Night Photography

  By Rachel Ross

Night Photography can be a little bit intimidating if you have never done it before but it doesn’t have to be! In this article I will share the tips and tricks that I’ve learned (many through trial and error) when photographing the night sky.

There are two important things to consider when photographing the night sky – ambient light, and how you plan to process your image.

Ambient Light

Ambient light is light from the stars, the moon, light pollution, or other light source. The amount of light available in a given scene is important as it will determine the camera settings you choose.

I get asked nearly every day what camera settings to use for night photography. Because the ambient light of stars, the moon, and light pollution are never the same from shoot to shoot – even at the same location – this is a tough question to answer!

Camera Settings:

A good starting place when shooting with a wide angle lens is f/2.8 (or widest aperture), 25 seconds, and ISO 3200. I say this is a good starting place because it allows you to make decisions based on ambient light from there.

Aperture: An aperture of f/2.8 (or widest aperture for your particular lens) allows the most light into the camera. However, this is not the sharpest aperture on most lenses. Typically, the sharpest aperture is the middle aperture in the range for a given lens. For example, on a lens that ranges from f/2.8 to f/22, the sharpest aperture is typically f/11.

When I shoot stars, I usually start at f/2.8, but if there is enough light I will stop down to f/3.2 or f/3.5 because the stars look less soft and more defined at narrower apertures (higher numbers). Whenever possible, I will shoot the foreground at f/11 (either by light painting or using ambient light).

A shutter speed of 25 seconds is a good starting place for most lenses. Typically, if you leave the shutter open for more than 25 seconds you will see the stars begin to trail. That is, they will look less like little dots and more like smudges.

When I first started out I followed about the ‘500 rule’ when trying to decide on a shutter speed. To avoid trailing, the 500 rule suggests that dividing 500 by your focal length will give you the longest shutter speed before stars begin to trail in your image. So following this rule if your focal length is 16 mm (500/16 = 31.25 seconds) you could leave your shutter open for 30 seconds (round down).

However, even following this rule stars will look somewhat smudgy. Ideally, I aim for a shutter speed of 10 seconds or less. This is not always possible. On new moon nights there is no ambient moonlight and the sky can be very dark. When there is little ambient light, I will start at 25 seconds and then try to reduce the shutter speed as much as possible.

This refers to the sensitivity of your sensor to light. The lower your ISO, the less sensitive your camera is to light, the higher the ISO the more sensitive your camera is to light.

This higher sensitivity, however, comes with a downside in that images tend to look very “grainy” or “noisy.” Some of the noise can be dealt with in post-processing, but it is increasingly difficult at increasing ISOs.

An ISO of 3200 is a good starting place for photographing stars because noise reduction is manageable in post production, and it is usually sufficient for capturing the beauty of the stars. However, on a new moon night, it may be preferable to opt for much higher ISOs. Ideally, you want to start at 3200 ISO and reduce this if the ambient light allows.

Post Processing:

The second thing to consider when you are just starting out is how you plan to process your image. If you are not comfortable with Photoshop, you will likely want to capture the entire scene in one image, and therefore the decisions you make about camera settings will be influenced by the whole scene.

If you are comfortable with combining multiple images or exposures together, you will get the best results by shooting the scene for dynamic range in multiple exposures, then blending those images together in post processing.

Getting the shot in one exposure:

It is absolutely possible to get a stunning image in a single exposure.  However, there will always be trade-offs in the decision making process about camera settings.

For example,  the ‘Standing on Stars’ image pictured below was taken in a single exposure during new moon. I was using a Sony A7s (which has a monster sensor for night photography) and a canon 16-35 mm lens, using a metabones speed boost adapter.

Given that it was new moon, I opted for settings that allowed the most light into the camera. My settings  were f/2.2 (the 16-35 mm lens is an f/2.8, but the adapter allowed me to gain two more stops), shutter of 25 seconds, and ISO 3200.

As you can see, the stars are in focus but they have a soft look at f/2.2. I could have tried increasing the aperture to f/3.2 or f/3.5, but because I didn’t have any moonlight I opened up the aperture as much as possible.

Also, it is much harder than you may think to hold still for 25 seconds, so there is a small amount of movement in the subject. Again, had I used a shorter exposure (10-15 seconds), I would have had less movement in my subject but the overall image would have been considerably darker, and you wouldn’t have been able to see the detail in the rock, or the reflection of the stars in the water on the beach.

Getting the shot in multiple exposures:

Comfort with blending multiple exposures will enable you to get the most out of each element in the scene.

The ambient light in the ‘Emerald Nights’ photo below allowed me to shoot this scene in two exposures to get an extremely sharp and detailed image, with very little noise. The cabin was shot at f/11, 30 seconds, ISO 800. The sky was shot at f/2.8, 10 seconds, ISO 3200.

More Advanced Techniques:

There are other ways of obtaining super sharp images with little noise when the ambient light is low, using other light sources.  The ‘Timeless’ image below, for example, was photographed using a Canon 6D with a Canon 16-35 mm lens on a new moon night. I used light painting techniques for the foreground image, and a second shot using my standard settings for the stars.

Want to learn more about astrophotography?

If you are interested in honing your skills in night photography, join me on my next Astrophotography Workshop!  I will be leading a night photography workshop that covers everything from the basics of focusing at night to more advanced techniques such as light painting and adding the human element to your image.

So whether you are just starting out in night photography or you’ve mastered the basics and you are ready to get creative with other sources of light, I would be happy to help you take your night photography to the next level!

I will also be co-leading a Jasper Photography Workshop with instructor Gavin Hardcastle where we will shoot some of the most captivating winter landscapes in the Canadian Rockies, including some unique opportunities for night photography!

For more information, or to sign up, visit

About the Photographer:

I was born and raised on a farm in Northern Alberta. I fell in love with the night sky as a small child. I didn’t know it at the time but I was blessed to live in a place where there was no light pollution and the stars were so bright I felt like I could touch them. In my adulthood, I pursued academia. In my umpteenth year of school, while studying for my PhD, a friend took me out to photograph the night sky for the first time; I was hooked! It was the closest I’ve felt to the stars since my childhood. I bought my first full frame camera the next day, and since then I’ve spent countless hours photographing the night sky.

One of the things I love about photography is that there is always more to learn. It is the best combination of the academic side of me with an insatiable appetite for knowledge, and my creativity.

My favourite thing to shoot is engagement photos under the night sky. There is something truly timeless about the love between two people as witnessed by the stars. 

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