Photographing after the sun goes down can offer some of the most exciting and yet challenging opportunities for a photographer. Night photography stretches the capabilities of the photographic medium, will most likely challenge the capabilities of your equipment, and will test the limits of your photographic technique. The results can be some of the most stunning photographs you have ever created.
Back in the film days as a financially struggling college student I was able to practice night photography with a fairly simple and inexpensive set up. I had a small twin lens camera–purchase price $100, a basic tripod–$80, the only relatively expensive piece of equipment I owned as a really good Luna-Pro hand-held light meter-$125. In the digital age if you want to practice night photography a little greater investment is required. Camera: I recommend a newer model APS or digital sized sensor camera (one purchased within the last 2-3 years) as a minimum. The best cameras for night photography are the full-frame DSLRs. The full frame digital cameras offer low noise at high ISO’s and low exposures a real advantage for night photography. The built in light meters on these cameras are accurate enough to get you started so a hand-held light meter is not needed.
Lenses: Most night sky images are made with wide angle lenses. This allows for capturing as much of the sky as possible while still including some foreground for perspective’s sake. The faster the lens the better, which means its open aperture should be at least f4 or greater. My lens of choice is a 17-40 f4 on a full frame camera. Nikon shooters can use the infamous Nikon 14-24 f2.8 wide angle lens (others can use this lens too if they get the adapter.)
Tripod: A good sturdy tripod is a must. The best ones are the ones that go up to a height that is over your head so your are not craning your neck when you point the camera at the sky. Other gear: Working in the dark can be tricky so I recommend that you include two lights for your night photography kit. One should be a low intensity light for seeing the camera controls. I have seen some students use a headlamp for this and that works fairly well–the only problem is that the light from a headlamp is pretty bright and so when you use it your eyes don’t adjust to the complete darkness as well when you turn it off. I use my cell phone’s illumination, this gives me just enough light to see the camera controls without causing me headlight blindness. The other light is for focusing. Getting an exact focus is tricky especially if you are using a zoom lens. With zoom lenses the point of infinity focus changes as you alter the zoom of the lens, in addition many times you will want to focus on a tree or other object that is closer than the infinity setting on your lens. I purchased the biggest most powerful hand-held spot light from Menards that I could find.
I will go into more detail in the next newsletter on how to use this spot light as well as all the equipment listed above.