One question I get asked frequently, (more often than I have the time to respond to everyone in enough detail as I’d like, unfortunately) is of course “what camera settings did you use to get that shot?”
I do try and include my EXIF data whenever I feel it is appropriate, however, I honestly feel a little self-conscious about my geekiness sometimes, so I just leave it out. Plus, it’s not always easy to hunt down image data if I’m sharing an older photo that isn’t being freshly exported from a recent adventure.
For this image, the sky and earth were shot separately and then layered together.
Sky: 30 sec @ f/2.8 & ISO 6400
Earth: 480 sec @ f/4 & ISO 800
(A total of 1-2 hours of images was captured, while a hiker climbed the trail with multiple headlamps on)
Since I wish I had the time to write a whole essay on how I shoot, every time someone asks the question, and then start asking them about whatever their own current challenges are, …I thought I’d create this page here for anyone to read. Plus, I can just “cheat” and link people to it when they ask the question. So, I apologize if at first it seemed cold of me to respond to your question with a bit.ly link, but it’s only because I truly wish I could spend many hours every day helping EVERYBODY with their questions about camera settings, and unfortunately, I just can’t afford to do that. With that in mind, I hope you find this information useful, and if you still have any questions about camera settings or other technical decisions, PLEASE DO comment below and ask them here, so that anybody else who comes along after you will be able to see them too!
If you’re an advanced photographer who is looking to plan a specific photo before you go on an adventure, you might need to estimate your exposure before you go on a trip, and decide which lens to bring, rent, or buy for that specific shot. This exposure guide by Sean Goebel will help you understand how brightly illuminating any %% of moon phase will be.
Camera Settings For Nightscape Photography
First and foremost, there is a method to the madness. And I do say madness because, if you just drive off into the desert/mountains in the pitch-black of night, and hope to practice shooting the night sky without any method whatsoever, you may indeed just lose it, go completely mad, and smash your camera on a rock in frustration. No, I have never done so, but I did smash a CD player once out of frustration with my camera. The fact that it was a CD player should tell you that it’s been at least a decade since I felt that frustration, thankfully.
I’m including a handful of images here, with their camera settings, mainly to demonstrate that they are often nearly the same exact settings, and if you just pick any of these settings as a default starting point you’ll probably be well on your way to “nailing the shot” within a few more clicks. Good luck out there!
Multiple panoramic frames captured vertically with 50% horizontal overlap, stitched together in Photoshop
Sky: 30 sec @ f/2.8 & ISO 12800
Earth: 300 sec @ f/2.8 & ISO 3200
(I chose these settings for the priority of making a high-quality print of this image)
(Watch the video for a better understanding of what the individual images looked like!)
Step 1: Optimal Nightscape Photography Camera Settings: What Are Your Priorities?
You need to prioritize your camera settings, and determine what your goal is with the photo. Do you want to create a still image, with a lot of sharp detail and very low noise, so that you can print out the image? Or are you just creating a timelapse that is probably never going to be viewed at larger than 1080p resolution, or maybe 4K?
Also, are you currently trying to learn a specific technique, or do you feel like you are ready to actually begin tackling the creation of professional quality images?
I ask that 2nd question because there is so much that you can learn, master even, with a very basic, affordable setup, before you start worrying about buying a $3,000 camera body, or a $2,000 lens, or whatever. Even if all you have is a Canon Rebel or a Nikon D3400, and an 18-55mm f/3.5-4.5 “kit” lens, you can still learn nightscape photography and even get very, very good at it.
What you have to do is, prioritize learning a technique, mastering the procedure, etc. Purchase a rock-solid tripod if you haven’t already, and go out to practice! Practice focusing on the stars using live view, and practice using your histogram to make sure the exposure isn’t too dark. (Turn down your camera LCD brightness if it’s hurting your eyes or throwing them off!)
Then, get back home to your computer and analyze your images, and do it soon before you forget about the experience you gained in the field! Of course, follow that up by getting right back out there ASAP, so that you can improve on your technique while any mistakes of your previous efforts are still fresh in your mind.
Only after you feel like you can actually IDENTIFY the shortcomings of your particular setup, would I advise that you begin spending lots of money on different purchases. If you follow this philosophy, then you’ll never regret a purchase! You’ll always know whether you need to upgrade a lens versus a body, or which exact focal length it is you’d like to add to your bag, etc.
I say this because, unfortunately, I’ve lost count of how many folks I’ve met who went out and bought this-or-that $2,000 lens or $3,000 camera, only to realize that it didn’t truly fit their style and they should have bought a slightly different setup instead. These folks have collectively wasted thousands and thousands of dollars selling their gear on Ebay etc. to try and help recoup the cost of buying the RIGHT item that they should have bought in the first place.
To read more about how I go about buying landscape or astro-landscape photography related lenses or bodies, check out my articles on SLRLounge.com along these lines:
Eventually, of course, your priorities will shift as you master the craft, and you’ll become more discerning about things like sharpness, noise, vignetting, or coma. While none of those things should hold you back from mastering the craft, you’ll know when you’re ready to upgrade that lens or body.
Step 2: Optimal Landscape AstroPhotography Camera Settings: Boundaries / Restrictions?
With your priorities in mind, you need to set up boundaries, or areas that you deem unacceptable, based on your particular camera gear. Ask yourself, “Are there any shutter speeds, apertures, or ISO’s that I need to avoid?”
If you have a really nice lens that is very sharp and has a fast aperture, but your camera body is a beginner crop-sensor body that doesn’t do well at high ISO’s, well, you can see what direction I’m going with this. Personally, I have experienced both that, and the opposite- I’ve also shot with really nice full-frame camera bodies, and junky lenses that are both “slow” aperture, (darker) ..and also soft when wide open. (At their brightest aperture) Again, you can learn a ton by shooting with this type of gear, even if the results aren’t printable beyond an 8×10 or so.
Let’s stop before I get too geeky again, or start rambling on about “gear philosophy”, and just cut to the chase: Usually, for the average cameras and lenses these days, here’s my advice:
Try and get an f/1.4, f/1.8, f/2, or f/2.8 lens if you can. As a general rule, unless there is a bright moon shining on your nightscape, you’ll need a lens that is faster than f/4. This means a “kit” lens that is f/3.5 on the wide end (18mm, 24mm) is just barely good enough, but you’ll be cutting it close.
As an example, anything from Rokinon or Samyang is going to be sharp enough to shoot wide-open, or at least at f/2 or f/2.8. If you have any questions about specific lenses from say, Tokina or Tamron or Sigma, (Or Nikon, Canon or Sony, of course,) …then comment below!
But, you might also be constrained by depth of field, if you have a nearby subject that you want to also get in focus. If you’re shooting at f/1.4 then you might have to shoot two or more images, one that focuses on the stars very sharply, and one or more that focus on the nearby foreground items. Then, layer and mask them all together in Photoshop. (There are automated options for this, thankfully!)
Try and avoid going above ISO 3200 or 6400 if you have a recently new generation “crop-sensor” that is APS-C size, and try to avoid going above ISO 6400 or 12800 if you have a recently new generation “full-frame” sensor.
One trick I often use, if my ISO priorities conflict too much with my shutter speed priorities, is this: I shoot one image at a lower ISO and a very, very long shutter speed, (2-30 minutes!) plus one more image at a very very high ISO and a rather short shutter speed. (Whatever shutter speed doesn’t give me any star trailing.) Then, in Photoshop using simple layer masking, I combine the sky from the short exposure with the ground from the long exposure. If the exposure brightness was exactly the same, and shot at the same time, then the blend should be almost effortless. Many people like to try and shoot at different times of day, though, but that’s a whole different subject for a different article/tutorial.
If you shoot too long (slow) of a shutter speed, the earth’s rotation will cause stars in the night sky to begin to move in your image, so you want to follow a general rule of shutter speeds. Basically, slower shutter speeds become more acceptable the wider your lens gets, because the wideness of the lens will render star “movement” as a smaller and smaller dot/line.
If you have a more normal or telephoto lens, you really have to watch out! Stick to “fast” (for nightscapes, anyway) shutter speeds like 4-8 seconds. Even then, if you’re into deep-sky photography and want to photograph close-up shots of galaxies, nebulas, and planets, you might want to look into getting a tracker which compensates for the earth’s rotation and allows you to shoot longer shutter speeds.
The good news is, if you’re shooting very, very wide, like 10-14mm or with a fisheye lens, you can easily shoot 15-30 second long exposures and not have the stars appear to move.
There are a few other considerations that relate to shutters speed, but they’re oddballs. For example, if it’s not a very cold winter night, and you try and shoot a 15-minute long exposure, your camera’s sensor will produce annoying little “dot noise” that needs to be removed in Photoshop using what’s called a Dark Frame, …or you can just use Capture One Pro’s “Single-Pixel Noise” feature which is what I do. It is witchcraft!
Or maybe you’re shooting near a highway, (careful!) and you can’t shoot a 15-minute long exposure because a car will come by and blast your camera with its headlights! As I said, these additional shutter speed restrictions are kinda oddball. But encountering them is part of the fun of getting out there and just shooting, in my opinion. So good luck!
Nikon D750, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, Slik 700DX tripod, Oben BC-126 ball head
1,800 seconds (yes, one single exposure!) @ f/4 & ISO 800 (I chose these camera settings for a balance of good sharpness, low noise, and the 30-minute star trail that I knew I could capture in a single exposure without ambient noise ruining the image. It was a decently cold night and that kept my camera sensor nice and cool!)
Step 3: Optimal Camera Settings for Milky Way Photos, or Star Trails, etc: Compromise!
Now that you know where you can “go” with your camera settings, things start to fall into place. Usually, it goes something like this:
Based on whether there is a little moonlight, or none at all, I’ll pick an ISO of 3200, 6400, or 12800 as my starting point. Then I’ll shoot wide open with my (Rokinon) lens, and just see if my shutter speed can be bright enough without causing the stars to “move”. Usually, I’m pretty close, and just 1-2 more test shots later I’ve got my final image.
Indeed, sometimes this does involve compromising a little bit. For example, if the moon is shining on the landscape and I don’t really need to go higher than ISO 800 or 1600, I might intentionally go up to ISO 3200 or 6400 so that I can shoot with my f/2.8 lens at f/4 or f/5.6, in order to get better depth of field on a nearby object, or to reduce vignetting which is quite terrible on my Rokinon 14mm lens. I’d rather have *slightly* more grainy pictures than a blurry foreground, or pitch-black vignetted corners, **IF** I am making a timelapse. Alternately, if I’m making a still image, I might go in the opposite direction, and instead of shooting at ISO 800 under a full moon, I might shoot at ISO 100 or ISO 200, capture a very long exposure, and then capture one more exposure at ISO 800 and a “faster” (15-30 second) shutter speed so the stars don’t move.
There are innumerable different situations I might find myself in, though, so I won’t try and list them all here. You should have a general idea, though. Basically, I consider my priorities and my limitations, then I make a compromise based on which camera and lens I have at the time, and what my objective is. Sometimes this means shooting with camera settings that other nightscape shooters might deem unacceptable, but usually, there is a good reason for my “madness”. ;-)
If you have any specific questions, please comment below!
Nikon D800e, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, Slik 700DX tripod, Oben BC-126 ball head
OK so I have no idea what camera settings I used for this shot. I’m pretty sure I can guess, though.
I probably captured the sky with 30 sec @ f/2.8 & ISO 6400 or 12800.
I probably shot the earth with 60 or 120 sec @ f/2.8 or f/4, and ISO 1600, 3200, or 6400.
I also tried to get a fleeting bit of light from a crescent moon just before it set, BEFORE the other 2 shots.
All of the images were captured with the exact same composition, (14mm, without changing my camera angle) …and at the same time of night.
Disclaimer: I break tripods a lot. No tripod is truly indestructible. However, I have found that my favorite affordable ball heads are Oben. They have all-metal knobs, instead of the silly rubber knobs that always melt off or crack off when exposed to hot weather. They stay smooth and yet rigid even after years of use. I highly recommend them. That’s why there is a banner below: