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Professional secrets of Night Photography for Capturing Stunning Star Trails and Moonlit Landscapes

moonlight landscape
Photo by: David yu

Night has got something weird with it; it scares most people (except lovers and thieves!) There must be some courage and need a lot of effort to become used to darkness. The fears associated with night lasts only for the first twenty minutes; after that; it becomes a beautiful phenomenon; stars, moon, fireflies and many things not seen during daytime looks bewitching; the whole landscape seems clad in silver when moon shines! Don’t leave a beautiful night to greedy thieves and love-sick youngsters; get out of bed; take your camera; go for those charming images in waiting!

Photographing night skies and moonlit landscapes is an art that is hard to master; it requires a thorough understanding of low light photography as well as the lunar science. A dedication to the profession and willingness to stay up all night are a must. One has to trek difficult terrains, endure adverse weather and face the inner daemons that rise up when one is all alone in a strange place in the middle of the night. As a result; photographers who specialize in night photography have become a specialized breed.

But don’t let the prospects of lonely wandering around at night discourage you from pursuing night photography, one who overcomes these mental blocks and goes through with it; alone is rewarded with some breathtaking images.

moonlit landscape
Photo by: Scott Butner

The rewards of night sky photography far outweigh personal discomforts; the light being reflected off the moon have an entirely different quality than sunlight, it has a mystical, tranquil quality that brings a completely new dimension to your images. The way that light interacts with a scene to reveal shape and form looks very different when captured with long exposures ranging 10 or 30 minutes or even hours.

The Challenge Posed by Night Photography

night photography
Photo by: Jack Cousin

Light or rather the absence of it; is the major challenge in night photography, common light sources one might encounter at night are:

1. Moon light – obviously the most powerful light-source, those engaged in night photography should acquire an understanding of the different phases of the moon and rise / set times for the area where you wish to shoot.

2. Star Light – light coming from the stars is not enough to expose a night scene; you could include them in your night photographs either as points of light or as streaks depending on the exposure time used.

3. Light Pollution – when shooting is done in or near a city there may be light pollution from city lights, lights of passing vehicles etc.

Develop a Strong Understanding of Lunar & Planetary Motions.

night photography tips
Photo by: Christopher Walling

Night photography requires good planning and to get good results; observe different phases of the moon, rising/setting of the moon etc. and schedule your shoot accordingly. The photographer before visualizing the frame should ask himself the following questions

  1. “What do I wish to capture; am I to shoot the stars or a moonlit landscape”;
  2. “How should stars look; as points or trails”? 
  3. “Is the moon already up in the shot? If so then at what phase is it, and when does it rise and set”? 

“How much light pollution is going to be around in the direction I am planning to shoot?”
It all depends on the time and the day you plan to shoot? Each one of those things requires a different strategy. Proper planning means a better chance of getting the image that you wish.

The requirement as per the theme may be; a full moon, new moon, rising or setting moon etc.Stars appear brightest when there is a new moon or the moon is yet to rise, very little or no moon light means better star trails but there is a trade-off; there won’t be much illumination on the landscape. Photographers should pre-visualize their image, and plan accordingly.

The real reason behind those amazing star trails shot is the earth’s rotation. Our camera sitting firmly on the tripod is actually moving along with everything else on mother earth. So a long exposure shot taken at the northern hemisphere facing north will result in a star trail which looks like concentric rings around the North Star.

Timing Moonlit Landscape Photography

moonlight landscape photography
Photo by: Kris Williams

To capture vast landscapes at night, there are two basic requirements; a clear sky and exact timing; it can be either on a full moon or two or three days either side. In short to expose the scene.The best times are two to four hours after the moon has risen, when it’s at a good angle to create shadows and reveal any shape and form in the landscape.

Timing your Star Trails Photography

star trails photography
Photo by: Jason Mrachina

Starts appear brightest when there is very little light coming from other sources; a new moon or the brief period of complete darkness that happens every day when the sun has already set and moon has not risen is the ideal time to shoot star trails. It is the time when stars are brightest, but often people get much better results by shooting just before the sky lose all its color; there by getting a colorful background; not a completely black one.

Rather than shooting the stars themselves, use a foreground feature such as a tree or a building that you can silhouette against the sky with star trails circling above it.Alternatively, introduce some artificial light to illuminate the foreground element so as to capture its details. This could either be a burst of flash fired during the exposure, or flash- light used to ‘paint’ the foreground with light.

Opt for Equipment that has Better Low Light Capabilities

night photography tutorial
Photo by: Chris Gin

A good quality camera that can handle higher ISOs well will make the job easier and gives more options. The other requirement is faster lenses. Prime lenses are generally both faster and sharper than zoom lenses. It is no wonder why lenses such as the Canon 24mm f/1.4 is one of the favorites of night photographers. A wider aperture is definitely better for night photography; you’ll be surprised at the quality difference of images between f/2.8 and f/1.4. Those who are on a budget may try the nifty fifty (50mm f/1.8 prime).

Apart from camera body and the lenses here’s a list of must have accessories for night photography. Although the accessories mentioned below aren’t technically necessary; professionals should look into investing in these to further their place in night photography.

  • Sturdy tripod 
  • Cable/remote shutter release
  • Intervalometer for star trails / time-lapse
  • Motion control system (for adding an element of foreground motion to time-lapses)
  • Headlamp with a red LED
  • Flashlight for light painting (good for illuminating foreground elements too)
  • Software like Photoshop or Lightroom for removing noise, stacking, etc.

Composition and Focus

night photography ideas
Photo by: David Kingham

Composition and focus are the most important elements to get right in landscape photography; the trick to make this process easy in night photography is to temporarily set your camera to the highest ISO possible. This helps you to see the scene more clearly, compose well, take a trial shot also check focus. It also lets you to figure out your exposure variables. Once the trial exposure variables are ok; just make sure every stop of ISO decrease is compensated by either adjusting aperture or shutter speed. In most cases, lenses will be set wide open and only variable to be considered is the shutter speed.

After accomplishing composition and focus; set the lens to manual focus; remember to switch back to usable ISO’s.

Get over the Fear of Using Higher ISO’s

star photography
Photo by: Justin Kern

For night photography set the lens to its widest aperture and adjustthe shutter speeds and ISO to optimize exposure.  Depending upon intended result (capturing stars as points or trails, Star trail images are made with either long exposures or stacking multiple short exposures) the ISOs have to be raised to make the shot possible. ISO 800 is the most commonly used setting for night photography.

Master Post Production

moon photography
Photo by: Marlon Malabanan

Getting a perfectly clean night photograph straight out of the camera is a rarity. Some understanding of how noise reduction works and certain amount of post- production skills will go a long way in ensuring your night-photograph’s perfection. In fact it is more a combination of shooting technique with post production in mind. Let’s discuss a couple of such techniques here.

Using a dark frame to reduce noise

For capturing star trails with very long exposure times, use dark frame technique to reduce the noise in the final image, it is a simple thing for e.g.  When exposure time of 20 minutes is used to capture the shot, once exposure is made; put your lens cap on to make sure no light enters the lens; cover the viewfinder with the attachment provided with the camera-strap and take another 20 minute exposure. This is called dark frame, then when you are developing your images in Photoshop, put the dark frame as a layer on top of your night photograph and change its blending mode to difference. This will remove the noise resulting in a cleaner shot.

Image Stacking

Another method is to take multiple shots with a set interval and stack these in Photoshop to create the final star trail image.

Whatever technique you use to create star trails, one long exposure or multiple short exposures, dark room technique is essential to remove noise.

Some General Night Photography Tips

twilight photography
Photo by: Justin Kern

Calculate the Exposure

Set camera to its highest ISO setting, take a test frame, check histogram and if exposure is right work out the exposure for the lower ISO setting based on that.

Exposure Times

For capturing stars as points of light and not as streaks; keep exposure times below 30 seconds. Anything above 30 seconds and stars start to register movement and deliver blurred image.

Use Bulb Mode

Most cameras have 30 seconds as the slowest shutter speed, only some go up to 60 seconds. To get longer exposures than this use Bulb (B) mode if your camera has one. In bulb mode the shutter stays open as long as you keep the shutter button pressed.

Balancing Moon with Ambient Light

Shooting moonlit landscapes is best done during twilight (before the sky has turned completely dark) as it is easier to balance the light from the moon with the ambient light. If shooting is done earlier; light from the sky will overpower the moon and if done later; sky will turn jet black.

Include Some Foreground Element

Instead of only capturing the stars, try to include some element in the foreground this will create more visual interest in the frame.

Experiment with Black and White

night landscapes
Photo by: Jan Fabrosky

Moonlit landscapes are perfect subjects for black and white photography (unless you are shooting in twilight) as there is no color present in the frame. By converting to black and white you could actually enhance the whites and really darken the blacks bringing in more contrast.

Keep Watch of the Lunar Charts

Keep track of the lunar chart for the next lunar eclipse for your opportunity to shoot a dramatic red-tinted full moon.


If possible survey the area you wish to shoot during the day, find good camera angles, if possible mark the spots, and observe the general layout of the landscape that will make matters easier for you when you come back during the night. Always bring a head light if possible one with red LED as it sets your hands free work and cause no light pollution.

Be Prepared for Rough Weather

twilight seascape photography
Photo by: Carly Schwartz

During night the temperature could drop significantly, it could even drizzle or rain or there might be heavy winds. Always be prepared for any eventuality.

Taking Care of Batteries

Night photography is very taxing on camera batteries, so keep your battery fully charged and always bring a spare one, also remember to keep your batteries warm to prevent them from going flat.

Use a Sturdy but Lightweight Tripod

A solid tripod is a must for night photography, but since you might have to carry it long distances through difficult terrain and in dimly lit situations always choose carbon fiber tripods that are both sturdy and light weight. Once you set your camera on the tripod double check all knobs to make sure it is securely locked down.

Some Useful Online Resources for Night Photography

photographing stars
Photo by: ARS Electronica

These resources will help you plan and execute your night photography experiments perfectly.

The time moon rises and sets in the horizon keeps changing with each day of the year. So first these on-line resources could help you identify the different phases of the moon and also the rising and setting times, for anywhere on earth. Full moon Calendar provided by Full Moon will tell you the phases of the moon. And the Complete Sun and Moon Data section of the U.S Navy website will tell you both sun and moon rise and set times for any day of the year and for any location on earth.

Star-gazing is no time-pass; it is a strenuous and neck-breaking job that calls for courage and perseverance; since time immemorial scholars used to study stars and gave birth to the present astronomy; they never had any modern equipment but their bare eyes! Spending most of their nights on a mat spread on an open ground. They made numerous diagrams and sketches for no monetary gains; sheer dedication alone powered them.

Photographers with all modern gadgets can seek inspirations from these old saints and overcome obstructions that come on their way while working at night. Remember that poet who sung 

“Under a wide and starry sky; 
Dig the grave and let me lie”? 

Wish all amateur and professional photographers many starry nights and exclusive images!
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