Everyone’s different. One person loves to photograph animals; another finds the greatest creative satisfaction in capturing people-style memories – birthday parties, weddings, graduations. Night photography is one of my favorites; the still silence of velvet night, punctuated by breezes that rattle leaves or corn stalks and the rustling of tiny creatures scurrying about in search of their next meal, while overhead familiar star patterns wheel gracefully around a single bright point in their stately dance.
Now, like any other form of photgraphy, capturing the night requires skill, timing, preparation and practice.
So, we begin!
What do you want to capture?
There are an amazing number of truly stellar possibilities! Here’s a few:
Northern Lights (or Southern – one of my life’s goals is to capture the Aurora Australis from Lake Tekapo in New Zealand! Love-love-LOVE the double-beauty of aurora above reflected by still water below!)
- The Milky Way
- Specific constellations (Quick – how many can you name and find in your night sky?)
- Lunar eclipses
- Fireflies (When they’re in season)
- The moon in all her phases (This one can be a bit tricky, depending on what you want)
- The motion of moonlit clouds
- Skeletal tree branches on the background of the stars
- Familiar cities or landmarks under the stars
And seriously, the sheer number of images that might tickle your fancy are limited only by your imagination.
What reason do you have for capturing it?
Again, so many possibilities! Are you photographing for stock? For fine art? Do you want to support and record a hobby such as stargazing and celestial object tracking? Are you trying to relive a cherished childhood memory, by capturing a sight you remember from way-back-when? Now, there’s a lot of overlap in all those, but the reason why you want what you want will still change how you set up to capture the sight.
research the area.
Walk out to where you want to be. Study the lie of the land, make sure you aren’t tresspassing, search for a spot that will allow you go focus on what you want and yet still be able to compose the shot so it has some context. Like these two photographs:
Both of these were taken on the same night. And while the first is a cleaner photograph, without the issues of composition and lens flare present in the second, I enjoy looking at the second photograph more. It’s not as dull, you get the sense of the autumn wind from the motion-blurred clouds and colored leaves of the maple trees. Neither will ever win any prizes in the professional arena, and I like both, but the second reminds me of my very first eclipse with a proper tripod and cable release, of the chill of the breeze and the excitement of staying up all night to capture the entire event, of my growth as a photographer.
And what are photographs in truth, if not time-stopped windows into our own personal pasts?
Choose your time
In this day and age of busy schedules, balancing work and hobby and family can be difficult. PLAN AHEAD. Once you know what and why and where you’re going to shoot, choose two dates. Communicate those with your family and your work (hopefully you have a good enough relationship with both they can be flexible.) Pay attention to the weather forecast and conditions as they develop. And decide: If both dates end up being a washout, are you going to go through with the plan anyway?
Learn to be patient
When dealing with outdoor photography, particularly night-based photography, all too often conditions will not cooperate. Don’t stress. Don’t tangle yourself up in knots over the idea that the shot you wanted will never ever come again. Relax. Clouds and rain happen, obscuring the skies. Predictions of the aurora or density of meteor showers can be outright wrong, or off by hours to days. Trust me. Even in the case of comets, there will be another night. Meteor showers happen multiple times a year, every year. Comets pass by far more frequently than people think, because they’re used to thinking of ‘comets’ as the spectacular ones like Hale-Bopp or Haleys. Even in regards to the Auroras, those least predictable of cosmic events, they will come again. Stay focused, pay attention to your sources of information, and the shot you want will happen. Your job is to be prepared to catch it!
Choose your equipment
Would it surprise you terribly to know that you don’t need the newest and most expensive of everything in order to capture good images?
Check it out – both Big Dipper and all of Little Dipper, plus a hint of Northern Lights (which was a BIG and extremely pleasant shock, considering I’d gone out simply to see if I could get both Dippers into the same frame) – taken with a Canon 30D and a Tamron 18-250mm on a Vectra 3720 tripod with a very simple [pro]master shutter release.
Now, what you absolutely will need:
- Your camera with the lens of your choice (I know, I know – duh! But believe it or not, I have in fact started walking to my ‘night skies and fireflies’ spot with the camera bag, tripod, and folding chair… forgetting that the camera itself was sitting on the kitchen counter. But only once! Okay, okay… twice).
- Tripod. Like I said, mine’s a Vectra 3720 – nothing fancy, very affordable, it gets the job done in spite of how some professional photographers have curled their lip and sneered at it.
- FULLY-CHARGED batteries, at least two spare plus the one in your camera. If the goal is to get that cool-looking star wheel composite, you and your camera could be out all night, and even when your batteries are brand-new, you aren’t going to get much more than a two continuous hours out of them. Will changing your battery mess with your camera positioning? Probably a little – kind of depends on how delicate your touch is, how sturdily you can lock down your tripod, and if you can access the battery compartment without taking the camera off the tripod.
- Clean memory cards, at least 16 Gb worth. Why so much space? Because when you start playing with continuous exposure, you chew up memory fast – particularly if you shoot in RAW (which, honestly, you should be, and no, I’m not going to get into why here and now).
- Blanket/knee pillow/folding chair. Anything you can get down on and rest from standing, ’cause you potentially could be for hours, depending on what you’re after. Even if you’re lucky enough to be in your own back yard, you’ll still have to move some way from the house so the house lights don’t interfere. But bear in mind you’re going to have to pack it to wherever you’re going, and hike it back out. So make sure it’s easy-ish to carry and doesn’t weigh a whole lot. Some camera bags are backpack-style and they have extra straps you can use for a tripod or a rolled blanket.
- Lens. Cloth. Seriously. Spring, summer, or autumn, there’s moisture in the air. Sometimes the temperature/dewpoint balance is favorable. Sometimes it’s not. And you need to be able to safely clean condensation off your lens. You might even want to bring two.
- Flashlight with a RED filter, or with red LEDs. Your eyes will spend fifteen to twenty minutes fully adjusting to the darkness; every time you shine a white light, your body has to start that process from the beginning. Also, the red light can be fun to play with – think light painting the foreground on a slow exposure.
- Bottle (or two) of water, and some pocket-sized snacks.
- BUG. SPRAY. I’m fond of this REPEL stuff, the lemon-eucalyptus variety; smells better than the DEET-based, and it works really well. Used it for the first time in northern Wisconsin in the spring (hunting for the Great White Trillium in bloom, which means wet and almost marshy areas); I was getting harassed by the mosquitos big time until I remembered I had the bottle with me. Sprayed it on, and for the next two hours it was as if the bugs didn’t even exist. Or maybe I didn’t exist to the bugs!
- Cable release. Now, two points to think about.
- Me, I consider this to be essential equipment, even though technically it’s not. You can achieve the same effect using your camera’s timer. I just don’t have the patience to wait ten seconds for the shutter to open after I press the button… mostly because I’ve missed shooting stars – rarely in my camera’s field of view – because the camera was still counting down. The one thing you DO NOT WANT is to work the shutter manually – unless you’re going for camera vibration blur. Then have at!
- Like with the tripod, you don’t need to go fancy-expensive. I think I got mine for eighteen dollars. It plugs into the port, releases the shutter when I press the button, and has an option for continuous exposure. It’s not as versatile as a programmable remote, but then again, I don’t actually need for it to be.
- Something to read, or a book of word puzzles. NOT a Kindle, Nook, or ANY OTHER device with a screen! In fact, leave ’em behind at the house or in the car. Want to know what time it is? Ask your camera. Most of them these days have an internal clock. Lighting up one of the devices that have become grafted to our hands will again ruin your eyes’ adjustment to the dark. If you’re anticipating being bored (Me, I just stargaze. I could stare upward for hours and hours… and I have.) then use a REAL book with the red flashlight to entertain yourself.
- Reference book if you want to try to identify the stars or constellations you’re seeing. I found the loveliest little star guide at Itasca State Park this summer! It’s called “Night Sky: A Field Guide to the Constellations” and it has not only the constellations drawn out in star pattern, it shows you where to look and when, and even a little bit about the mythology and history! Best of all, it comes with its own little red LED flashlight! Now, it is geared for the United States and southern Canada, so I suspect the book would also work for any place on the same latitudes. For parts south, the book “A Walk Through the Southern Sky: A Guide to Stars, Constellations, and their Legends” looks like it might be good.
- A friend to talk to and share the night with. Most of the time, I enjoy the quiet and solitude. Even so, occasionally it would be nice to have someone else out there.
Okay, so you’ve got your ideal image in mind; you know what you want and why. You’ve scouted your ideal spot for effect and composition, you’ve made sure you have permission to be there or that it’s public land and you don’t need permission. You’ve chosen your dates, arranged for the time, and assembled your kit. So now what?
- Plan on being at your spot before full dark, for a couple of reasons
- Especially if you’re out in the country, you really don’t want to risk a twisted ankle on uneven ground getting to your spot. The red LED flashlight is good for seeing what’s in front of you (mine is a headlamp, so I’m hands-free) but that kind of light can sometimes make very odd shadows that your brain has difficulty processing.
- Your camera will not focus in full dark. ON ANYTHING. And it’s stinking hard to look through the tiny rectangle of the viewer and adjust the lens manually (yes, that is experience talking). So be sure there’s enough ambient light to zero in your camera on your chosen focal point. Then – and this is IMPORTANT – switch the lens to manual focus. Otherwise, every time you press the shutter release button, the camera will try to re-focus wherever its pointing. This is a source of immense (and unnecessary) frustration.
- Remember how on road trips when you were a kid, your folks would insist on you using the bathroom before you leave? Yeah. Do that. Even if you think you don’t have to go. I cannot express how embarrassing it is to have camera and blanket all set up and ready to go for the night and then suddenly be called by nature and have to decide if your rigout will be safe enough for you to leave for however long it’s going to take for you to get to some facilities and return, or to break everything down and hope the focus on your camera will hold until you set up again.
- DRESS (OR PACK) FOR THE WHAT THE WEATHER WILL BE. Even in summer, it’s going to get chilly at night, no matter how warm it is during the day. You might be grateful for a light-to-midweight jacket, hat, and gloves. (Of course, that might just be me – I put a sweater on when the temperature drops below seventy.)
- Play. Yes. I know that professionals say that once you have your night shot composed, DON’T TOUCH the camera. And that has its place, definitely; if you want to create that composite shot of the skies with star blur wheeling around a central point, for example, keep the camera still. Same if you’ve got a 10mm lens that captures most of the sky and have a great chance for catching meteors. But don’t be afraid to move the camera around for different shots of the skies. All three of the shots below were taken on the same night, same setup, but different patches of sky, ranging from northwest to northeast.
(I’m learning Photoshop and InDesign in addition to Lightroom; these three are going to be my first attempt at a composite!)
So there you are. As always, research, read, and then get outside and play, play, play!
Until next time – happy shooting!