Experienced nightscape photographers seek out ultra-dark locations far from civilization and only work under moonless skies. However, there is no need to wait for such a privileged situation to start. For now, your backyard will be fine, as the two most important things to learn are the required camera settings and how to operate your camera in total darkness.
Night landscape photography is the art of collecting limited light and at the same time having the best low light cameras. (opens in a new tab) they can help when shooting at night, they will not guarantee good results. Like any photography, that will come from balancing the aperture. (opens in a new tab) (how much light reaches the image sensor), ISO (opens in a new tab) (the light sensitivity of the image sensor) and shutter speed (opens in a new tab) (how long the image sensor is exposed to light).
First, turn off all the lights in the back of your house; even if there is a tiny light, your camera will find it during a long exposure. With your camera on a tripod, switch to MF (manual focus) on your lens and turn the focus dial to infinity (the ∞ symbol). In Manual mode on your camera (opens in a new tab)change the white balance to tungsten and set the aperture as wide as the lens, maybe f/4.5 on a team lens or f/2.8 on a wide angle lens.
Set the ISO to 800, line up a shot that includes part of the night sky, and open the shutter. Your choice of lens will limit how long you can keep the shutter open before the stars begin to noticeably go out of focus (after all, the Earth rotates at around 1000mph). A 24mm lens can be opened for about 20 seconds and any wider lens up to 25 seconds. Too dark? Increase ISO to 1600 or 3200. Now too bright? Reduce the exposure time to 20 seconds.
Experiment, but before you do too much you should check the focus because the infinity point on a lens isn’t always accurate. On the camera’s LCD screen, zoom in on a star in one of your photos and check how sharp it is. Experiment with the focus dial, and after a few laborious test shots, you should have it (mark it on your lens with a sticker so you can come back to it next time).
With all of that done, you can focus on what’s really important; composition. Stars alone will not produce a striking photograph and the ‘rule of thirds’ applies; always put something interesting in the foreground, ideally about ten meters away.
Get ready to photograph night landscapes
Like all photographers, nightscapers and astrophotographers are obsessed with the best cameras and equipment. Should you go for the best mirrorless camera? (opens in a new tab) to get the best results? Do you need a full frame camera? (opens in a new tab)? The answer to both questions is a resounding no, it is not like that; night landscaping is much more about how often you go out at night and practice.
Yes, full-frame cameras produce a cleaner, brighter, and more detailed image than a crop sensor camera when shooting the night sky, but when you’re just starting out, it’s really not that important. All you need to get started is a manual camera, one that lets you independently control ISO, shutter speed, and aperture, and manually set focus at infinity.
Some compact cameras (opens in a new tab) you can do that, but you’ll also need a wide-angle lens, somewhere in the 14mm to 18mm region, to fit as much of the night sky as possible in a single shot. That makes an interchangeable DSLR or mirrorless camera preferable, though if you don’t have a wide-angle lens, you can still start with the kit lens that came with your camera.
Add a tripod and a few more accessories, not forgetting a warm coat and fingerless gloves, and you’re ready for the night.
Specific equipment you need to photograph night landscapes
You’ll need to manually control focus, ISO, aperture, and shutter speed, so you’ll need a camera with manual controls (a capable DSLR, mirrorless, or compact). full frame (opens in a new tab) is better but not essential.
wide angle lens (opens in a new tab)
The lens you use will make a big difference. Use the widest angle lens you can get your hands on, like 14mm, although an 18-55mm kit lens is fine to start with. A full frame camera has a wider field of view than a crop sensor camera.
All night sky photography requires long exposures, so you want to keep your camera as steady as possible. small travel tripods (opens in a new tab) they’re fine, but larger tripods put everything at head height, so they’re more convenient.
remote cable release
Any movement during a long exposure introduces blur, and that includes vibrations when pressing the shutter button. So set a ten second shutter lag or use a wired remote shutter release (opens in a new tab) to keep the camera perfectly still.
Large capacity SD card
Always shoot in RAW (opens in a new tab). RAW image files contain minimally processed data from the image sensor. However, they are also much larger in size, so a larger SD card is useful, especially for Star Trails, meteor showers, and long trips. Check out the best SD card deals (opens in a new tab) if you need any recommendation.
An interval timer connects to a camera and monitors how many shots are taken, how often, and for how long. Effectively, it makes your camera completely self-contained, which is useful when taking multiple long-exposure shots. Learn more about how to use an intervalometer (opens in a new tab).
If you want to improve your astronomical shots, take a look at the best camera for astrophotography and the best lenses for astrophotography. You will find inspiration in the Astronomy Photographer of the Yearand we also have more techniques astrophotography tips to help you too.