Shoot Like a Pro by Using the Best Settings For Night Photography

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Shoot like a pro by using the Best Settings for Night Photography

If you love to photograph the night sky as I do, it’s critical to know the best settings for night photography.  You can shoot like a pro with these settings and dazzle your audience with your results!

It seems there’s always some fantastic phenomenon happening in the sky, doesn’t it!?  In the spring of 2020 spring, scientists discovered a new comet called Comet Neowise.  Of course, this meant I had a challenge in front of me.  I love to photograph the night sky, so I had to capture this beauty with my lens.  Since we won’t get another opportunity for 6,800 years and I’ll likely be long gone by then, now’s the time to put my nighttime photography settings to work and capture Comet Neowise!

Photograph of Neowise Comet in the night sky above Lake Michigan

Here are the simple steps I took to capture Comet Neowise!  If you practice these techniques and use the best settings for night photography, you will be thrilled with your results.  Don’t worry – if you missed the Neowise Comet, you will indeed have another opportunity to capture the next astronomical event.  These nighttime photography settings will work for any similar significant event.

Best Settings for Night Photography - Tip #1

RESEARCH AND CHOOSE YOUR LOCATION

Before you need to worry about the best settings for night photography, you need to consider location.  Here’s how I found Comet Neowise.  You can follow these steps for any astronomical event.

First, I looked online to see where in the sky to look for Comet Neowise.  Experts reported that she would be located in the sky N/NW and below the Big Dipper.  I also read that she would be low on the horizon, so I knew I would need an open space with a clear view of the horizon.  Because I live close to Lake Michigan’s shores, it made sense that this would be the perfect scenario for viewing and photographing her in the night sky.  Another area that could have worked for her or any other astronomical event would be a cornfield or any other giant open area.  Even better if there’s something in the foreground to give a little perspective.

Best Settings for Night Photography - Tip #2

RESEARCH AND CHOOSE YOUR TIME

Another step you must take before thinking of your best settings for night photography is to research the time of your event.  Do this in advance, so you know what time will work best to capture your image.  There are so many excellent tools you can get for free or low prices that will help you pinpoint a time for your event.  I use a great little app called TPE (The Photographer’s Ephemeris).  TPE will help you plan for sunset and sunrise times and help you choose the location and time for your astronomical event.

When I researched for this shoot, I found that when the Neowise Comet was first visible, we could only see her with the naked eye during the pre-dawn sky in the morning.  Eventually, she became visible in the evening after sunset.  I chose to wait and venture out at night.  I know me, and setting my alarm and rising before dawn isn’t gonna excite me, so in this case, nighttime made more sense.  Morning may work better for you if you like to jump up and photograph the night sky as a crack-of-dawn adventure.  Either way, make sure you know what time works for your astronomical event and you!

Best Settings for Night Photography - Tip #3

PACK THE RIGHT GEAR

I know!  I know!  You’re excited to get to the best settings for night photography, and we will get there!  I promise!  Unfortunately, my experience tells me that all the settings in the world are of no use when I haven’t appropriately prepped before arriving on-site!

Another little tip I’ve learned from experience is that you can never go wrong with packing an extra lens or two.  In this case, my first instinct was to bring a super close lens to capture all of the beautiful detail of Comet Neowise.  I figured I’d want to zoom in to grab a closeup of her tail.  Even though the close lens was great for catching the detail, the fact is that a super-wide lens is usually best for capturing most night skies.  Had I brought only the close lens, I would have missed the opportunity to photograph Comet Neowise with the beautiful night sky around her.

Like a Boyscout, BE PREPARED to photograph the night sky!

In the end, I was so happy that I had my 15-30mm lens  to capture not only that night sky event but also to get Comet Neowise with some of the beach and water in the foreground for perspective.  In the end, there’s nothing worse than showing up on sight with your best settings for night photography all written down and then having the wrong lens for the moment.  Like a Boyscout, you must ALWAYS be prepared!

A perfect example of this situation happened on the second night I was shooting. I ran across a photographer struggling because he only brought his super zoom lens.  He was having a terrible time finding Comet Neowise in the lens and grumbling about how he wished he had brought his wider lens.  Had we been shooting the same camera brand, I may have kindly let him borrow a lens, but our equipment was not compatible since I shot Canon and he was shooting Nikon.  Bummer for him.  If only he had thrown in a couple of extra lenses before heading out to capture his event in the sky just in case.  I bet the next time he goes to photograph an astronomical event, I bet he’ll happily schlep the extra lens to his location.

A closeup photograph of Neowise Comet in the night sky showing tail

Best Settings for Night Photography - Tip #4

Use the BEST SETTINGS FOR NIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY

Finally!  We’ve reached the part where I tell you all about the best settings for night photography!  Here are the settings I used for Comet Neowise and why:

I started with my Canon EOS R on my favorite tripod  at 15mm focal distance.  It’s essential to have your camera as still as possible, so you don’t get any motion blur when you’re shooting.

I opened my aperture as wide as possible to f/2.8 to let the most light possible into my camera.  After all, it is dark outside.

I often prefer to keep my ISO low, around 100, when shooting at night.  Low ISO reduces grain.  If you don’t want grainy images of your astronomical event, you should keep your ISO low unless you’re stacking.  I knew I could bump my ISO up since I would be stacking (more on that below).  For this shoot, I set ISO at 6400.

Finally, let’s talk shutter speed.  I set my shutter at 2 seconds.  I did not want my photos overexposed, especially since I would be using many of them stacked into one image, so I kept the shutter speed low.

In summary, these are the best settings for night photography that I used for Comet Neowise:  15mm fd, f/2.8, ISO 6400, SS 2

Best Settings for Night Photography - Tip #5

STACK YOUR IMAGES

As we’ve been talking about, if you want to take your photography results to the next level, you need to use the tools available to you to push your image to the maximum quality.  The best results aren’t only due to using the best settings for night photography.

Stacking is one of the best tools available for night photography and astronomical events.  Stacking is an excellent and simple technique that uses multiple images layered atop one another to reduce noise.  I especially love that stacking software is available for free!  Stacking several photos that look similar will reduce noise in your end photo.

CLICK HERE for more info on photo stacking and links to free stacking software

Below is an example of a stacked shot after using the best settings for night photography.  I took about 20 of the same image, one right after the other, and then used stacking software to layer them.  Can you see how this technique helped reduce grain?  As mentioned above, grain comes from shooting with a high ISO.  Shooting with a high ISO allows for a faster shutter speed, which reduces star trails. Follow all of that?  Great!

Stacking is not just for night sky photography – read more about using stacking with miniature model photography from my friends at TangibleDay HERE

A grainy photograph of Neowise Comet in the night sky
See how grainy this image is? Using a high ISO causes grain, but allows a faster shutter speed.
A much smoother photograph of Neowise in the night sky as a result of stacked images
You can see how much smoother the image is after it has been stacked with many copies taken back-to-back.

Want more info about Neowise Comet?  No problem – click HERE!

Best Settings for Night Photography - Tip #6

USE AN INTERVALOMETER

Now that we’ve talked about the best settings for night photography and how to stack multiple photos of your night sky event let’s talk about getting a large number of (almost) identical images to use when stacking.  An intervalometer is an inexpensive tool that will make a world of difference in your nighttime photography.

Some high-end DSLR and Mirrorless cameras have this feature built-in.  Don’t worry if your camera doesn’t.  An intervalometer is an inexpensive add-on; you will find you use it for more than just events in the skies, so this is a great excuse to treat yourself.  Or, if you’re like me, your family is always looking for a low-priced gift idea.

Click HERE for a whole list of photography related items to treat yourself!  Good self-care is a must!

That’s excellent information, but you’re here for the best settings for night photography.  Are you wondering what this fancy gadget is and what it has to do with your next astronomical event?  An intervalometer is a small device that allows you to take a series of photos at certain time intervals and shutter speeds.  It is small and straightforward to connect to your camera.

Best Settings for Night Photography - Bonus Tip

Have fun! Because photographing the night sky should be an adventure!

Now that you have the best settings for night photography and all the tools, it’s time to get out there and find your next astronomical event to photograph!  And remember to have fun when shooting!  After all, isn’t that what it’s all about?  

Father and son on the beach
Always take a little time to have some fun. My husband Dan and son Tucker hang out on the beach while I set up for the shoot.

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