How To Take Stunning Night Photos

Night photography can be technically daunting. Even with modern cameras, it is not easy to capture high quality night shots. While shooting stars already requires high ISOs combined with wide apertures, capturing detail in the landscape is even more difficult in the dark. In this article, I walk you through my night photography workflow, which combines frame averaging with temporal blending and focus stacking to achieve high-quality results.

I have always been fascinated by the night shots of other landscape photographers, yet I waited many years before getting into astrophotography myself. I’ve tried it over the years, but have never been happy with the results. When I visited Erg Chigaga in Morocco in 2019, I decided to give it a more serious effort.

At the time, I took the first night photo, which I am satisfied with. I used a Canon 5DS R with a Canon EF 16-35 f/4 lens to capture it. Not a great pair for night photography. But with special techniques, I was able to circumvent its technical limitations.

Frame average

For a long time I thought the only way to get noise-free photos of the night sky was to use a star tracker. Although these cameras have gotten smaller and lighter over the years, I could never justify taking one along on my photography trips for the few night shots I take.

Here’s the good thing: it’s possible to get results that rival the image quality of photos captured using such a device with a technique called frame averaging. Instead of having a star tracker that tracks the movement of stars to keep them from trailing during a long exposure at low ISO, you can take multiple medium exposures at high ISO and use software to align and blend the images accordingly. stars later. The resulting image will have a blurry foreground, but the stars will be sharp without too much noise in the sky.

You can achieve such a result by applying the following settings:

  • Calculate the maximum exposure time you can use to get stars without hanging out with the so-called NPF formula. If you want to print your photos at night, forget the often mentioned rule of 500. You will only be satisfied with the results if you view your images remotely. You can use PhotoPills to find the correct exposure times for different focal lengths. For example, following the MFN rule gives me a maximum exposure time of 7.3 seconds at 15mm.

  • These relatively short exposure times compared to the 500 rule require as wide an aperture as possible to let enough light onto the sensor. My RF lens is limited to f/2.8 which is good but not ideal. If you want to get serious about night photography, consider buying a prime lens with a wider aperture. But as you can see in the desert shot above, even with f/4 you can get great results if you use the frame average.

  • If you’re using an af/2.8 lens like me and your calculated exposure times are on the order of 10 seconds or less, you’ll need to use ISOs between 3200 and 6400 to capture good detail in the night sky.

  • Even modern cameras will give you a noisy image at such ISOs. To solve this problem, take between 20 and 40 photos with the same settings. Use a cable release and your camera’s burst mode for this. With the cable release, you can lock the shutter and the camera will shoot until you release it.

  • For this to work, you need to turn off long exposure noise reduction. This would create too large a gap between individual exposures. To still enjoy its benefits, end the sequence by capturing a dark frame with the lens cap attached. You can apply this dark frame to all images to remove hot pixels, as I demonstrate in the video below.

Now you might be wondering what to do with all those photos? Under Windows, the free software Sequator can manage the averaging of the image and even consider the dark frame. For the Mac, I couldn’t find a free software solution, but based on the reviews, a good option seems to be Starry Landscape Stacker. I haven’t tested it myself, so if you know of a better alternative, feel free to share it in the comments.

To give you an idea of ​​what such software can do, I now show you a 100% crop of the photo above. You can see what an average of 40 images taken at ISO 6400 looks like.

mix of time

While it’s much more realistic to keep the foreground black in a night shot, I like to show at least subtle detail. To achieve this, I could use frame average again, this time for the foreground. An alternative is multi-minute exposures, taken at medium ISOs. In the example above, I had a rising moon in the east, illuminating the foreground. But often I shoot my photos at night when there’s no moon in the sky to make even more stars appear in the final image. Then even taking exposures of 10 minutes or more won’t give me the detail I want.

That’s why I recommend the following workflow whenever the constellations allow it:

  • Capture photos of the stars during morning or evening astronomical twilight. It is dark enough that many stars are visible.

  • Take the foreground photos during the blue hour.

  • Between the two series, hold the camera in place. I use this time either for a little nap or to listen to a podcast.

  • Combine photos of the blue hour with those of the night sky in Photoshop. Depending on the scene, this can be tricky, but with a little practice you can achieve consistently great results.

Here’s a tip for processing: don’t overdo the mix. It’s good practice to darken foreground photos significantly before blending to create an image that still looks like night. Similar restraint should be applied when working with star images to allow for natural blending.

Focus stacking

Most of the time, focus stacking is also part of my night photography workflow. When capturing the foreground shots during the blue hour, it’s easy to take multiple images focused on different points between the near foreground and infinity. Exposure times are usually no longer than 30 seconds and capturing all the required photos takes a fraction of the time of a single photo taken at night.

Planning and scouting

The above workflow deals with the technical aspects of filming. But planning and screening are also involved. In the presentation video I show how I use the Planit Pro and PhotoPills apps for this.

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