Night Photography Fundamentals


Lesson Info

Gear Basics Pt. 2: Lenses, Tripods & Heads, Accessories & Apps

So one of the more important deciding factors when choosing a lens for the night is what type of night photography you want to do. And if you want to capture the Milky Way, an image like this, then you're gonna need a wide and a fast lens matched with a camera that you're comfortable with its high ISO. And when I say high ISO, I mean Milky Way shots, you're going to be looking at either 3200 or 6400 ISO, okay? So how do we get this kind of shot, well here, I'll give you the first big tip of the day, and we're gonna apply what we used to call the 500 rule, but us night photographers got together at our annual consortium and we made up a new rule. It's called the 400 rule, and because so many people are shooting with wider angle lenses, we're starting to see the star start to bend in the corners of those wide angle lenses, because they're taking up so much of the night sky. And it's really important with those Milky Way or star point shots, we really want crisp and small star points, not...

star trails. We'll get to those epic star trails a little bit later. So we're going to use the 400 rule. And this is how it is. We take the full frame focal length of your lens, so if you're an APS, that APS lens that they have, the 10 millimeter for the Fuji, I'm going to take that APS is 10, and to figure out APS factor, you times it 1.5, it would be a 50 millimeter. So I take 15 and I divide that into 400, or in this case, one of my favorite lenses, a new one by Nikon, they're 20 millimeter 1.8 lens. I divide that into 400 and that equals 20. Quite easy math on that one. Now 20, that equals the maximum amount of seconds. This is your shutter speed rule, okay. That number, when divided into 400, in this case 20, that is going to be how many seconds we can take the picture in before stars start to trail. So once we get that established, then we can play our apertures and our ISOs against each other, or off of each other. Sometimes our apertures, they're not the sharpest stopped all the way down, so sometimes a 1.4 lens is a little bit sharper, a little bit better stop down the 2.0. Now then, we'll raise our ISO last. Again if you're not comfortable with your camera, and its ISO is past 1600 or 3200, then it's time to get a new camera, because you're really going to struggle to get these Milky Way or star point shots. And again, why does it matter being a wide fast lens, which there's not a ton of them. Oftentimes we're talking about 2.8 lenses, like the 14 to 24 2.8. 16 to 25 2.8, those lenses. Usually a 2.8 is fast as we can get. Oftentimes one of the fastest and most inexpensive lenses out there are the 50 millimeters, a 51.2 or a 51.4. Now however when we divide that into 400, we get eight seconds, right so that's not a lot of time, and that means you're going to have to, at least, that's more than a stop less. So now we're either going to have to open up more with our apertures, or we're going to have to go to higher ISOs. So again the 400 rule is how we can determine what our exposure factors are to take successful Milky Way or star point shots. Now if you want to learn more about how to take those majestic Milky Way skies, you'll want to take Lance Keimig's Astrophotography class here on Creative Live. Now another fun lens that I love using, and this is a great one, not so much for the night skies, but more so for kind of reinterpreting the cityscapes, is the Lensbaby. I've been using the Lensbaby since their first generation. They're made right here in the United States in Portland, Oregon, and they, most of their lenses, operate around their Composer Pro series. And now they're in the Composer Pro 2 series. And basically, it's funny, it doesn't look anything like a lens. You attach it to a manual focus, and it has a ball and socket design to it, and you can sort of bend it and throw the focus in different areas. This is a shot I took, a very common shot of New York, New York in Vegas. But unlike any shot you take with a regular lens, it kind of throws that focus, and especially for direct light sources, it turns them into these beautiful frisbees of light. And this really makes us focus on Lady Liberty and kind of gives us this beautiful, out of focus bokeh unlike any other lens can create. Now we took the Lensbaby out in the field here in Seattle as well, we went to a popular spot that overlooks the cityscape, and we put it to see how we could reinterpret the city scene. Alright so we've got the classic shot in the back, but how can we separate ourselves from the rest of the pack. I want to take a different interpretation of these common or classic scenes, okay. So how do we do that, we can kind of play with time, we could do movement, or we can use different gear or gear that pushes those visions along. Now this is the Lensbaby, and I know it might not look like a lens, but it is a really cool way of seeing unlike any other lens on the market these days. So it can either creates a sweet spot of focus, or in this case, I'm going to use the edge 80 to create a band of focus, similar to how sometimes people use those four by five or large format cameras and operate it the wrong way to again, create a band of focus. Usually when we think of depth and focus, we think you're in focus and then it either falls off before or after, but with a Lensbaby, you could take a picture of me like this, my face and my hands and we can kind of separate each one of them and have my eyes in focus but my beard not be in focus, or I can have one hand in focus and not the rest of the scene. So a really cool way of seeing in a different way. So let's swap this out. And when you're swapping lenses, you always want to make sure to turn your camera body off. And most important of course, is to cover that body, looks like a totally different camera, right? And much lighter, so now we're going to recompose. And we've lost about a little bit of light, probably about a half a stop to a stop of light, but I'm going to not use again a small aperture, I'm going to go to a f/56. Alright. And actually live view is even super useful with these Lensbabys. Sometimes it's hard to see through the viewfinder when we're manually focusing, so this way, in live view, we can zoom in, and I really want to make the needle in focus, so there we go, that looks sharp. Okay, now we back out, and we can kind of see again, everything else is in the scene, it's blurring it out dramatically, so a really kind of cool look. And let's take the shot. Okay and let's check the histogram. A little on the dark side, let's go a little bit more. We're at a fifth of a second, 5.6 at ISO 100. Again, a little bit better, I can even go one more stop. Let's go two and a half, why not? You can see that again, that twilight, that skies are turning nice and blue. That's revealing a little bit more information. I can turn that down later, but let's take a look. And again see how now that needle is separating itself from the rest of the scene, so again night visions, keep on looking, keep on pushing. So we've got the camera, we've got the lens, but really the foundation of good night photography is a solid tripod. That is your rock, that is where you're putting your camera, so it's got to be something that's sturdy, right? And it's got to be able to hold your camera securely at night in the dark. Things can happen. We've got to make sure everything is locked down and secure. But this is how you're going to be able to, again, stretch those shutter speeds safely into the night. So my favorite tripods are again, on the high end, are the Gitzo, those are silky smooth and built to last. You invest in a Gitzo tripod. It's something that you're going to have for 10 plus years. It's something you can probably pass down. I've seen some, I've talked to some people out in the field. When night photographers get together, you're always looking at the cameras, the next thing you look at is their tripods, and you assess. And if they have a Gitzo tripod, you know that they're serious. So again my favorite tripod is that Gitzo traveler tripod. It folds up, it rolls around, and then that head. I also like if you're a little more on the budget, then Manfrotto makes a great series of tripod. One of my favorite series of theirs is their 190 series. It comes in either aluminum or carbon fiber. Usually you can save a little bit of money with the aluminum tripods. Just the materials cost less, they're a little bit heavier. With carbon fiber, you basically pay almost $100 every half pound that you save on weight. But what type of night photographer are you? Are you someone that just drives up to the scene, and shoots kind of, you're not doing much hiking, you know you can drive to a scene and shoot from there, then it doesn't matter, the weight is not a big factor for you. But if you're someone, an adventurer, a traveler, a hiker, then you're going to want the lightest and most secure tripod out there, and then that is going to be a carbon fiber. Now how the tripod is just the legs, how it attaches to the camera, we can either use a ball head, or the other most common way is a three or five-way head. A lot of times those three or five-way heads, those are very precision-oriented. I personally prefer the ball heads. They're simple, they're light, they're even more lightweight, they often can be less than a pound to maybe two, two and a half pounds, where those really precision-oriented gear heads and three-way heads, those tend to be two to four pounds. So again if you want to keep your weight down, then look into a ball head, as opposed to a three or five-way head. How we attach it to it, you saw, like I have my L bracket, that is my preferred method of attaching. Use an L bracket will attach via an Arca Swiss clamp, which both Gitzo and Manfrotto have those connections. Otherwise, it's going to connect with a quick release, and with its very own quick release. Some of Manfrotto tripods and other tripods out there have just a quick release piece. What I'll advise you about the quick release piece is, always buy another one, they are the first thing that are bound to go missing out in the field. I like the L bracket, it always stays attached to my camera, and I don't have to worry about getting to the scene and not having a way to attach my camera to my tripod. Now cable releases, how are we going to trigger the cameras? Usually we're just pressing our finger, but we want to be the most rock solid shots out there, so we could use press the trigger and have it in self-timer mode, that's sometimes, I'll do that if I want to be quick, efficient in the field, however, the safer, more secure way is with cable releases. My favorite brand of cable releases are the Vello brand. They're a third part accessory brand that solely makes these types of accessories, and they make three types of cable releases. Their first one is usually under $10, and it's usually just a regular, simple cable remote or cable release. That's the smallest one you see on the slide right here, and again, under $7 to $10. That's my backup in the field. Things start to get interesting when you use Vello's Shutterboss collection, and they have the wired collection or the wireless collection. I really like the wired collection of them. It just, I don't know, I'm not ready to go wireless yet. Everything's cabled in, locked in, it's a little simpler design, and this cable release allows you to do, has intervalometer on it, so it allows you to do time lapses, it allows you to do star stacking, for those long exposures, and a very simple and affordable way, usually the Shutterbosses range from about $40-$ for the wired version. The wireless version definitely opens up more opportunity for creativity, or comfort for that matter. You're still going to be plugging something in wired. It has that remote piece on it, that's going to be on your hot shoe or plugged into your camera. But here's the fun part, is now we can trigger it from up to 100 yards away, so say it's cold out, and you don't want to be out there in the cold. You can be inside in the comforts of your car or your home and you can be triggering your camera, which is out there doing the job for you, and you can be triggering it in the comforts of your car or home. So that's the big benefit of the wireless version. With each one of these, talked about the intervalometer feature, and this is one of the ways that we can create those star stacking capabilities. We need to have that LCD screen on it because here's the important thing. We're going to take multiple shots, and it's very important for us to have a one second break in between. If we have more than one second, then it's going to show the stars breaking up. And here's an example. This is at Glacier Lake National Park. And this is, I took about let's see, I took 18 five-minute shots. I combined those in post to create this one and a half hour exposure. I could have done it without the intervalometer, and for me, this was a quicker and more efficient way to do it than just taking a one and a half hour shot. I was able to keep on shooting throughout the night, and I wouldn't have been able to do it without the intervalometer. Again how do we keep clicking, how do we keep powered up in the field? One of the newest tools that's really exciting a lot of night photographers, especially if you do a lot of the star stacking rural stuff or time lapse photography is the TetherTools case relay system. This is using, this is taking your battery out, which often those batteries, especially for the mirrorless cameras, those batteries go really, really quick. If I shoot with a mirrorless at night, I'm bringing at least three extra batteries in the field. The DSLs, those are bigger batteries, more powerful batteries, those will last definitely a few hours out in the field, but the case relay, I don't even have to think about power, as long as it's charged up, I don't have to think about power, and I can keep on shooting. So that's a picture of it out in the field, and I was able to get this shot. This is about a 45-minute shot in Joshua Tree, powered up by the case relay system. Now there's some other accessories that you can get out in the field that will help you to keep on shooting. The bubble level, you saw that on my camera, that helps us keep really even and level. I know a lot of cameras have a level on the back of their screen, once we get off access to be inaccurate, so I love using a level. Listen, builders, carpenters, they've been using it for many many years. Put it in your camera, slides right into your hot shoe, and that will keep you on the level. Having a flash buster or simply, a flare buster, or simply a black card out in the field, sometimes we need to shoot a very specific way and we're getting flare and our lens shade isn't doing the job. So sometimes we've got to ease in a little black card to help battle any sort of flare that's out in the field. We've talked about the cases and organizing our flashes and our cords, extra batteries, gaff tape, a compass, so we can know where we're facing. A lot of times we're shooting in the national parks or rural locations, our phones no reception, hard to get a compass reading, so having the old fashioned boy scout compass with you will help you get a good gauge of north, west, south, and east. Triggers, if we're going to be using, if we're going to pop flashes remotely in the field, we can choose to get our exercise and run around the field or using any sort of triggers like Pocket Wizard or Vello, there's a ton of different flash triggers out there, so if you use those that help you, especially if you're shooting by yourself, it will help you be more efficient popping your flashes in the field. A lens cloth, I wear glasses, so I always have a lens cloth with me. If it's misty, there's dew in the air, we want to be able to wipe off that water, that condensation off of our lenses and not be shooting through it. Again a shade will help a lot, but I always have at least one or two cloths with me, so I can be wiping that off in the field. A chair, how about that? I love this little Click foldable chair, this is like this big, and it's super easy. Oftentimes we're waiting for an hour or two exposure to finish up, and you'll want to sit down, and maybe it's just dirt or cactus or stuff that you're not safe to sit on, so bringing in and just taking in the night skies, it's a wonderful thing. Alright and wrapping up the gear talk, one of the most essential tools is something that we always have with us, and that's our phone, and the many apps that we can do to help us scout and previsualize the scene in a much better way. Listed above are some of my favorite apps. I'm a big fan of PhotoPills and The Photographer Epheremis. Those are two ways that we can really calculate, go to a scene, see where the Milky Way is going to rise, we can really gauge when the sun's going to set, moon is going to rise, all of those factors, and we can use GPS to plug these in, so we can go to the scene prior to it and really have a better understanding and stay efficient in the field. I also love, again, looking at all these wonderful Star apps. I'm a big fan of Night Sky or Dark Sky. Stellarium is a wonderful app as well, mainly used for, I use it on a Desktop version, but again, another way to pre-visualize and see where and when the star's gonna be. So you can kind of match that up with your star photography. So we already went through all the pieces of gear that you can consider using for night photography, but what I wanted to show you now is how we can quickly and easily set up and the essential tools that we need here to take the shot. First off, got the tripod on solid foundation. You know, always a consideration we've got. You know, when you're around dirt, sand, anything that's gonna have, gonna put the legs on different levels. So here we have, I have each leg on concrete or brick, so no tilting or angling there. I extended all the legs here to begin with. Usually at the beginning of the scene before I even set up, I'm assessing the scene, moving myself up and down 'cause the tripod doesn't always have to be six feet above sea level, okay? So, but for this scenario because we have the railing here, this tripod's legs fully extended really gets right on over. And we always wanna extend the legs first before extending the center column. The center column is gonna be the least sturdy part of the tripod. So extend the legs first, center column if you need. We have the camera, based on the ball head right here. Ball head, I love it. Just two knobs we can pan or we can go from horizontal to vertical and use our spirit level right here to really nail down and make sure things are on the level. We don't wanna have a tilted shot that we're gonna have to straighten out later in post and hence crop some of the image so the bubble level really helps that. You'll also see me put in the intervalometer here. So this is the Vello ShutterBoss. This is a great intervalometer and this will help us, instead of using the trigger like most people do when they take pictures, use the trigger to trigger the camera, well, guess what? There's motion that can come from this, so instead of using the camera to trigger, we're gonna use a remote or use a self timer and then press the button from there. So that's my quick set up. Let's go take a shot.

There’s more to night photography than stars and hikes. The vibrance of color can be found in capturing the stars, a city skyline at twilight, or even car trails amidst a forest. Gabriel Biderman is a self taught photographer who enjoys the process of taking an image. In Night Photography 101, he’ll cover how to get started taking photos in the dark.

You’ll learn:

  • What gear you’ll need and the fundamentals of using it safely in the night 
  • How to capture stars for dynamic landscapes 
  • How to capture the sky and urban settings at night 
  • How to photograph car light trails to create more motion in your night photos  



  • This class was perfect in preparation for my trip to Zion and Bryce Canyon next week. I can't wait to put all this great information to good use! Very easy to understand, and fun to watch. I thoroughly enjoyed it!
  • This class was super helpful in what to buy and then how to get the pictures you want. Loved all the other stuff that I knew nothing about. I knew very little about light painting. Thanks for sharing this class with us. This class was one of the best I have seen.
  • This course is fairly comprehensive, and offers a good intermediate/advanced intermediate examination of night photography (NOT just astrophotography, which is only one form of night photography.) I don't necessarily agree with everything he's saying here, but that doesn't make it wrong - it's just a matter of preference. He is fairly equipment-centric, but getting into many forms of night photography DOES require some specific equipment. There's a lot of useful information contained here, and I can see myself consulting this course in the future to help solve and understand certain situations and problems that are unique to night photography. Recommended.