Night Photography Tips and Techniques

Mike Jensen Night Photography

Night photography doesn’t necessarily mean just taking pictures of the moon and the stars. I’ve been in love with night photography for years and have shot everything from the Milky Way to Cities as well as painting objects with light!


Portland Oregon Skyline – this shot was taken at 6:17pm in mid November. ISO 400, f 11, 30seconds with a variable neutral density filter on the lens (about 3 stops down)

The concept itself is probably as old as the art of photography and there are some real important things to consider when working at night.

Your Camera

This image, taken at Sparks Lake in mid August was shot at f2.8 for 60 seconds at ISO 4000.

This image, taken at Sparks Lake in mid August was shot at f2.8 for 60 seconds at ISO 4000.

  • Older cameras have older sensors, which means noise over about 800-1600 ISO.  Remember that longer exposures add noise too so you have to weigh your options.  If your camera is 3 years or younger you should be okay.
  • Does your camera have a Bulb setting on the dial, or in Manual?
  • Shutter cable release and/or Intervalometer


  • ISO/Shutter Speed/Aperture – There’s no real tried and true setting just as no sky is the same.  Even though you’re shooting at night, there are so many variables.
        • Is the moon out?
        • Is there any ambient light from things like street lights, cars?
        • For stars & night landscapes I’d suggest a starting point of 800 ISO for 10 seconds with a wide-open aperture (f2.8 – f4)
        • For Cityscapes I’d start with ISO 800, Shutter Speed of 5 seconds with a wide-open aperture.
            • Once you get a few initial shots you can adjust from there.
            • The reason I suggest a wide-open aperture is because it will let in as much light as possible.  Also, in low or dark light you’re less likely to be concerned with DOF (Depth of Field)

          Sparks-Lake-Under-Stars_30x20Setting Focus

              • Step one – go to manual focus UNLESS you can get a reading on something in the vicinity of your subject.  If you’re shooting the stars try getting a focus reading on the moon if it’s up.
              • Step two – If you can’t get an AF reading, switch to manual and try shining a light on your subject.  If your shooting stars, just move your focus ring to infinity and then back just a bit.
              • Cityscapes – Here you should be able to get a good AF reading and then switch to manual focus.  If you don’t switch to manual focus, your camera will just hunt for a focus point.  This is true for Steps 1 & 2.
                • For Cityscapes aperture does matter.  If you want starbursts coming from your street lights, move your aperture to f8 or f11 and adjust your ISO or Shutter Speed from there.   If you leave the shutter open long enough you’ll get starbursts anyway.


          – More experienced photographers might use a neutral density, polarizer or variable neutral density to help increase the exposure time.  This produces some real neat effects if you have moving clouds or other objects.
          White Balance – White balance does matter at night.  Try shooting in RAW so you can do some WB management in post production.  If you want something really blue, try switching to Tungsten.


          Shooting the Moon_CJL2853-Edit

          – The best way to capture the moon in a landscape or cityscape is to shoot it when it’s tonal value equals the tonal value of it’s surroundings.  Translated at sunrise or sunset.  If the moon is rising or setting at sunrise or sunset, you’ve got a good chance of getting a cool picture.  If you want to shoot the full moon and capture the craters etc.  start with f11, ISO 400, 1/200th sec.  There are bunches of combinations but this one always seems to work for me.

    The shot to the right was shot in early January on Forest Road 41 coming out of Benham Falls. ISO 400, f 6.3, 4 seconds through live view. There was just enough light to get AF to work, then I switched to manual.