Night Photography: A Beginner’s Guide

There’s nothing quite like looking up at a sky full of stars – but sometimes the most magical moments can make for the most difficult to catch on camera. Whether it’s in pursuit of the perfect insta-shot or simply to take us back to our favourite travel memory, here at House of Coco we’re out to capture every extraordinary experience we can. While photography can get crazily complicated, with just a few tips photographing the night sky is easier than you might think. Here’s our beginner’s guide to night photography.

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1.Switch your camera to manual mode

The settings are super important in night photography, so you’ll need to be free to be able to adjust them manually… (more on this later on).

2. Pre-focus on infinity

Without autofocus, you’ll need to manually focus your camera on the night sky. If your lens has an infinity mark, set the focus there. If you are using a lens that doesn’t have the infinity symbol, try finding a far-off light source to manually focus in on (you can also use the moon if it’s out). Try marking the infinity spot with some masking tape so it’s easier to find next time.

3. Get a tripod

For night photography, you’ll be shooting at longer shutter speeds, which means you’ll need a tripod so you don’t end up with blurry images as a result of the movement from your hands. A collapsible one will usually do the job and is easy to travel with.

4. Set your aperture as low as it goes

Aperture essentially controls the how much light is let into the lens. So for night photography, we need to use a shallow aperture (low f-stop number) in order to let more light into the lens and pick up the details of the stars in the dark (reducing the need to have to use a long exposure). How low your aperture can go will depend entirely on what lens you are using. The most common for night photography lenses is f/2.8, but up to f/4 will work. If you are trying to improve your night photography, it might be time to invest in a wide angle lens that has an aperture of f/2.8 or lower. For high-quality lenses at low prices, Samyang is your best bet. 

5. Set your shutter speed

This controls the amount of time the shutter is open – the longer it is open, the more light enters the camera, but the more motion blur there will be in an image. Depending on how much light there is in your photo, you will need to adjust your shutter speed accordingly – typically between 15-30 seconds.

6. Set your ISO

ISO is the light sensitivity of your camera’s sensor – the higher the ISO, the brighter the image, but the more noise (photographer speak for graininess) you will experience. With night photography, you’ll need to compromise on the two to get a good shot. Start with an ISO of 1600, and progress from there. If the image is too dark, you need to increase the ISO. For night images, your ISO will be between 800 and 3200. Lower end cameras can struggle with high ISO values, but you can remain at a relatively low ISO by lengthening the exposure time – which can eliminate noise but increase blurriness.

7. Take a photo and tweak 

Every night scene is different, so you might find yourself having to adjust the settings. If the photo is too dark, try increasing your shutter speed. If it is still too dark, then increase your ISO. You might get some grain on the photo, but it’s all about compromise. If it is too bright, drop your ISO. If it is still too bright, then decrease your shutter speed. You can also play around with a torch to light different elements of the photo which can create a really cool effect.

8. Get out and practice

You don’t have to be in some far-flung desert destination to practice your night photography. In fact, of 11 International Dark Sky Reserves in the world, the UK has 4 – (the Brecon Beacons, Exmoor, Snowdonia and the South Downs National Parks) which are all ideal places to practice. Even in built-up areas, cityscapes can make for great long-exposure photos, complete with light trails from moving cars.

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