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Firstly, so this article doesn’t just tell you ‘how’ to take photos at night in certain circumstances I will go back to the beginning to help understanding of what we are doing when we a take photo.
When we take photos we are capturing LIGHT on a photosensitive surface (some of you will remember ‘film’ cameras!) these days the sensor is an electronic sensor.
Our cameras are great pieces of kit - they are able to calculate the best settings to capture the light - however cameras are great at doing this when there is light available that it can see the object we want to capture - the camera struggles to calculate the best settings in harsh light conditions (bright direct light or dark conditions) this is where a photographers skill comes in and we move away from ‘automatic’ settings.
A photographer has 3 tools to control the light hitting sensor and by using these tools we can get superior images in difficult light conditions. The controls we have are Aperture, Shutter speed & ISO.
The aperture controls the amount of light let in by the lens (I like to think of it as a hole - a small aperture (F20 is a small opening - F1.2 is a large opening) and the Depth of Field (F1.2 - shallow, F20 deep)
The shutter speed is how fast the shutter closes - the faster the shutter closes the less light - longer shutter speed more light. However the longer the shutter is open any movement is also captured by the camera (that is why for hand held shots you should not have a speed slower than 1/80 of a second). If you require a longer shutter speed it is important you have a stable platform to put the camera on, ie a tripod.
ISO is how sensitive the sensor is to light. The higher the ISO the more sensitive the sensor is, HOWEVER this does have its drawbacks - the higher the ISO the more noise in the photo.
So the above gives you an understanding of how the camera interacts with the light to record the image as a photograph.
For night time photography we need to get as much light in the camera as possible - let’s look at each of the tools available.
As the distance for stars is infinity we can use a low F-stop (lower the better)
This is dependent on what you are trying to achieve. If you are trying to capture the night sky we have the challenge that the stars in the sky move - relatively fast. Any shutter speed above 2 or 3 seconds will result in the stars appearing as small lines instead of small perfectly formed circles.
The final lever in the triangle. Dependent on conditions (and your camera) for night sky photography you need to strike a balance between ‘noise’ and enough light being let onto the sensor. - I normally start playing around at about 1600 and adjust up or down as necessary.
The Milky Way - a torch was used to light up the foreground here
The Milky Way (the power of post processing in PS and lightroom)
Asteroids On a dark night (light in background is coming from a local town)
The night sky and the international space station.
The best advice I can give is - give it a go, make sure you take a torch, a tripod and some warm clothes!! The best times for stars is when the sky is dark - I know that sounds obvious but try to avoid bright moon, light pollution from towns etc. For the Milky Way check when the ‘core’ is visible - there are some apps for your phones that help you with this. For starters trails - you need to take multiple images 10 seconds apart for about 60 to 90 minutes - overlay the photos in post production for the circle (tip - find the North Star!)
Starry sky with foreground - use your touch to ‘light the foreground’ (or a long exposure) and overlay the 2 images in post production.
Hope this helps! Have fun