Panoramic_Milky_Way_DTNM_2022_1A panoramic view of the Milky Way stretching above Devil's Tower and the surrounding forest as aseveral meteors from the Perseids Meteor Shower dart through the sky in northeastern Wyoming.
I have really started to develop an affinity for night photography. Also referred to as astrophotography, this type of image making is completely different than any other I have pursued. Concepts would dictate that night photography is basically landscape photography at night, but there is one very big difference — there is very little light. As a result, settings and gear can be completely different, and can be outside of what you would think would work.
I also have an affinity for keeping things simple when it comes to gear. I don't like to be weighed down with a lot of supplies and stuff to lug around. This becomes especially important when you are walking around in the dark. There are certainly lots of devices and equipment that can take your photography to the next level or allow a different perspective, like using drones, but I like to master something first before adding in more gear to consider, operate and study.
So, for night photography I use five pieces of camera gear:
- Camera body: a body that can handle high ISOs, and handle them well, is essential. I use the Nikon D850, which has fantastic color range on the sensor and can really hold back on noisy images at high ISOs. (I typically shoot at 3200 ISO for most dark night sky images.)
Milky_Way_Poudre_Canyon_2020_1The Milky Way is surrounded by a sky full of stars above Roosevelt National Forest in the Poudre Canyon, Colorado.
- Lens: having a fast lens is a necessity. Enough light just will not reach the sensor if you use anything slower than an f4. Even at f4, the ISO level may introduce too much noise into your image. I use a Nikon 14-24mm f2.8 lens and a Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 lens. I am considering adding a fixed lens into the mix too, like the Sigma 20mm f1.4 art lens, which will provide more light because of the f1.4 maximum aperture, and thus reduce the length of shutter speed I need and/or reduce the ISO level needed to achieve the right amount of light. There are times that the distortion is out of my comfort zone on the 14-24mm and the 24-70mm is sometimes not wide enough for the scene I want to photograph.
Breckenridge_Under_Moonlight_rev_2012_1The town of Breckenridge, Colorado and Breckenridge Ski Resort during the blue hour on a snowy night illuminated by a full moon.
- Remote shutter release: this is a must for night photography. I use a wired release but wireless are also available. I do have both but prefer the wired for, again, simplicity. There are pros and cons to each option: the cable on wired releases can snap in extreme cold temps (think winter shoots for northern lights or a snowy mountain scene in winter) and are limiting in how far you can move from the tripod (self timers are a solution for that conundrum) but they have one button and no batteries (which can drain down in cold temperatures). Wireless releases typically have more buttons and setup to sync with a receiver on your camera and require batteries but give you much more freedom to move away from (or into) the scene. I use a Nikon MC-30A (yes, kind of old school but has done well for me). Make sure you get a release that has the correct pin (attachment) configuration for your camera body. For example, the MC-30A has a 10-pin connection, which works well with my D850.
Milky_Way_Longs_Peak_RMNP_2020_3The Milky Way stretches over Longs Peak on a dark night in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
- Tripod: again, this is an absolute necessity for night photography. There is absolutely no way to handhold a camera at the slow shutter speeds required for night photos. Any sturdy tripod that is tall enough for your height, easy-to-adjust legs (I have twist locks on my tripod), preferably carbon fiber (lighter and sturdier) and has wraps on at least one leg (so you don't have to hold onto cold metal). A tripod that comes with interchangeable feet and spikes can be helpful too if you plan to shoot on ice or snow. Something like the Really Right Stuff TVC-34L will do the trick if you are serious about trying different types of landscape and night photography but it is an investment.
- Ballhead: to use a tripod, you will need a bullhead for the top of it. I use the Uniqball Ballhead. It has two ways to level and compose and although it is a little on the heavy side, it does a fantastic job of leveling the camera.
Northern_Lights_Denali_2017_3The Northern Lights illuminate the sky above the Savage River Campground in Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska
One other necessity for night photography shoots is a headlamp. You just can't leave home without it for safety and seeing what you are doing. I have one, which is the Petzl ACTIK Core headlamp, in every camera bag for the unexpected night photo opportunities.
Enjoy the night skies, and stay safe out there.
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