Nightscape photography: preparation.
In recent years it seems to be fashionable to be able and to know how to photograph the Milky Way. No wonder it is in fashion and certainly a good trend…. After all, dark, starry skies are exceptionally beautiful and due to light pollution they have become scarce. On the island of La Palma, it is still possible to find dark skies easily and, in fact, it is considered one of the best places in the world to stargaze. It has also become a mecca for astrotourism, observe stars and night photography as the whole island has exceptional landscapes for this practice. If you are planning a trip to La Palma or anywhere else with dark skies and want to do nightscape photography, you need to be prepared. Here are the basics you need to know.
Recommended equipment for nightscape photography: preparation.
There is no room for improvisation when it comes to equipment for night photography. You must be well prepared, as night sessions usually take place in inaccessible or distant locations to avoid light pollution.
This is the equipment I recommend for night photography.
- Camera. The type of camera will depend on your budget as it is usually an expensive equipment. However, you will need a bright (fast) lens and a camera that allows at least 3200 ISO and long exposure. In general terms make sure the camera has: manual settings, RAW format, bulb mode, if possible full frame, noise reduction option and Live View mode (for manual focus).
- A wide-angle lens: 24mm, 14mm are ideal.
- A telephoto lens (if you want to photograph the moon).
- An Intervalometer.
- Warm, comfortable clothing and footwear.
- Spare batteries.
- A sturdy tripod.
- Memory cards.
- Camera backpack with different compartments (ideally waterproof).
- Headlamp, preferably red or white/red.
- Mobile phone with a charged battery.
Of course, once you have the right equipment, you need to know how to use it. It is best to start in the daytime, getting to know the camera settings (functions and changing parameters) and practising, as well as learning how to access and modify the menu and how to handle the camera in the dark. Other considerations are that it is best never to go alone to take pictures at night, simply for safety reasons.
What to photograph in the night sky?
Once you have your equipment, you need to plan what you are going to photograph – the Milky Way? constellations? It is vital to know what you want to photograph, as well as the time of night when you can do it. Photographing the winter sky is not the same as photographing the summer sky. Just as you can’t get the same results if there is a moon. Therefore, it is vital to have the right equipment and to have a basic knowledge of the sky to know where the Milky Way is and at what time you can see it, or how to find the North Star if you want to do a startrail for example. I recommend accessing the chosen location before sunset to prepare the best composition, make sure there are no obstacles or dangerous terrain.
Tips for nightscape photography.
- Knowing how to take advantage of moments of light. In landscape photography at night, there is hardly ever enough light, so a dim crescent moon or a small background light, such as a lighthouse, can completely change a night landscape. Also, in the dark, colours do not appear the same as they do during the day, so a dim light or illumination changes the landscape again.
- Changing perspective and angle
- RAW format photography
- Natural lighting. This goes for moon or sunset.
- Minimise ISO. A beginner’s mistake is to raise the ISO as high as possible. However cameras have their best dynamic range much lower, at 1600 ISO for example (do check the manual of your camera). And it is at this point that you get the best colours of the night sky.
- Take care of the composition.
- Know what hyperfocal is and know how to use it.
- Focus: The focus for stars is always the same for any given lens and is not necessarily the infinity. Focus in manual in liveview and once you have it tape the focus wheel. There is nothing worse than thinking your photos are in focus and coming home after a long night and your photos are unfocusses!
- The Golden Rule (combination of ISO, aperture and exposure time that it works best. See more on our following post).
Landscape night photography made in La Palma. Instagram: @lapalmastars.
More photo on our Photo Gallery.
If you are interested in taking a specialised course in night landscape photography, we recommend the webinars of our partner Babak Tafreshi, National Geographic photographer and president of TWAN.