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    The Best Camera Settings for Night Photography

    By June 29, 2020 Photography

    1. Shooting Mode: Manual Mode

    For night photography exposure settings use manual mode.

    It’s very difficult to reach proper exposure at night using priority modes.

    In most cases, both shutter and aperture priority will leave your image underexposed.

    Manual mode gives you full control over all of your exposure settings.

    This allows you to choose to adjust your ISO, aperture, and shutter speed according to your needs.

    For example, shutter priority will only let you set your shutter speed up to 30 seconds. It doesn’t allow you to shoot in bulb mode.

    This can be very limiting when shooting at night.

    It also makes it impossible to shoot star trails, which typically require a shutter speed beyond 30 seconds.

    You also do not want to forego control of your aperture.

    You’ll want to be able to test different apertures until you reach the ideal exposure for your image.

    When using manual mode, remember that the first set of exposure settings will likely not produce the best exposure for your scene.

    So, it’s vital that you experiment with different settings.

    Adjust your setting as much as needed to find the best exposure for the effect you’re looking for.

    When adjusting my exposure settings, I like setting my aperture first.

    Then I adjust my shutter speed, and finally my ISO. 

    The only exception to this is when I am taking a photo of star trails and light trails.

    In which case, I adjust my shutter speed first.

    Resource: How to Master Manual Mode Photography in 7 Steps

    2. Aperture: f/2.8 – f/5.6

    The lower your ‘f’ number, the more light is let into your camera.

    But wide apertures or low ‘f’ numbers also produce a shallow depth of field.

    As a result, less of your image will be in focus.

    So you wouldn’t want to always use the lowest aperture value (maximum aperture).

    Lower your ‘f’ number until you reach the exposure you want.

    In most cases, you can use aperture values between f/4 to f/5.6 if you are shooting long exposures or high ISO values.

    But, if you are using faster shutter speeds to or lower ISO’s to reduce noise, then you will need to use apertures of f/2.8 or wider.

    If you’re shooting the milky way, any aperture values above 2.8 because it will not collect as much light. So, you’ll want to avoid them.

    You shouldn’t experience any softness problems if you’re using a high-quality wide-angle lens with ‘f’ values ranging between 1.4 and 2.8.

    All said, remember that these settings are all dependent on one another.

    So finding the right balance is key, and will often take practice.

    Resources

    Camera Basics: Aperture Explained (With Video)

    Understanding How To Use Metering Modes (with Cheat Sheet)

    3. Shutter Speed: 500 Rule

    Shutter speed is the length of time your camera’s sensor is exposed to light.

    The longer the shutter speed, the more light is let into your camera.

    When shooting at night, use as long shutter speed you need to reach your ideal exposure.

    One exception to this rule is if you’re trying to capture the milky way.

    For milky way photography, use the 500 rule.

    The 500 rule calculates the slowest shutter speed you can use before the stars start to become blurry.

    If you have a full-frame camera, divide 500 by your focal length.

    For example, if you are shooting with a 100mm lens, you shouldn’t go any slower than 5 seconds (500 / 100).

    Crop frame cameras are a bit different.

    With crop frame cameras, you first need to divide your focal length by the crop factor.

    Then divide 500 by the quotient.

    For instance, if your shooting with a 100mm lens on a camera with a 1.5 crop frame, you should use shutter speeds of 8 seconds or faster.

    100mm / 1.5 = 67mm
    500 / 67 = 8 seconds

    The 500 rule is a good starting point to ensure that none of the objects in the sky are blurry.

    Resource: 17 Tips on How to Photograph the Milky Way + Cheat Sheet

    Star Trails and Long Exposure:

    Bromo startrail

    If you want to capture star trails, you will need to use longer shutter speeds.

    You can still use the 500 rule, except you will need to use slower shutter speeds than the rule recommends.

    Once you have found the shutter speed using the 500 rule, continue adjusting and reviewing your images until you reach the desired star trail length.

    Shutter speeds can range from 60 seconds to several minutes, depending on how long you want your star trails. 

    Resources: 

    Star Trail Photography: A Guide from Preparation to Execution

    Camera Basics: Shutter Speed Explained (With Video)

    Pro Tip: Use A Tripod or Monopod

    Tripods are an essential tool when shooting at night.

    When shooting at night, you’ll need to use slow shutter speeds.

    A tripod will allow you to use slower shutter speeds without experiencing camera shake.

    You can stabilize your camera using a monopod.

    If you are looking for a tripod that doubles as a monopod, I recommend the ZOMEI Travel Tripod.

    This tripod will give you the versatility of having a tripod and monopod with you at all times.

    If you are looking for a traditional tripod, then I recommend the Manfrotto Befree Travel Tripod.

    A significant bonus is that the tripod is lightweight and easy to use.

    Resource: Best Budget Travel Tripods (under $200)

    4. ISO: 400 – 1600

    The ideal ISO to use varies depending on the amount of ambient light in your scene.

    I recommend starting at ISO 400 and raising your ISO until you get a proper exposure.

    An ISO value of 400 is typically sufficient if you are using slow shutter speeds or shooting near other light sources.

    ISO 400 is also generally sufficient if most of your scene is comprised of the night sky.

    But if a significant portion of your screen consists of the night sky, you will likely need to use ISO values between 800 and 1600.

    With most modern cameras, you can raise your ISO to 1600 before experiencing any noise.

    And with quality DSLR and mirrorless cameras, you can get away with ISO values as high as 3200 without worrying about image noise.

    That said, don’t be afraid to raise your ISO when necessary.

    A properly exposed image with noise is better than a blurry or underexposed image.

    Finally, remember only to raise your ISO if you can’t adjust your other settings without compromising your image.

    Resource: ISO Chart: Everything You Need to Know About ISO

    5. Focus: Manual Focus

    For night photography, manual focus (MF) works best.

    Even the best autofocus system today underperforms in low light. They are slow and inaccurate.

    So manual focus is your best bet.

    Also, to make focusing much more manageable, it’s good to switch your camera to live view mode.

    The live view mode allows you to zoom in at 100% to ensure your subject is in focus.

    This will make it much easier to make sure your subject is in focus.

    If you are having trouble finding your focus in the dark, set your focus to infinity.

    Infinity focus adjusts your lens’ focus to keep most of your image sharp.

    One trick is to temporarily switch your camera to autofocus if you can’t find the infinity mark on your lens autofocus.

    Next, focus on the farthest, brightest object you can see, such as the moon or a star.

    This will automatically set your focus to infinity.

    Once you have your lens is in focus, lock it in by switching your settings from auto to manual.

    You can do this by turning the AF/MF button on your camera or lens to MF.

    This will prevent your camera from refocusing every time you press the shutter speed.

    It will hold your focus to infinity while recomposing your shot and finding the exact composition you want.

    6. Format: RAW

    Aurora. Northern lights in Lofoten islands, Norway. Sky with polar lights, stars. Night winter landscape with aurora, sea with sky reflection, stones, sandy beach and mountains. Green aurora borealis

    Compared to JPEGs, RAW images have a wider tonal range.

    This allows them to capture varying levels of brightness more accurately.

    RAW images can also capture the differences in color more accurately than JPEGs.

    RAW images can produce 281 colors, while JPEG images only produce 16 million colors.

    Another reason you should shoot in RAW is its superior editing power and flexibility.

    Raw images allow you to edit your images’ white balance, saturation, exposure, and contrast, among others, with high accuracy.

    Shooting in RAW, your night photos will have more accuracy and flexibility.

    Resource: RAW vs. JPEG: The Full Story

    7.  White Balance: Auto or Kelvin

    If you don’t want to worry about setting your white balance, use the auto white balance.

    With auto white balance, your camera will automatically adjust your white balance for you.

    This white balance mode typically works well and produces images with a little color cast, especially at night.

    If you want more control over your white balance, use the Kelvin white balance mode.

    Kelvin white balance has a cool color ranging from 4,000 to 5,500K.

    This will allow you to eliminate color cast quickly.

    You can use white balance to eliminate any color cast caused by external light such as a flashlight or light post.

    To do this, use a Kelvin white balance value around 6,000K.

    You can also use white balance to enhance the color in your images.

    Using a higher Kelvin value can enhance the blues in the sky, while lower values will make the reds and oranges more prominent.

    If you are shooting in RAW, don’t worry about setting your white balance too much.

    Your white balance is not as crucial with RAW images because you can adjust them with high precision in post-processing.

    Resource: Understanding White Balance: The Ultimate Guide

    8. Bracket Your Images

    Aurora Borealis, Lofoten islands, Norway. Nothen light, mountains and frozen ocean. Winter landscape at the night time. Norway travel - image

    Bracketing your images allows you to create a properly exposed image throughout the entire frame.

    At night, it’s difficult to capture both your foreground and background exposed correctly in one image.

    If you’re shooting you expose for the sky, your foreground will likely be underexposed and vis versa.

    Exposure bracketing allows you to get around this.

    Bracketing is a technique where you take multiple photos of a scene with different exposures.

    You then combine these images into one image in post-processing.

    This allows you to expose correctly for both your foreground and background.

    To do this, you’ll need to use a tripod.

    This technique requires you to take photos of the same composition, so your camera must stay in place.

    There are two ways you can capture a bracketed exposure: manual or automatic.

    Manual

    As the name suggests, manual exposure bracketing involves adjusting your exposures manually.

    Start by setting your exposure for the most significant portion of your scene.

    When shooting at night, this portion is commonly the night sky.

    Next, take photos of the same scene underexposed and overexposed.

    This will allow you to capture correctly exposed images for the entire scene.

    When bracketing manually, you can adjust the number of shots you take as well as the number of stops you adjust exposure.

    Automatic Exposure Bracketing (AEB)

    The faster and more efficient way to bracket your images is by using automatic exposure bracketing (AEB).

    Automatic exposure bracketing is a feature built into most cameras that automatically captures a scene at multiple exposure levels.

    When shooting in AEB, you can adjust the number of underexposed and overexposed images you take.

    The most common option is a three-shot AEB.

    A three-shot AEB captures three photos: one underexposed, one overexposed, and one correctly exposed.

    Likewise, a five-shot AEB captures two underexposed, two overexposed, and one correctly exposed photo.

    In AEB, you can also adjust the number of stops you want to adjust exposure.

    Another popular option is shooting a three-shot AEB bracketed for two stops.

    In this setting, your camera will capture three photos: one image two stops over-exposed, one image two stops underexposed, and one correctly exposed image.

    Use AEB to capture images with all your elements adequately exposed, then combine them in post-processing.

    9. Which Camera is Best for Night Photography?

    Full-frame cameras are the best option for night photography for two reasons 

    1. Larger Sensor 
    2. Better High ISO Performance 

    The larger sensor on full-frame cameras allows them to gather more light for the same scene. 

    This means for the same lighting conditions, you can faster shutter speeds to achieve the same exposure. 

    At night when light is limited, having a full-frame camera can help you reach that proper exposure. 

    The second reason that full-frame cameras are better for night photography is their low light performance.

    Full-frame cameras typically produce less noise than smaller sensor cameras at all ISO values. 

    This is ideal for night photography since you will typically need to increase your ISO to reach proper exposure. 

    If you are considering buying a full-frame camera below are my recommendations. 

    Model TypeMPBudgetPrice
    Nikon D850DSLR45.7HighCheck Price
    Nikon D750DSLR24.9MidCheck Price
    Nikon Z7Mirrorless45.7HighCheck Price
    Canon EOS RPMirrorless26.2MidCheck Price

    Resource: Full-Frame vs. APS-C Cameras: Which One Should You Buy?

    About The Author

    Photographer. Explorer. Story Teller. For the past 5 years, I’ve voyaged across the world seeking the next great photograph. If you’re anything like me, you love to travel, capture beautiful moments, and live life to the fullest.

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