Top Photographers Share Tips on Shooting Outdoors at Night

    Since the dawn of man, reaching all the way back to the ancient world and our earliest civilizations, we have studied the night sky. We’ve created stories about gods who live in the constellations; we’ve searched for meaning, and we’ve organized our days and years around the patterns of space. More recently, we’ve introduced technologies, telescopes, and cameras that allow us to see the night like never before.
    Sadly, our connection with the night sky is fading. Last year, BBC reported that light pollution affects 80% of the world’s population. Street lights, along with lights from buildings and cars, have greatly diminished our ability to see the stars. A third of the global population can no longer see the Milky Way galaxy.
    In order to witness the true night sky, we must venture to remote places, far removed from the noise of city life. To capture the night sky in a photograph poses even more challenges. We asked five outstanding outdoor photographers and Shutterstock contributors to tell us where they go to make pictures at night. Here, they reveal their secret spots and unconventional tricks they learned along the way
    If you’re looking for your own striking imagery, you can get a 10% discount off all Shutterstock imagery using the code: ‘GET10’. Get started here.

    1. “Take two consecutive images: one for the sky followed by a second exposure to illuminate your foreground more.”

    - Mike Ver Sprill

    Image by Mike Ver Sprill. Gear: Nikon D800 camera, Nikon 14-24mm lens at 14mm wide. Settings: My foreground was a single photo at a shutter speed of 25 seconds, f2.8, ISO 5000.
    I did not like the motion blur of the stars at 25 seconds, so I turned my Ioptron Tracker after photographing the foreground to track the sky. The settings were shutter speed 100 seconds, f3.2, ISO 1600. I blended the two photos together in post-processing. For my flash, I used an SB700 with a pair of pocket wizards and a knockoff “Gary Fong Lightsphere” to diffuse the flash.

    What’s the story behind this photograph?
    When I saw this tree on the internet, I knew I had to photograph it at night. It was so creepy, yet so captivating, and I knew I could create an image that hadn’t been taken there before. I put so much time and effort into the logistical planning that I had such a surreal feeling when it actually came to fruition. I call this photo “Finding The Hand Of God” because when I look at the photo, the tree looks like an old hand holding up the Milky Way Galaxy. What I love the most is how this photo offers a glimpse of the past, with an old wise tree surrounded by ancient starlight.

    What’s the most memorable outdoor place you’ve ever photographed, and what made it so unforgettable?
    My most memorable outdoor location so far has been Botany Bay Plantation Beach in South Carolina.
    This has also been one of my most difficult locations to photograph at night due to the tide and accessibility. It took months of planning for mid- to low-tide nights that would fall on or near a new moon for the rising Milky Way, and then I would have to hope for clear skies on those nights.
    Finally I lucked out, and I drove the twelve hours from New Jersey to South Carolina; however, the challenges I faced were not over yet. A week before going down to Botany Bay Plantation, I had found out that the road is gated off at night because they are afraid people will steal conch shells from the beach.
    I came up with a solution: I would stay at a campground about eight miles from the photography location and ride my bike there in the middle of the night. Sounded simple enough, except for how I was going to lug about 30 pounds of camera gear on my bike. I ended up buying a front and rear rack for my bike a few days before I departed on my journey. This helped me disperse the weight across my bike; however, it was still hard to ride.
    The last couple of miles were so sketchy. It was pitch black, since the oak trees made a natural tunnel, blocking out the starlight. I had two flashlights strapped to my bike and a headlamp on, but I was still nervous as I heard animals running through the woods on the side. When I reached the beach, I had a feeling of relief and excitement as I got to explore the shore under the stars, all to myself!
    Image by Mike Ver Sprill
    Pro Tip
    Night photography can be very challenging; however, we have many different options to create cleaner and sharper images. An easy technique to learn is just taking two consecutive images: one for the sky at a higher ISO and shorter shutter speed (5-20 seconds, depending on the lens) for sharper stars, followed by a second exposure that is two to eight minutes long with a lower ISO to illuminate your foreground more. Then you blend the sky and foreground together in Photoshop or a similar program that allows masking.
    The downside with this technique is that you end up with a relatively noisy sky, and you may get a lot of hot pixels in the foreground, which need to be corrected. To address the noise, stacking has become a new favorite among astrophotographers. Stacking is taking multiple consecutive photos, then averaging them together, which reduces noise considerably. Stacking can be done in Photoshop and even by free programs like StarstaX.
    Image by Mike Ver Sprill
    When you stack, you clean up the foreground; however, the Earth is moving, so the sky will be blurry. In Photoshop, you would have to manually align the sky for each image, which can be very time-consuming. A program called Starry Landscape Stacker came out a couple years ago and has addressed that problem. This program will auto-align your night sky, stack the images, and then blend the sky with the foreground. This helps greatly to speed up the editing process and get sharper, cleaner images. The only downside is that program is for Apple computers only.
    While Starry Landscape Stacker is an amazing program, sometimes I want even sharper star images. To achieve this, I incorporate a star tracker like Ioptron, Vixen, or Sky Watcher. These are portable star trackers that allow me to take longer exposures, up to four minutes long, before the tracking drifts out of alignment. Because you are tracking the sky, the ground will start to get blurry, since your camera is slowly moving.
    I will typically photograph the foreground first with the star tracker turned off and with a long exposure stacking technique. Then, I will turn on my Ioptron star tracker and begin tracking the sky. This gives me some of the sharpest and cleanest night images possible. The only drawback is the editing time it may take to blend the sky back in with the foreground. I have tutorials for a lot of these techniques on my website and Youtube channel.

    Where do you find inspiration for your photography?
    Believe or not, I actually find a lot of my inspiration from Pinterest. For people not familiar with Pinterest, you can create a “board,” which is like a subfolder. I decided I was going to make one for every state in America, as well as other countries on my bucket list. Then I searched for night images, mountain ranges, hiking trails, waterfalls and other unique photo locations in those states. I pin the images to my board so I can reference them later when I plan to travel to that state.
    I also find a lot of inspiration from websites like Flickr, 500px, and numerous Facebook groups with a lot of talented photographers. With those groups, there is always an unspoken force to push each other for the next “wow” image. It helps create that drive to search for something or create something nobody has done before.

    2. “For night shots, it’s very important to have compelling elements in the landscape.”

    - Jukka Risikko

    Image by Jukka Risikko. Gear: Canon EOS 5Ds R camera, Tamron sp 15-30mm f/2.8 di vc usd lens. Settings: Focal length 15mm; exposure 15 sec; f2.8; ISO 2000.

    What’s the story behind this photograph?
    It was a moonlit night in the Finnish countryside, at a chilling -15 degrees Celsius. I put my daughter to bed and grabbed my gear. This is a birch alley near my home. The trees were covered in hoar frost. The moonlight made the frost sparkle just right.

    What’s the most memorable outdoor place you’ve ever photographed, and what made it so unforgettable?
    Last December, I had the most memorable night photography moment so far. Night trips are always special because a familiar environment can look totally different than it normally does in daylight. Stars, moonlight, and the northern lights always inspire me. I mainly take my night photos near my home in Lapua, a small town in the Finnish countryside. The challenge is finding the right angles, lens, and settings in freezing cold weather.
    Pro Tip
    It’s a huge advantage when you know the terrain you’re entering at night. I visit the sites and locations beforehand and in daylight. I also check the weather forecast closely just before leaving home.
    Warm clothing, rubber boots, a headlamp, and extra batteries are necessities. For night shots, it’s very important to have compelling elements in the landscape. Usually, I incorporate flowing water, old buildings, trees, docks, etc. in the foreground to create depth. The northern lights and stars are great, but it’s a bit boring if there’s nothing else in the picture.
    One unconventional method I use in night shots is that I always keep a candle with me. When needed, it gives off a warm light and brings out some objects in the landscape. The possibilities are unlimited.
    Image by Jukka Risikko
    Where do you find inspiration for your photography?
    My inspiration for photography originates from my love of exploring nature. Nature always changes, especially in Finland, because we have four different and beautiful seasons. I have a very social day job, so I enjoy the serenity of the forest and the countryside. Early mornings and late nights are my favorite moments.

    3. “In the case of night panoramas, have at least a 50% overlap between shots, so that the stitching programs can align the panorama.”

    - Stefano Garau

    Image by Stefano Garau. Gear: Nikon D810 camera, and a Nikkor 16mm f/2.8 lens.  Settings: Exposure 20 sec; f3.5; ISO 1600.

    What’s the story behind this photograph?
    The weather was perfect, and the sky was clear, with no wind. The only problem was getting to the right spot. At night, you can’t see where to put your feet, so it was hard, even though I had a torch. This photo is a 360 ° panorama, which made the task even more time-consuming.

    What’s the most memorable outdoor place you’ve ever photographed, and what made it so unforgettable?
    The most memorable outdoor place I’ve ever photographed at night is the Capo Spartivento lighthouse in Sardinia. It’s a place that’s incredibly wild and quiet at the same time. I have always liked lighthouses, and this was the first time I combined one with the magnificence of the Milky Way.
    Pro Tip
    Try different camera settings, and try different techniques to capture the starry sky as well as the foreground. In the case of night panoramas like mine, I can advise you to have at least a 50% overlap between shots, so that the stitching programs can align the panorama, and you can get a great final result.
    Image by Stefano Garau
    Additionally, if you shoot in situations with severe contrast, like a lighthouse in backlight, take a few shots of the panorama, giving priority to the highlights. In other words, underexpose everything except the lighthouse. That way, you can recover the whites in post-production. Lastly, do not rush to take the shots. Take as much time as possible, and then you won’t regret missing anything when you get home.

    Where do you find inspiration for your photography?
    I’m not a person who goes looking for inspiration before going to take pictures. At best, I can only take photos in my chosen place, and sometimes I get lucky. Sometimes I also try to do some of the techniques I see from other photographers and their pictures on the web. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes not.

    4. “Spend some time with your lenses beforehand by finding your infinity setting.”

    - Katrina Brown

    Image by Katrina Brown. Gear: Canon 5D Mark III camera, Canon EF 24-70mm f2.8L lens. Settings: Focal length 25mm; exposure 45.7 sec; f7.1; ISO 1600. The exposure for each image is 20-45 seconds long. I did this approximately four hours and combined them to create this time-lapse image.

    What’s the story behind this photograph?
    For a star trail image that has a light painted element in the foreground, I do things in steps. The first step is to set up composition on a sturdy tripod that will not move throughout this process whatsoever. I then configure my desired exposure for the stars, setting my intervalometer appropriately. This particular image took 289 shots at 30-second intervals just for the trail images.
    Only at the end of shooting do I play around with light painting or add subjects within the frame. In this particular shot, I added the tent, and I used an iPhone flashlight pointing up from the ground inside of it for light. I used my intervalometer as a manual release, playing with the length of the exposure. The final exposure for the finishing part of the image ended up being 45 seconds. In Photoshop, I blended the trail images together, and then I masked in the final image. Since the camera never moved, the masked portion was painted in perfectly, while still maintaining the perfection of the captured trails.

    What’s the most memorable outdoor place you’ve ever photographed, and what made it so unforgettable?
    Joshua Tree National Park is special to me for many reasons. First and foremost, the peaceful energy, here under the stars, is inexplicable. It’s a calm, quiet, and peaceful feeling that doesn’t compare to anything. While this may be true in almost any rural, less light-polluted place, this one is different, with its unique terrain and trees that resemble Dr. Seuss characters.
    I love the art that I make there. I cherish the images, much like a painting that takes a long time to make. I can forever look at my images and feel exactly what I felt that night, with my friends, making memories. It just doesn’t get any better than that.
    This photograph is special because of who I was with. My good friend, Nick Ut, who became a famous photographer for shooting ‘Napalm Girl’ in Vietnam, wanted to learn how to shoot the stars. I am always eager to expand a photographer’s repertoire, so I obliged and took some friends on a trip to Joshua Tree. Once the composition was decided, we set up, and I explained a few settings and helped with the intervalometer programming. We made some beautiful art. Of course, there were four-plus hours of not touching the camera, so we all had plenty of shenanigans to pass the time.

    Pro Tip
    Spend some time with your lenses beforehand by finding your infinity setting. Most lenses have a “mark” of infinity; however, it is not completely accurate from lens to lens. Take your lens outside on a bright day and focus on something more than thirty feet away from you. Notate and mark your lens where that is, so at night, you can manually focus without needing an object to focus on.
    Image by Katrina Brown

    Don’t fear ISO. There is only one way to capture the Milky Way and star trails properly, and that’s with increased ISO. I have rarely had to go over 3200 ISO on my Canon 5D Mark III, but it is necessary, depending on atmospheric conditions and the moon phase.
    Shoot night landscapes on or around the New Moon. The New Moon is when there is no moon. The more light there is from the moon, the fewer stars your camera can see. Moonscapes can make beautiful images, but I am referring to controlling the light in regards to star trails and/or light painting. Google and smartphone apps can really help with this.
    Finally, lick your lens. Yes, do it, and then polish it clear. It helps prevent fogging as the temperature changes late in the evening/early in the morning. I do it!

    Where do you find inspiration for your photography?
    I can’t say any one source inspires me. Everything inspires me, as I am constantly seeking with an artistic eye. I am affected by paintings I see, almost as a challenge to find its real life counterpart. Commercials and ads really draw my attention and often spark an idea that leads to something completely different. I’m always noticing shapes and shades while traveling with a GPS full of markers for the right “light” time.

    5. “The best way to focus at night is to use a Live View on your camera, point it to the brightest star or object in your frame, zoom it in, and then carefully fine tune the focus.”

    - Dávid Varga

    Image by David Varga. Gear: Canon 6D camera, Sigma 24mm 1.4 Art lens. Settings: Exposure 15 sec; f.28; ISO 800.

    What’s the story behind this photograph?
    Maybe it was a crazy idea, but we took our crampons and ice axes, and on the last day of our trip, when the weather finally cleared up a bit, we took our chances on the steep climb.
    We made it to the top just a few moments after the sunset, but we were still amazed by the beauty we saw. The chances that the aurora would appear were very low, and after waiting for one hour, we were already preparing ourselves for the descent.
    Suddenly, the green lights showed up. You cannot imagine the photographic euphoria we experienced then. The camera shutters were on fire, and this was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
    Only a few people get to the top of Reinebringen in snowy conditions, but even fewer have a chance to witness the aurora borealis from here. If you Google it, you won’t find any pictures like this one.

    What’s the most memorable outdoor place you’ve ever photographed, and what made it so unforgettable?
    One of my favorite places to hike and photograph is the Reinebringen cliff in Lofoten, Norway. This cliff rises more than 450 meters above the sea, and you have a remarkable aerial view over the fishing village of Reine below. Above, you have the magnificent and rugged peaks surrounding the Reinefjorden.
    Image by David Varga
    This place is extremely popular in the summer, but my favorite story is from a trip during the spring. Up north, we still had wintery conditions, and everything was covered with snow. I had climbed up Reinebringen many times before, but never in the winter. I also did not see any winter photos taken from up there on the internet. It was my dream to actually take some.

    Pro Tip
    The most important thing is to have the weather on your side, which is something you cannot influence much, but you can at least prepare for it and monitor it. It is obviously prudent to have a sturdy tripod, a fast lens with low f-number, and ideally, a full-frame DSLR.
    At night, the autofocus doesn’t usually work, especially when you shoot stars or the northern lights. You have to focus manually, and that is not easy. In the past, I just used to set the focus to infinity, and that was it. And this was wrong, as I realized a few years later.
    The best way to focus at night is to use a Live View on your camera, point it to the brightest star or object in your frame, zoom it in, and then carefully fine tune the focus. You will see the correct focus now is far from “infinity,” and I can guarantee the quality of your night photos will rapidly improve.

    Where do you find inspiration for your photography?
    I follow some of my favorite landscape photographers to get inspiration.

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