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February 19, 2019

Cover photo by Todd Easterbrook.

There’s no better time to get into night photography than winter. The short days mean you don’t have to sacrifice too much sleep to get the shots and the textures and patterns the snow and ice make bring a whole other element to your photo. The skies are more likely to be clear and crisp, giving you a much better chance of getting that perfect night sky shot.

Night photography may seem daunting at first but with a few tricks, you too can be on your way to being an astrophotography expert. All it takes is a few crucial pieces of gear, a little bit of trial and error and a bunch of tenacity. Here are our tips for getting your start in night photography.

starry night on frozen Canadian lake
Photo by Kahli April

1. Invest in the equipment:

You’ll want a sturdy tripod to steady your shot. No matter how steady of a hand you think you have, you will always have image blur if you try to hold your camera while doing a long exposure. Our favourite travel tripod is the Peak Design travel tripod or, if you need something a little sturdier, most of the Manfrotto tripods. If you don’t have a tripod or you forgot it, fear not! You can get creative and manufacture something to steady your lens for the shot. I personally like to stack little rocks on the ground to prop up my lens. You can use anything you’d like, just make sure it’s steady and your camera isn’t in danger of falling or breaking.

Even the slightest of movements can ruin your image sharpness so make sure you’re getting the best results possible, try using a 2-second timer (or 3 or 10, whatever your camera has!) This will ensure that you don’t accidentally bump the camera as your release the button. If you’re getting really into night photography, it might be a good investment to get a remote shutter release. This allows you to close the shutter without having to touch the camera at all. A shutter release is also handy if you want to your image to be a self-portrait under a night sky. Just be sure to stand still while the shutter is open!

Night photography with head lamp and star tailsPhoto by David Johnston.

Finally, remove anything that might make the camera move, no matter how slight that movement may be. This includes removing a dangling camera strap or a lens leash. You want the camera to be as still as possible.

Because you’ll be in winter, you’ll want to bring a lot of layers to keep warm (like gloves, duh!) and you’ll also want to make sure you have enough batteries to last your entire session. Batteries die quicker in the cold so bring a few to change out. Pro tip: it may seem like your batteries are dying quickly but just put them in a warm spot (next to the skin is good!) and they’ll come back to life.

Find the warmest photography gloves for you!


2. Look at the moon phase:

Night Photography moon phase
Photo by David Johnston.

Night photography with a bright moon simply doesn’t work. For the best results, you’ll want to shoot when there’s a new moon and the sky appears dark. You’ll also want to look out for heavy cloud cover which will appear blurry and distracting with long shutter speed.

If you’re aiming to shoot the Milky Way, you can use a handy app called Sky View that will help you plan your shoot. Sky View allows you to search for the Milky Way and view what position the Milky Way will be in on a certain date and time.

Lastly, it almost goes without saying but just in case, you’ll want to be far away from city lights. Try to find a remote location that has no light pollution to get the clearest sky you can.

3. Choosing a lens:

Northern lights night photography
Photo by Todd Easterbrook.

Wide angle lenses are great for night photography because you’ll be able to capture a lot of sky in your shot. A low aperture is preferred but a lens with at f/2.8 aperture is almost double a lens with an f/4 aperture so if you have a great lens with an f/4 aperture, that will work just fine, you’ll just need to have a higher ISO or a slower shutter speed. (We’ll talk more about the choosing your settings below!)

4. Use Live View:

It may seem counter-intuitive to ditch the viewfinder and look solely at the LCD screen on your camera but using live view instead of the viewfinder has significant advantages. Using Live View allows you to see more of the scene when you bump up your ISO and shutter speed and open up your aperture. Sure, you won’t be able to see everything but you should be able to see enough to get an idea of the composition of your shot. You should also be able to see the brightest stars which will be key for focusing.

5. Setting the Focus:

Starry night photography in snowy mountains
Photo by Todd Easterbrook.

Because the scene is going to be dark, your camera is going to have a hard time finding a reference point to focus on. To help combat this issue, make sure you switch to manual focus instead of autofocus. From there, find a bright spot you want to focus on (a bright star is a good start) and use the focus ring until the focal point is perfectly in focus.

6. Finding the right settings:

Night photography of stars over a lake
Photo by Todd Easterbrook.

There are a few general rules of good night photography settings but undoubtedly, finding the best settings for your camera and scenery is going to be a lot of trial and error.

First things first, you’re going to want to open your aperture as wide as it will go. For some lenses, this will be down to f/2.8. For others, the widest aperture could be f/4. Whatever it is for your lens, open it up all the way. Next, you’ll need to increase your ISO significantly. Increasing the ISO is going to make your image appear noisy so you don’t want to put the ISO up as high as it will go. Try to work with an ISO that is high enough to let the light in but low enough to keep the noise down. Depending on the light and your lens, you should aim for an ISO setting between 1600 and 3200.

You may be tempted to keep the ISO low and simply keep the shutter open for longer. While this may seem like a good idea, a shutter speed that is too long will give you blurry stars. Why? Because the earth is spinning so keeping the shutter speed open for minutes at a time will give you star trails.

Luckily, there’s an easy formula to figure out your maximum shutter speed for your lens. Simply take the number 500 for full frame (300 for crop sensor lenses) and divide it by the focal length of your lens. The number you get is the maximum number of seconds you can keep the shutter open for before you start to lose clarity on the stars.

14mm: 500/14 = 35 seconds (300/14 = 21 seconds)
16mm: 500/16 = 31 seconds (300/16 = 18 seconds)
20mm: 500/20 = 25 seconds (300/20 = 15 seconds)
24mm: 500/24 = 20 seconds (300/24 = 12 seconds)

One final tip, night photography in the snow is beautiful but it can be tricky. The glare for the snow will confuse your camera’s exposure meter, causing the camera to read the light wrong and resulting in an underexposed photo. To compensate this, bump up the exposure a stop to get the correct exposure. This will just take some trial and error so keep adjusting until you get it right!

7. Post Processing:

Getting the shot is only part of what you’re seeing in night photography when you look at the finished product. Much of the photo is altered in post-processing using a few tricks in Lightroom. Editing night photos is an art form in itself and require it’s own article but in short, you’ll want to play with the exposure, contrast, and white balance. You can also throw in some graduated or radial filters to isolate certain sections of the photo you’d like to highlight. Truly, the editing options are endless and it will totally depend on how you want the finished product to look.

Star photo before and after edits
Example of how an image can look completely different, based on your editing techniques. Photo by Todd Easterbrook. 

If you’re heading out on a night photography mission, be sure to tag us in your photos or use our hashtag #builtforwinter. We always love seeing what our winter-loving community is up to in the field. If you're specifically interested in winter night photography workshops, check out our friends at National Parks at Night.

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Disclosure: Some of the links in this article are affiliate links. If you click on a link and make a purchase, we will receive a small commission without any cost to you. We only ever recommend products that we have personally used and can stand behind.

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