For what it’s worth, here’s a few simple tips that should help you get some night shots while out wild camping or on a night walk.
1 – Dark and Clear Skies. Try and choose a location with as little light pollution as possible. This following page has a dark sky map, as does this light pollution map which gives you some idea of where those are found in the UK or the Need-less.org.uk page has an interactive clickable map that simulates the sky you’ll see. Click on London and you’ll see a couple of stars, while Mid-Wales or Highland has many more visible stars. A moonless night will also improve the star visibilities.If you’re in the hills then you’ll definitely have half decent visibility compared to urban areas. However, travelling to some of the really dark areas shown in the map above will increase the number of stars you see further still. Just remember though that if you do go to Scotland in the summer months, it may lack light pollution but it also doesn’t really get dark! It’s much better in the winter, but best of luck finding the clear skies!
2 – Tripod. This keeps your camera steady. I ended up with a Giottos carbon fibre tripod with top of the range head which will allow night shots while wild camping as it’s not much than a kilo in weight. Steady camera = sharper images.
3 – Cable Release or remote Control – Every time you press the shutter, you can set the camera to vibrate slightly. Using a cable release negates this, and some allow you to take a time lapse. If you haven’t got one of these, then you can always put your camera on delayed shutter release.
4 – Get your camera settings right! There’s a number of ways to do this, but we went full manual and set the aperture and shutter speeds. This meant we could play about with the different settings in order to see what results we got. We won’t go into the technicality of it here, but you want to get as much light as possible into the camera sensor without losing clarity and quality. This means you need to balance your settings.
You can set your ISO at the lowest level for the highest quality, but you’ll need to increase your shutter speed to compensate. We found an ISO of 800-1600 was a good compromise with a shutter speed of 15 seconds. Any longer with a 11mm lens and the stars start trailing.
Shutter Speed – Depending on your lens, you’ll have a maximum exposure time before the stars in your image will appear to move. If you want to work out how long you can keep your shutter open before they start to trail then that’s dependent on your lens’ focal length. You can work it out using the 500 Rule, which this article by David Kingham explains much better than I can – ‘How to avoid Star Trails with the ‘500 Rule’. Keeping within this shutter time helps to keeps the stars sharp.
Aperture – To start with you can open this right up, and get as much light as possible in, but you’ll need to see what works best with your specific lens and you may find the results improve if you close it up a tad.
Your best bet is to Google your lens and “night photography settings” and someone somewhere will probably have some settings you can try out.
5 – Master the Manual Focus. You’ve no chance of using automatic focusing at night, especially photographing this sort of subject. We usually manage to find a distant terrestrial light in order to focus on, using the Canon Live View with zoom in order to get it spot on. This means switching off any image stabilisation as well as it can affect the sharpness of your resultant images. You can also focus on a really bright star, but this takes some practice.
6 – Shoot in RAW and post process in something like Adobe Lightroom if you’re serious! It takes a bit of getting used to, but you can get hold of presets that make life easier.
7– Wear Plenty of Warm kit! It’s a cold job, especially this time of year. Bring gloves, flask and a seriously warm jacket or two. Sitting down doing nothing gets you very cold, very quickly. As it warms up though, it also becomes lighter in the evenings, so Spring and Autumn are a good compromise.