Night time photography tips and techniques – A how to guide for beginners

Hints on taking great night time photos.

Venturing into night photography presents a number of challenges not found in daylight photography. With a few tips on exposure, the proper equipment and some practice, you can easily overcome these challenges. By the time you finish this article, you will know the exposure and equipment you need. Putting this knowledge to use will help you produce stunning night photos.

A camera that allows you to control exposure time is the best choice for night photography. If such a camera is not available, choosing one with a night setting will enable you to take some night pictures, but there are limits. The film you use will depend a great deal on your camera. If you can not manually control exposure time, use 800 speed film. It will capture the greatest amount of light in the shortest exposure time. Professional night photographers prefer a very slow speed film, such as 64 speed. The slower speed helps reduce noise in your final photo and stands up well to very long exposures.

If you are using a long lens, try to find one with a built-in image stabilizer. This will help prevent camera shake during long exposures. Camera shake is the reason a sturdy tripod, or other method of stabilization, is necessary. Any lights will appear as streaks with the slightest movement and this can ruin an otherwise perfect shot. Not having a tripod need not stop you from this adventure. A beanbag, tree limb, wall, or any solid, flat surface will help keep your camera steady. A cable release will also be helpful, but is not absolutely necessary. Long exposures use up a lot of energy. Make sure you have plenty of spare batteries so you don’t end up missing shots for lack of power.

At first, you will want to take a lot of pictures to experiment with exposure time. Each situation calls for a different exposure and the only way to figure out the best one is to take lots of shots and make notes of your settings for each one. For this reason, a notebook and pen are good to have with you so you can make these notes. A flashlight and stop watch are two other accessories you might find useful when taking night photos.

Many people find themselves taking night photos in order to capture fireworks on film. For this reason, I’d like to take a few minutes to discuss exposure and technique in regards to firework photography. Find your location well ahead of time and set up your equipment. Having a tripod with a swivel head will help greatly in photographing fireworks. A lower speed film, such as 64 speed, will produce less noise. A good starting point is to set your aperture in the f4 to f5.6 range. This will ensure it is wide enough to capture the bursts of color, but not so wide the lights become streaks. Once the fireworks start, watch the first couple of bursts to see where most are at their fullest then focus your camera on that spot and open the shutter. Once you capture a burst, you can either close your shutter or keep it open to capture a few more on the same frame. The choice is entirely yours.

Night photography takes lots of patience, but the results are well worth the effort. Over time, if you keep notes, you will find yourself being able to judge exposure time in many circumstances. The night is full of wonders just waiting for you to capture them on film.
Night time photography tips and techniques A how to guide for beginners 300x214 Night time photography tips and techniques   A how to guide for beginners

Night sky photography

Hints and tips for beginning in the hobby of astrophotography.

Photographing the night sky is a simple to learn hobby that provides great challenges for mastery. However before beginning a little research will go a long way towards making your first attempts more satisfying.

The first thing to recognize is that a camera that works well for daytime photography may not be the best choice for trying to take pictures of the night sky. Modern ‘point and shoot’ cameras automatically focus on the largest or strongest signal they recognize in their field of view. This is great for shooting pictures at a picnic, but when you present most of these cameras with a starscape they become confused.

The best camera for night sky photography is going to be one that has a minimum of automatic features, or whose automatic features can be turned off. Digital cameras are especially difficult to find that meet this requirement, and those that are sufficiently controllable by the user to be effective for night sky photography are usually the higher end models. For that reason I recommend that the beginner find a decent low end SLR film camera.

The next consideration is what sort of film to use. Three separate decisions have to be made in regards to film: first, black and white or color; second, speed; and last, slide vs. print developing.

The question of color is going to be a matter of taste more than anything else. Unless one is using a telescope it is unlikely that more that a few objects in the night sky will actually provide enough color to be recognizable in a photograph. For that reason black and white film is often considered the standard. Certainly for the beginner, learning to judge exposures and fields, it does remove one added layer of complexity. Having said that, color photos when the color comes through is simply more appealing. It is purely an aesthetic choice, and one that only you can make.

Speed is a more problematic concern. In general the higher the speed number the less time it takes for film to accept an image. However, the higher speed numbers also produce ‘grainy’ photographs, which look less sharp than a slower film might. The decision about speed for your film is really going to depend on what specific targets you wish to photograph: Doing long exposures for star trails, a slower speed, smaller grained film is better. For short exposures at faint objects, the faster speed films are better. Remember, with any kind of night sky photography, unless you’re using a tripod with a worm-gear drive (Not a tool for the beginner) any exposure over about a minute or so will start to record star trails. For the beginner, just starting out it may be best to use 400 speed films to get a feel of how the film responds to various exposures in your camera. After that, begin experimenting.

One common problem with developing night sky photographs is that most development labs don’t recognize the purpose of the pictures when it comes time to develop the photographs. Thus you could turn in a roll of film, and have them destroy, or fail to print, half the exposures on the roll. By going with slides instead of prints there is some opportunity to minimize this. If you plan to develop the film yourself, it’s again a personal choice.

After you have your camera and film ready, you need to consider a few other pieces of basic equipment. Since night sky photography is so often done using exposure times measured in seconds or minutes, it is imperative that you have a good, sturdy tripod. Most people can’t hold a camera still for the periods of these longer exposure times. Bulb and cable shutter control for your camera, since these often come with a means of locking the cable so that the shutter is held open, you don’t have to cramp up for those long exposures, nor will your finger on the button misalign the camera as you take your picture. When going out for your photography session you should also carry the following: flashlight with a red lens, so you don’t trash your night vision; a star map for your area, and time of year is useful; clipboard and notepad – record each exposure here, time, target, exposure time, and any other notes about the photo you may want to know later; pen or pencil.

This covers the basics to get you started. As you grow more confident you can add more equipment – telescopes, wide field lenses, or worm gear drives for your tripod. One series of objects to photograph and look at are the Messier (pronounced Mess E ay) objects. Messier was a comet hunter in the 18th century, who wrote up a catalog of objects that looked like comets in the small telescopes of the day, but never moved relative to the Earth – and so weren’t comets. He listed over 130 objects. As telescopes grew more powerful people began to look more closely at the objects he listed and found that they are some of the most beautiful objects in the sky. The Galaxy in Andromeda is perhaps the most famous of these. Without a telescope these object will show up as slightly fuzzy objects on your own photographs, but they are still a fascinating and fun series of objects in the sky to search for.

Enjoy your new hobby!

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