Where Do I Start On Camera Settings for Night Photography?

Most people look up at the night sky and ponder alien life, the vastness of the universe or the relative smallness of their own existence.  Photographers just want to know what settings to use to capture an amazing night photo.

Night Photography can be a fun and challenging exercise for even the most skilled photographer.  I love night photography for the sheer peacefulness.  Often you’re alone on the landscape with only the wild things and a breeze as your background soundtrack.

But taking a great night shot requires some pre-planning and a basic understanding of cameras, lenses and camera settings.  Here are the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about getting started in night photography.

Camera Settings for Night Photography Camera Settings for Night Photography: Create Compelling Images

What Camera and Lens Do I Need?

I’m going to assume you’re an entry-level to intermediate photographer with at least a basic camera/lens set up along with a working knowledge of your camera.  I’ll focus this tutorial on a basic night shot, not deep space astrophotography.  That’s a discipline on another plane.

Choose a camera that handles noise well and a fast lens.  Most modern DSLR and mirrorless cameras can capture the night sky with ease.  In general, lenses with a wider field of view work better for static star shots.  These lenses include more of the sky and will help minimize movement of the stars to give you a crisp, clean look.  Telephoto lenses can give you a close up of a particular point in the sky but will magnify the movement of the stars requiring faster shutter speeds.  Choose your widest, fastest lens for landscape shots or your fastest telephoto lens for close up sky shots.

One other necessary piece of equipment is a tripod.  Night photography requires long exposures which cannot be achieved by shooting handheld.  It may be possible to prop your camera up another way to compose your scene, but tripods make it easier and safer for your gear.  I also recommend having a remote for your shutter.  This also eliminates camera shake and can let you fire your shutter without having to stand next to the camera.

In addition to my camera, lens, and tripod, I always pack a flashlight or headlamp, a coat with pockets and hand warmers.  Even in summer.  Pack a coat and hand warmers.  If you’re venturing out in winter, pack some extra camera batteries as the cold can zap the life out of them more quickly than normal.

Camera Settings for Night Photography: Capturing the Starry Skies

This image is an example of using stars as points of light.  The lines you see are created by planes or even satellites moving across the night sky.

How Do You Set Exposure for Night Photography?

Once you have your lens on your camera, your camera on your tripod and your scene composed, it’s FINALLY time to talk about the actual camera settings for night photography.  Begin by putting your camera in manual mode.  Auto mode won’t cut it when it comes to night photography because the camera will want to turn on the flash and illuminate the scene.  Putting your camera in manual mode gives you full control over the settings.

Focus

The easiest way I’ve found to achieve focus at night is to focus on the moon.  It’s usually big and bright enough that the auto-focus on your camera can focus on it.  Focus on the moon, then switch to manual focus and leave it alone.  If there’s no moon, you can set focus during the day for your scene and mark it with a bit of gaffers tape.  Alternatively, I use a flashlight to illuminate an object in the distance and focus off it.

Cameras with live-view offer a fourth focusing method.  Turn on live view, find the brightest star and zoom in on it.  Use manual focus to get that star in focus.  Again, once you’ve achieved focus, lock it in.

Shutter Speed

What is the best shutter speed for night photography?  When you’re trying to capture stars as points of light, a great place to start is by using the 500/300 rule.  If you own a full frame camera, divide 500 by the size of your lens to find the maximum shutter speed you can use to achieve a star photo without getting any blur. For a crop sensor camera, divide 300 by the size of your lens to find the maximum shutter speed.  So if you’re shooting a 24mm lens, 500/24=20.8, or a 20-second exposure (300/24=12.5 for crop sensor).  If you’re shooting a 50mm lens, 500/50=10, so use a 10-second exposure (300/50=6 for crop sensor.

When you’re trying to capture star trails, start with a 30-second exposure and adjust from there.  For diagonal start trails, you might need a shutter speed of 4 minutes.  When singular, circular star trails are your goal, you might need a shutter speed anywhere from 32 minutes to 4 hours.  Know that any exposure longer than 30 seconds on most cameras will require you to use the bulb setting and time your shots manually.

Aperture

Once you’ve set your shutter speed using the 500/300 rule for stars as points of light or something longer appropriate for star trails, adjust your aperture.  Start by using widest aperture possible for your lens.  Most of the best night photography lenses have an f-stop of 1.4, 1.8 or 2.8.  If you are still using the kit lens that came with your camera, that’s okay, too.  Set your aperture as wide as your lens can go, even if that’s f/4.  This is one area where I struggled at first because I thought if I wanted a scene with a greater depth of field I needed to use a smaller aperture like in daytime landscape photography.  Not so.  Start with your widest, fastest aperture and adjust from there if needed.

Not sure just what an f-stop is?  Read more about it here!

ISO

Finally, we come to ISO.  There is no “best” ISO for night photography.  But for the greatest reduction in noise, you’ll want to set the ISO as low as possible.  There’s a tradeoff though because to get tack sharp stars, we want to shoot with a faster shutter speed.  Thus, night photography requires balancing ISO, shutter speed and aperture to achieve the look we want.  After you’ve set your shutter speed using the 500 rule and selected your widest aperture, adjust your ISO to achieve the exposure you want.  Expect to use an ISO of 800-6400 even with a fast lens.

You’ll need to do a bit of experimenting to adjust your settings to your liking.  For example, I shoot a full frame with a 24mm f/1.8 lens.  I start with a shutter speed of 20 seconds, an aperture of 2.8 and ISO of 800.  Then I adjust my settings to achieve the look I’m going for.

Learn more about ISO and how it can make or break your final image!

I can’t give you exact camera settings for night photography to achieve your perfect photo.  There are just too many variables…location, the phase of the moon, the time of night, the amount of light and personal preference.   But these are good starting points.

Camera Settings for Night Photography

This image is an example of creating partial star trails using a longer shutter speed.

What Other Camera Settings Do I Need to Worry About?

Some cameras are equipped with noise reduction features, usually either long exposure noise reduction or high ISO noise reduction.  In general:

  • Long exposure noise reduction should be turned ON for single exposure star trails
  • Long exposure noise reduction should be turned OFF for stacked star trails
  • High ISO noise reduction should be turned OFF. This feature only works on JPG, not RAW files, and photo editing software on the computer does a better job of reducing high ISO noise than the in-camera software does.
  • Vibration reduction (also called image stabilization or vibration compensation) on your lens should be turned OFF for long exposures on a tripod. Otherwise, your camera perceives its own movement as camera shake and tries to compensate for it, wrecking your show.

Be Creative

Once you understand the basic settings required for night photography, you will only be limited by your imagination (or tolerance for sleep deprivation).  Get creative by introducing human or animal silhouettes into the shot.  Experiment with light painting to paint objects.  Incorporate urban landscapes into your image to present a compelling contrast of subject.  Use a combination of long exposure and off-camera flash to create stunning night portraits.  Capture the northern lights instead of stars. Make use of your remote, tripod and flashlight to create light trails.  The opportunities are almost as endless as the stars in the night sky.

Remember these basic settings as a place to start, always let someone know where you’re going and when you’ll be back and dress warmly.  With a little practice and patience, you’ll soon be over the moon about your images.