I encounter.

 

Speaking of obstacles, lets talk about a few of them

 

1.  Camera settings - This is one of the first questions you hear asked when it comes to taking pictures of the night sky.  "What were your settings?!"  While this topic has a lot of debate depending on the type of nightscape image you're creating, there are some basic settings that can have you seeing stars right away!  Remember that gear list above?  The first piece of gear, and the most important part of being able to succeed in capturing star light, is the camera.  Specifically, one that has the ability to allow the user to set the exposure time. Put your camera into Manual Mode!  You're gonna need a long exposure to capture the faint light from stars, and your camera's automatic settings won't allow for the time needed.   Here are my basic camera settings for most of my nightscapes

 

Shutter speed - 15-30 seconds

ISO - 2500-6400 (depending on the environment, moon, no moon, light pollution, no light pollution)

F Stop (aperature) - f/1.8 - f/3.2 (again, depending on my surrounding environment)

 

Here is an example of what an image may look like with similar settings straight out of camera.

 

Shutter - 15 seconds

ISO - 2500

F Stop - f/3.2

 

Please keep in mind, your mileage may vary!  Depending on how much light pollution you have in your area, or if you choose a night that the moon is out,  you may need to tweak any of those three variables to achieve a proper exposure.  There are things you will learn throughout your journey that will help determine what settings need to be adjusted  to best fit your needs.  I'll do my best to cover some of those situations and help give you some educated insight on what to change, and when to change it in this guide.  If your camera has the ability to show a histogram on the LCD, I would highly recommend using it.  When we are out in the dark, the screen on our cameras appears very bright in contrast.  There have been many times after shooting all night,  I load the images onto my computer and find out that they are underexposed.  If you want to know more about how to read a histogram, there are tons of tutorials online that can help.  If you'd like for me to give a more in depth look at how I read histograms for nightscapes, then leave a comment below letting me know!!  Take lots of test shoots!  Sometimes finding your compositions at night are impossible without taking test shots.  Move around, try different perspectives, fine tune your exposure, and check focus.  Speaking of focus......

 

2.  Finding Focus - This is the first problem and hurdle that took me awhile to master.  There are several techniques to finding the focus in the dark, but I'll go through the steps I take that has worked flawlessly for me. 

 

*****READ THIS!! Switch your lens, or camera to manual focus!!!!!****

 

a) With your camera setup on a tripod and pointed at the night sky, move your lenses focus ring close to the infinity mark.  If you don't have an infinity mark on your lens, then skip to section b).  Switch your camera to live view mode.  Most digital cameras nowadays have this, and it will allow you to see what your camera sees on an LCD screen on the back.  What you will most likely see at first is a black screen, this is OK!!  If your camera has a feature that allows you to zoom in on the screen while in live view, then slowly start zooming in until you start to see some stars.  Find the brightest star in the frame and zoom as far as you can in on that star. Move the focus ring until the star, which will appear as a bright dot on the LCD, becomes its smallest diameter.  You'll notice it will shrink, then grow again.... stop your focus ring at the point it is the smallest.   Now your focus is set.

 

 

b) If your camera does not have a live view function, or your lens is not marked with and infinity symbol, then here are the steps to find infinity focus and get you to a starting place when finding focus in the dark.  Lets start with the easiest.  With your camera on a tripod, find a bright light source that is far off in the distance.  I've used lights on top of towers that are miles away, or street lights on a road that are several hundred yards from where I'm set up.  While looking through the viewfinder, focus on this light source, taking care to set the focus as best you can.  This will be your infinity, or at least close enough to start shooting.  If you have live view, then go through the steps listed in the previous section to ensure proper focus.    

 

3.  Foreground Lighting -  Our cameras are fantastic at picking up light.  Modern day DSLR's have huge dynamic ranges that allow us to pull details out of shadows that before would have been lost.  Unfortunately, we haven't quite reached to ability to see in the dark, and for that reason I like to use foreground lighting.  When a camera's shutter is opened, it exposes the sensor to photons of light that are focused through lens, to create an image.  If we don't have photons hitting the sensor, then we don't have any data that can be translated into images.  This creates problems.  Most notably in the form of noise.  Noise is the grain that shows up in images due to long exposures, or high ISO settings.  Sometimes it can't be avoided, but there are steps we can take to help ensure we keep it to a minimum.  When photographing a landscape at night, there are times when the stars are the brightest objects in the image.  The foreground can show up black, or silhouetted against the brighter sky.  At times this is desirable but, if we want to have a clean, almost noiseless foreground,  then we need to implement some type of light source to illuminate the surrounding landscape.  This can be done with flashlights or headlamps at a short duration (light painting), or in my case low level lighting.  Check out the gear load out picture above.  Items 9 and 10 are my low level lighting setup.  Item 9 is just a cheap LED light that I picked up on Amazon for about $30, and number 10 is an even cheaper light stand.  The light has a dimmer switch that allows me to have it emit a tiny bit of light.  This gives me the ability to leave it on throughout the night without having to worry about changing my camera settings and blowing out the foreground and having it appear to bright.  Another good low level lighting solution is the moon!!  Yes, the moon.  If plan your night outing just right you can setup with the moon rising behind you.  I've found that some of my better shots have been taken just as the moon rises and illuminates the foreground, giving it the perfect amount of brightness.  Just beware, depending on the moon cycle, it can quickly overpower the stars and leave you packing up early!

In the image above, I was lucky enough to have some outside lighting on our hunt camp in New Mexico to cast the perfect amount of light over the grass in front of me.  Sometimes putting yourself in the right places and utilizing whats available is all that's needed.

 

4. Lens Fog -  Lets talk about the most frustrating thing with taking pictures at night.  You get all your gear ready at home, set out for what seems like a great night of shooting.  The skies are clear, the air is cold (which btw makes for clearer skies) and the moon is dark.  Soon as you reach your location that you spent the past few days or weeks scouting out, you get setup.  Find your focus, dial in the settings, and disaster strikes!!  Fogged lens!  Its something that all of us nightscaper's deal with and dread!  Here's a few tricks to help you avoid, and almost eliminate lens fog. 

 

1) Acclimate your gear.  This is the simplest technique. allow time for your warm gear to acclimate to the colder environment.  You can either leave your camera and lens in the car before heading out, or just arrive a couple hours early to let it acclimate while you setup.  

 

2) Warmers.  There is equipment available that you can wrap around your lens to help mitigate fogging.  Essentially an electric blanket for your lens.  These come with a price however, which is why I use the best alternative.  Hand warmers.  The kind you can pick up at Walmart in the outdoor section.   Just shake a few of these up and attach them to your lens with a rubber band.  Be sure to do this before setting your focus though, otherwise you'll have to find that all over again!

 

3 )The crudest and most demanding solution is a microfiber cloth.  Use this only if you have found yourself ill prepared (like many of my outings) and have no other option available.  You'll need to babysit your lens, constantly checking for fog and wiping it off when needed.  Its not fun, but it can help you get the shoot if you have no other choice.

 

4) Finally, sometimes nature gets the best of us and there aren't any options that will work.  Humidity levels can rise to the point that lens warmers have no affect on the fog.  Best thing to do before each outing is to check the dew point on a weather app.  If the forecast is predicating temperatures to stay above that dew point, then you'll have less chance of having to deal with a lot of fog.  If the forecast indicates a higher dew point temperature, chances are you're gonna encounter fog.  Planning is key to every successful outing.  A lot of times I plan longer than I shoot, and any great nightscaper, or night time photographer will say the same!!

How do you plan a night shoot?  Where do I start?  What direction do I need to point my camera?  These are all questions that I had when starting and still struggle with today!  Finding interesting compositions and subjects can be challenging.  The best thing that has worked for me is scouting locations during the day.  Look for interesting landscapes and imagine what they would look like at night.  Or, use the alternate reality feature in this fantastic app, PhotoPills! 

 The night AR feature in this app will allow you to fast forward time and see when the milky way rises, and where it rises.  It makes composing a breeze. 

 

This app is full of useful features.  In addition to the night AR you can also plan your shoot with the app.  Use the planner module to see pin point locations.  It shows all the details, from sunrise, to sunset.  So it's good for planning all types of landscape photography, not just nightscapes.  The milky way is shown here as dots on an arch so that you can see when and where it rises at any location on the globe without having to be at the location.  

 

 

 

Another great app for locating the milky way is Stellarium.  I've use this app to capture deep space images and familiarize myself with the night sky. 

 

Its also a fantastic tool for finding Polaris, the North Star, when creating star trails.  It lacks the AR feature of PhotoPills, but its easy to get an idea of where you need to setup.  When shooting star trail images, if you point your camera at Polaris, you end up with beautiful circular trails.  This is because Polaris is the Earths north axis,  kinda like the point on a spinning top.  Stars will seem to spin around this axis creating circles in the sky.

But how do you show the rotation of the earth?  How do we shoot star trails?  Hang tight, I've got an in depth tutorial coming soon!!  Let me know in the comments what questions you have so far or if there was anything that just didn't make sense. 

 

 

In closing, this is definitely not a complete guide to nightscapes, but it should get you started in the right direction.  Plan to make a lot of mistakes, and spend many hours in the dark.  Taking pictures of the stars can seem like a daunting task.  But in reality its a lot of fun.  I plan on making this guide somewhat of a series to help new photographers with everything that goes into nightscapes.  Post processing, setup, and advance techniques.  Enjoy some of my favorite images in the gallery below.  I've taken the time to include the exposure data for each one in the description. Please feel free to contact me and tell me what obstacles you have faced in the field or with post processing and I will do my best to address those in the next write up!! Thanks again for reading.  Have fun, and clear skies!!

 

Matt Sprouse

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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