Even the most experienced daytime photographers can get stumped by long exposure shots. I got hooked on them after a college friend showed me how to take long-exposure photos of the Milky Way—I was able to capture stuff that looked just like the photos I’d seen in National Geographic growing up. Today, I’m happy to return the favor, sharing a few simple steps to get killer night sky shots.
1. Manual Focus Set to Infiniti
This is one of the first tips I learned when shooting night skies, and probably the most important. When you’re in Auto Focus (AF), it can be tough to focus on the background (stars), mid ground (landscape), and foreground (tent, fire, etc.) at the same time. But if you flick on Manual Focus (MF) and set your lens to “infinity” (that little sideways 8 symbol), all of your subjects will be in focus.
You’ll want to play around with infinity and near infinity to get the focus just right—setting it up to one centimeter on either side might work better for your rig. This is especially important if your lens has taken a beating (as many adventurers’ cameras have.)
Pro tip: dial in your focus by starting at infinity, using your live-view mode to zoom in on a subject in the foreground (tree, bolder, tent), and then having a friend light it up with a headlamp. Once the image in live-view is crisp, you have your focus dialed in.
2. Use a Wide Angle Lens and Low f-Stop
I started shooting long-exposure with my Canon T3I and a 10-22mm f3.5 lens, and got some great shots. When I upgraded to a Canon 6D with a 16-35mm f2.8 lens, however, I was able to step up the quality of my images tenfold—this is thanks to the lower f-stop and full-frame sensor. There are plenty of lenses on the market that are wide-angle, but lower f-stops enable you to capture the low-light you’ll need for long exposure photos.
3. Get a Sturdy Tripod
This might seem obvious, but a shaky tripod will turn crisp stars into unidentifiable blurs. Fortunately, there are tons of options at a variety of price points. You’ll want a lightweight carbon-fiber tripod if you travel a lot or do long hike-ins for photos, but beware—they’re pricy. Alternatively, aluminum tripods won’t burn a hole in your pocket and are super sturdy.
I just upgraded to the Manfrotto MT190 Go tripod: it’s lightweight, fairly compact, and has twist-lock legs (this allows faster setup and one-hand adjustment ability.) The coolest part about this aluminum tripod is the 90-degree column tilting, which makes it easy to shoot on uneven ground and at awkward angles, like over water or edges. Just pop out the horizontal column and rotate as needed.
(Tent photo by Ezekiel Gonzalez)
4. Plan Your Shot Before It's Dark
I used to think that part of the fun of long-exposure photography was not knowing what was going to be in the frame, since I’d set up after dark. Big mistake. Now I use apps like Photopills to determine the location of stars, the Milky Way, etc., and spend at least 30 minutes before it gets dark staking out a spot—it seriously pays off.
As you get more experienced, you can use precious daylight hours to track down trees or subjects for the foreground, and then frame the Milky Way and other starry features around these subjects for an ultra cool image.
5. Play With External Light Sources
I studied physics in college and it gave me a clear understanding of how external light sources affect my photos. Long exposure photos pull light in from every possible source—street lights, car headlights, head lamps, and even the moon—so it’s important to consider how these will impact your image.
I use my headlamp as a paint brush: I’ll expose my photo for 2 to 5 seconds, “painting” subjects in the foreground to figure out how much light I’ll need on them for my desired image. Playing around with your headlamp can reveal tons of cool photo effects, so it’s worth trying next time you venture into the dark.
I am an avid outdoorsman and Hipcamp Field Scout who currently lives in San Francisco. My camera is a Canon 6D and I have a specific interest in long-exposure and landscape photography. See my work on Hipcamp and at www.wharlan.com