Essential Gear and Camera Equipment for Night and Astrophotography
During the daytime, you need little more than a camera and your creativity to get killer shots. Everything you need is handed to you by nature, like light, color, and visibility. At night, however, you’ll need to get creative to bring out the subtler colors and textures of the world for professional-level star and landscape photos. That’s where gear like tripods, wide-angle lenses, and remotes come in.
1. Invest in a tripod
First and foremost, a tripod is a must-have for astrophotography and nighttime landscapes. Even the slightest bit of movement (yes—that includes breathing) can cause enough instability to make the stars in your photo blur or to obscure the landscape.
Working without a tripod at night often leads to blurry images. Photo by brian hefele
It’s impossible to remain completely still for seconds or minutes on end and, while a strategically placed wall can replace a tripod in a pinch, a tripod is the most portable and customizable way to ensure a completely uninterrupted night photo.
2. Find a high-quality wide-angle lens
Your lens can make or break an otherwise perfect astrophoto (or night landscape). A wide angle lens has a large field of view. In other words, it allows you to frame more of your subject (like the Milky Way, a planet, or the night sky at large).
Your field of view is determined by your lens’s focal length, as illustrated in the image above. Two simple rules can help you understand the importance of your lens’s focal length:
- The shorter the focal length of your lens, the more you can fit into your frame.
- The longer the focal length (and, by association, the longer the lens) the more sensitive the sensor is to the movement of the earth and the harder it is to get clear star photos.
For astrophotography and night landscapes, look for something that offers a focal length of 35mm or less. The smaller the focal length, the less sensitive your camera’s light sensor will be to the movement of the earth. For ultimate versatility, choose a lens with a focal length range of at least as wide as 15-32mm.
3. Utilize your camera’s timer or invest in a remote
A shutter release with timer. Photo by resakse
Timers and remotes aren’t just fancy gadgets for family photos. Once you’ve got your photo framed, focused, and ready to go, setting the timer on your camera (most modern cameras have an in-unit timer) or using a remote shutter release totally removes the human element from the photo and makes it less likely that camera shaking or movement will cause blurs and light trails in your photo.
4. Lens hoods keep unwanted light away
Your camera’s light sensor will be especially sensitive to all sources of light when the world around you is dark. To mitigate issues like lens flare, invest in a lens hood. These block light from outside your field of view so that light doesn’t compromise your photograph.
Lens flare can ruin a photo if it creeps in unexpectedly. Photo by Moreno Berti
5. Use filters to help stars stand out in your image
Generally speaking, night is not the time to employ filters. Any filter—even a clear one—will make it harder for light to reach your sensor, which means you’ll need longer exposure times to compensate and might set yourself up for light and star trail disasters. However, there are a couple that can be a boon when you’re after very specific effects.
A fog filter is typically used to create a mysterious, ominous, or otherwise dramatic effect in landscape photography. At night, however, fog filters can sometimes make stars appear larger, which makes it easier for viewers to pick out the constellation or stars in your image.
When—and only when—you’re taking a photo that includes stars as the only source of light in the frame, star filters create a “pointed” effect on the stars, making them appear pronounced and luminous like in the image below. Of course, you can use the filter even when the moon or artificial lights are present in your frame as long as you accept that they, too, may take on the appearance of a pointed star.
Star filters turn your light sources into pointed stars. Photo by Luis Argerich
You might think, “of course I’ll need a flashlight to see in the dark”—but that’s not their only purpose in night photography. If you’re using a tripod and a remote shutter release, you can also use a flashlight to illuminate a specific focal element (like a tree or an interesting building) in extremely low-light situations. If you need your hands free to operate the camera, lay the flashlight on a stable surface and point it toward your focal element.
Photo by Olli Henze
Portable studio or strobe lights
The more light you need, the larger and more powerful the flashlight will need to be. To illuminate larger areas of darkness, consider battery-powered portable studio or strobe lights.
7. Backup batteries
The more photos you take, the quicker your camera’s battery will run out. However, it’s also true that long exposures (which you need for night photography) will drain batteries more quickly. Bring at least one extra battery to avoid a mid-shoot shutdown.
8. Choosing the “right” camera for astrophotography
If you’re reading this guide, you’re probably wondering if your current camera (or your dream camera) will do the trick for the shots you want to capture. The camera settings available to you are much more important than the particular camera you choose. Chapter three will review the settings necessary for a smooth night shoot; if you have those, then you’ll have what you need to create stellar images of earth and sky, even without the benefits of natural light.
Full frame DSLR cameras
However, some camera types are better than others at making your job easier. Generally speaking, full frame DSLR cameras are the ones that make it easiest to get a satisfactory photograph at night.
Full-frame cameras are larger and heavier, but they also allow for less noise and better image quality. Photo by 600d
That’s because they have larger sensors and larger pixels, so they tend to create images with less noise and better image quality. Both of these issues are important in long exposure photography and in star photography in particular.
However, if you’ve never used a full frame camera for nighttime photography, you won’t feel limited if you go for a more compact and budget-friendly micro four thirds or APS-C camera. Full frame cameras are simply designed for the needs of a professional photographer and, as such, tend to offer the highest possible image quality and the widest range of options in their class.
Crucial camera settings
With the necessary gear in-hand, we’re ready to dive into the crucial camera settings in chapter three that will allow you to capture everything from a simple mountainous landscape to the rainbow of colors produced by the aurora borealis.