I love capturing beautiful nightscape photography, and I’m always happy to share what I know and what I learn. I’m keen to inspire others to head outside and look up at the sky, and to photograph the sky.
So I’ve started a series of posts with the theme ‘Nightscape Photography 101‘ – sharing tips and tricks to help you take better nightscape photos.
In this fifth blog post, I’m going to talk about My Nightscape Gear and Recommendations – the photography equipment I use to capture my nightscape photos, and recommendations for those who want to upgrade. The purpose of this post is to explain why I’ve chosen the gear I have and to perhaps inspire or educate you about what type of equipment you’ll need to capture great nightscapes.
I Want What He’s Got!
The eternal dilemma of photographers – what to buy? When to upgrade? Do I really need that gear? I want what he’s got!
While it’s true that today’s modern cameras certainly capture more light with less noise than cameras of a few years ago (explained in What are Nightscapes), you don’t have to lay out thousands of dollars in upgrades straight away. You can still learn the craft with your current gear but as you improve, there’ll likely come a time when you’ve reached the limit of what you can achieve with older technology and you’ll want to upgrade.
Like most hobbies, the deeper you get into it, the more passionate you are about it, the more you want to upgrade your equipment – to achieve better results, to simplify, to make things easier, to give you more creative opportunities etc. Photography is no different, and it’s very easy to start spending money to get the best cameras and lenses etc.
You’ll start with one camera, and maybe a good nightscape lens. Then you’ll want a second camera body and second lens, so you can have two cameras going at once. So then you’ll need two tripods, two intervalometers, more memory cards and batteries, etc.
I’ll start with my first recommendation –
- Get a good modern DSLR body (full frame if you can), a fast ‘nightscape friendly’ lens, a good tripod and an intervalometer.
The reasons and the whats and why’s will become clearer once you’ve read the rest of the post.
I recognise that everyone’s budgets are different – it’s worth noting that most of my gear below has been acquired over many years. Whether you choose to acquire or upgrade all at once, or gradually, is up to you. I’ll make an effort to suggest gear across 3 ranges – budget, intermediate and spare no expense! I hope this post gives you some ideas of what to buy next!
Let’s start with a picture of everything 🙂 After taking everything out of its bags and laying it out on the floor, it’s amazing how much you realise you’ve accumulated 🙂 It might look like a lot, but for guys that have also invested in timelapse gear, including dolly’s and motion control systems, the list below is actually fairly tame 🙂
Now I’ll break the entire lot down into four sections – Camera and Lenses, Accessories, Tripods and Bags, and I’ll run through each section in detail describing the equipment, what it is and how I use it.
I get a lot of questions about my gear, so I’ll also attempt to add an FAQ at the bottom of each section to answer the questions some of you may be thinking! If your question isn’t asked or answered, please feel free to use the comments section below to ask more questions and I can expand on the FAQ.
One more note: I’m a Canon user. So my gear and recommendations are necessarily going to be biased towards the gear I’ve owned and used. I’m not saying the equivalent Nikon gear is not just as good, but I just don’t have any personal experience in it. There’s almost always a Nikon equivalent, so Nikon users can stick with Nikon if they wish! 🙂
Cameras and Lenses
The camera and lens are obviously the most important gear in my bag. The image below shows my 2 camera bodies and all of my lenses, labelled. I’ll go into detail with each below.
Canon 6D (full-frame camera)
This is my main body for both landscapes and nightscapes. It’s smaller and lighter than the 5D Mark 2, and the button placement continues to annoy me, but it has some excellent features (level indicator, WiFi etc) and it’s unbeatable on noise and high ISO performance. I can easily do ISO6400 for 30 seconds, with very little noise. What noise there is, cleans up nicely using Photoshop Plugins.
Canon 5D Mark 2 (full-frame camera)
This is my second body for nightscapes. It’s not a ‘new’ camera anymore, and has been replaced by the 5D Mk3, but if you can get a cheap new or 2nd hand 5D Mk 2, they’re still an excellent nightscape camera and they really set the benchmark a few years ago when it was practically the only camera the ‘best’ nightscape photographers used. It easily handles ISO3200 with little noise, and is a great 2nd body that I use for timelapses, star trails etc while I’m taking single nightscape shots with the 6D.
Samyang 14mm f/2.8
This is my main nightscape lens. Can be found as Samyang, Rokinon or Bower brands. It’s perfect on a full-frame camera because it gives a really wide Field of View, is nice and fast at f/2.8, and the star shapes in the corners are acceptable. It’s not perfect, but at less than $400, for the price it’s the best bang-for-buck nightscape lens on the market at the moment. It has some ‘moustache’ distortion, but you can get lens profiles to apply in Lightroom or Photoshop that correct the distortion and remove some vignetting.
If you have a crop camera, as much as I love the Samyang, I’d recommend a Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8. The Samyang 14mm just doesn’t give a wide enough FOV on a crop camera. The Tokina at 11mm gives nice sharp wide images on a crop sensor like the 7D. If you plan on upgrading from a crop camera to full-frame, just be aware that the Tokina won’t fit on a full-frame camera.
Canon 24mm f/1.4
The Canon 24mm f/1.4 is an extremely fast lens, perfect for timelapses and some nightscapes. I same ‘some‘, because at f/1.4, the star in the corner are terrible. The lens has to be stopped down to at least f/2.2, preferably f/2.8 before the stars in the corner are acceptable. But it’s so super-fast, it’s great for nightscape timelapses where you want really short exposures (like 10-15 seconds) to get enough frames for smooth video playback.
It’s not a cheap lens either. I’ve been fortunate enough to have it loaned to me on a semi-permanent basis, but it’s not something I would buy myself, knowing what I know now. I’d probably get the Samyang or Sigma 35mm.
Canon 50mm f/1.8
The ‘nifty fifty’ is well known in the Canon world. For under $150 you can get this versatile, fast lens that certainly has its uses for nightscapes and daytime (like portraits). For nightscapes, the longer focal length means you’ll either need tracking like the Polarie, or keep the exposures short (15 seconds or less) with a high ISO to avoid too much star trailing.
When used wide open at f/1.8, the stars in the corner are terrible. It really needs to be stopped down to f/2.2 or f/2.8, but for the price it’s a great lens and belongs in any kit.
Canon 17-40mm L f/4
This has been my main landscape lens for a long time and is really great for that. Not a huge zoom range, but wide enough on a full-frame camera for vast landscapes, and works well on a crop sensor camera too. Unfortunately at f/4, it’s really too slow for most nightscapes unless you’re doing star trails (like this shot from the bungle bungles).
If it’s all you’ve got, you can certainly still use it at f/4 (as an example, Southern Cross over the Bungle Bungles), but in general you’re going to struggle to get enough light in for most nightscapes even at high ISO. Experiment and give it a go anyway! It’s great practise!
Canon 24-105mm L f/4
This has been my other main landscape lens, and is so versatile with it’s long zoom range. It’s just not great for ‘wide’ shots as 24mm isn’t extremely wide, especially on a crop sensor camera. Like the 17-40mm, at f/4 it’s going to be too slow for most applications of nightscape photography but is an excellent all-round lens for landscapes and walking around daytime lens.
Canon 200mm L f/2.8
There are more expensive versions of this lens, with IS etc, but for the price this is a great long focal length lens, and nice and fast if you want to use it in low light. With such a long focal length, it’s not going to be practical for most nightscape shots, but there are some specialist applications of it that it’ll be useful – for example, conjunctions and long-focal length Moon shots.
If you’ve got a tracking mount like a Polarie, if aligned accurately, you’ll be able to use the 200mm for close-in astrophotography of nebulas or star clusters, but without tracking you’ll never be able to do long exposures without getting star trails (unless that’s what you want :)).
Oh and for daytime, this is an excellent portait or people photography lens when used wide open!
Sigma 120-400mm f/4-f/5.6
Like the 200mm above, this is really a specialist lens that’s useful for only a few applications. It’s too slow for general nightscapes, but with such a long zoom it’s great for close-up photos of the Moon or Sun (with appropriate filter) where there’s enough light that you don’t need a fast lens.
I got it for the Total Solar Eclipse, and used it on my Canon 40D (crop camera) to get extra focal length. It worked fantastic for that.
Camera and Lens Recommendations
If I was starting from scratch, here’s some recommendations in order of preference and budget.
- Canon 6D (full frame)
- Canon 5D Mk 3 (full frame)
- Canon 5D Mk 2 (full frame)
- Canon 7D
- Canon 60D/Da
- Canon 650D
- Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 (for full frame cameras) with Canon adapter
- Samyang 14mm f/2.8 (for full frame cameras)
- Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 (for full frame cameras)
- Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 (for crop cameras)
- Budget: Canon 650D, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8, or Samyang 14mm f/2.8. Outlay ~$800-$1200
- Intermediate: Canon 7D, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8, or Samyang 14mm f/2.8. Outlay ~$1500-$1800
- Spare No Expense: Canon 6D, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 with adapter. Outlay ~$3500.
These are just indicative prices based on a quick Google search. If you shopped around, you’d be able to find them cheaper or pick them up 2nd hand for a cheaper price.
Camera and Lens FAQ
- Should I upgrade camera body or lens first?
It really depends what you’ve got now. If you go for a lens first, you’ll need to decide whether to get a crop-sensor lens like the Tokina, or a full-frame lens like the Samyang. And that depends on how soon you’ll go to a full-frame camera, since the Tokina won’t work on a full-frame camera.
If you decide to go for a camera body first, you’ll need to make sure you’ve got at least one good, wide lens. It’s not an easy decision!
- Should I get a good nightscape lens or a Polarie tracker?
Definitely a good nightscape lens. While the Polarie is great and opens up lots of creative opportunities, it’s not a substitute for a good, fast widefield lens which can be used in almost all nightscape circumstances. The polarie is much more specialised.
- What about Nikon?
Nikon have great cameras and there’s plenty of incredible nightscape photographers around the world using them. I’m just biased towards Canon because that’s all I’ve used. But if you take any of my recommendations, and find the equivalent Nikon gear, then they’ll do just as well.
Not all accessories are must haves, but they can certainly make life easier out in the field. Some of them are also required to expand your creative opportunities or give you more options about what you can capture.
This list of accessories is specifically for while you’re shooting, and doesn’t include other ‘comfort’ accessories for when you’re out in the field, such as warm clothes, hot and cold drinks, food, compass/GPS, chair etc.
In rough priority order (though everyone will be different and it depends on what you’re shooting and how you’re shooting):
Red Light Headlamp
This is a must-have in every kit. Why red light? Because it helps to preserve your eyes dark adaption. Once you’ve been standing outside in the dark for a while, you can start to see the scene better, helping you compose, and simply just enjoying the night sky – looking up while the camera is doing its thing.
If you have to switch a bright white light on every time, your eyes will never adapt to the dark. Get a headlamp so you can go ‘hands free’, and get one that goes to red before white (off->red->white). Don’t get one that cycles through, because it means you need to go to white before you can switch it off.
Spare Memory Cards
I don’t think much needs to be said about this 🙂 Even if you have large capacity memory cards, if it dies out in the field, you will want a spare so you don’t ruin an entire night! If you’re shooting timelapses, you’ll go through memory cards pretty quick! 🙂
Spare Batteries (including USB Batteries)
Again a pretty obvious one. In cold weather, the batteries can drain pretty quickly so you’ll always want some spares. If you’re going to be shooting all night, you could easily run through 3 or 4 batteries in cold weather. Even though the genuine Canon batteries are much more expensive than the generic ones you can get on ebay, they really do last a lot longer and hold their capacity for longer.
The AA-powered or Li-ion USB batteries are for the USB handwarmers (below).
Intervalometers (timer remote)
When you start getting serious about shooting star trails, time lapses, or even just nightscapes without having to touch the camera (avoiding camera shake), then the intervalometer becomes essential. It’s definitely something you need. Get one.
You don’t need the genuine Canon one ($150+) – there’s plenty of generic ebay ones (I’ve used Aputure successfully) for a fraction of the cost (approx $20). I’ve only lately started having a problem where the intervalometer causes the camera to stop responding to button presses on the camera. I just unplug the intervalometer and plug it back in again, and then it’s fine.
Not to reduce flaring, but to hold back the dew for as long as possible! Some widefield lenses don’t have external dew shields (like the Nikon 14-24 or Samyang 14mm), but if your lens has one, use it.
Hoteez Chemical Warmers
These are for dew prevention, and double as actual hand warmers! 🙂 Keep them in your pocket while you’re waiting around for your exposures to finish 🙂
As dew prevention, you can warm them up and then strap them (elastic band or velcro) to the front/top of your lens. Keeping the lens warm will keep the dew at bay for longer.
USB Hand Warmers
In this case, it’s actually not to keep your hands warm, but another dew prevention measure. You can wrap them around the lens and hold them in place with elastic band or velcro, plug them into your USB battery pack, and the hand warmers will keep the lens warm, helping to prevent dew.
Lens Cloth and Lens Pen
Pretty obvious, to clean the lens! Or in the case of nightscape photography, the cloth is usually used to dry the lens after it’s dewed up!
More of a comfort thing, but it certainly helps when you’re comfortable if you’re spending long nights under the stars. Nothing worse than getting eaten by mozzies! It can really ruin the night (and the next few days as you itch madly!) if you get a swarm of mozzies just after dark or before dawn.
Vixen Polarie & Accessories
The Polarie is a great accessory once you’ve mastered the basic tripod + camera nightscape photography. It opens up a whole new world of creative opportunities, such as being able to track the stars and get longer, deeper exposures of the night sky without getting star trails. It can also double as a panning head – turn it on its side, and use it for motion /panning during timelapses.
There’s a couple of accessories for the Polarie too. You’ll need another ball mount and adapter plate, and you can also get the polar scope or polar meter. The Polar Meter is by far the easiest way to get quick and accurate polar alignment. The polar scope can be used for finer adjustment if you can see your South Celestial Pole or North Celestial Pole (Polaris). For some people, that’s not possible due to trees, light pollution etc.
There are other similar ‘tracking devices’ that go on your tripod, such as the iOptron SkyTracker.
Velcro and Bubble Level
A strip or two of velcro is always going to come in handy – whether it’s to hold on hand warmers, tie intervalometers or camera straps or other things to your tripod etc. It’s definitely worth keeping some in your camera bag.
The hot-shoe 3-way Bubble Level is handy if your camera doesn’t have an inbuilt level. Nothing worse than crooked horizons 🙂 They’re only one or two dollars, so grab a couple.
430EX II Flash
I haven’t used this for nightscapes at all, and isn’t something I’ll take out every time, but I guess it could come in handy if you needed to provide light for a foreground subject. But I would think your headlamp or phone screen would be better.
This isn’t a nightscape accessory – I use them for normal landscape photography but they’re always in my bag so I’ve listed them here 🙂 The Lee 10-stop big-stopper, 3-stop GND or ND filters are great for dawn shots or waterfalls etc.
Waterproof Bags / Covers
I’ve been fortunate enough not to need these yet, but I’m sure they’ll come in handy when leaving the camera out overnight (to protect from dew or rain), or for waterfalls maybe?
240v Camera Power Supply
If you’re shooting in a location that has access to 240v power, then this is a must-have. Saves from having to change batteries will come in handy for timelapses etc. You can get 12v powered versions of these, but obviously you’ll need to carry around a 12v battery to power it with.
I don’t have a 12v powered version for my 5D Mk2 or 6D – I had one for my 40D but of course they changed the battery size/shape and I can’t use it now. It’s something I plan to get very soon though, and is essential for all-night timelapses or star trails so you don’t have to disrupt the sequence to change batteries. The 12v batteries will also come in handy for dew straps (that require power), 12v hair dryers (for removing dew) etc.
I’ve pretty much listed them in order above so they’re obviously my recommendations. You just have to get a red lamp headlamp and an intervalometer. Once you’ve had more than two nights ruined by dew, dew control will very quickly reach the top of your list 🙂
And don’t forget to check out my Nightscape Photography Gear Checklist, to print out and check off before you go out in the field!
- How do you prevent dew?
I’ll have a specific article on this in the future, but there’s a few things you can do right away:
– Use a lens hood
– Use the chemical handwarmers wrapped around your lens
– Use a USB powered hand-warmer wrapped around your lens
– Get a ‘professional’ dew control system and 12v battery
- Do I need to get the genuine Canon intervalometer?
No, I don’t think so. They’re very expensive for what they are, and I’ve used after-market ones off ebay for 5+ years and never had a problem.
- Do I need to get the genuine Canon batteries?
In this case, yes I think so. Unfortunately they’re quite expensive compared to the generic brands, but they do last longer, they perform better at night, the charge holds better, and it communicates to the camera better.
Tripods are obviously a must-have for night photography, because you can’t hold the camera steady for 30 seconds handheld 🙂
There are many many different tripods available on the market, from cheap to very expensive. I can explain what I think is important and why, but ultimately you should do your own research and buy the one that meets your criteria and fits in your budget.
Manfrotto 055X ProB with 484RC2 ball head
This is my main tripod and it’s great. It’s not carbon fiber so is reasonably heavy especially carrying it around one handed with a camera attached. I got it about 5+ years ago, 2nd hand off ebay for around $300 with the ball head, and it’s served me well.
Years of going in and out of the ocean has meant the extension locks are rusting up and are quite hard to move these days. But I’ve been too lazy to take it apart and clean them out / re-grease them. So that’s my fault. A bit of maintenance on your tripod is always a good idea.
RTS with ball head
I got this as a second tripod when I started shooting more with two cameras going at once at night. I didn’t want to spend a lot of money, so got this one off ebay for ~$100 which included the ball head. So it’s pretty cheap.
It does feel quite cheap too – the ball head sticks a bit and the manfrotto base plate attached to my cameras don’t always fit snuggly. Sometimes I wish I’d spent a bit extra, but I didn’t anticipate using it as much as I do.
I obviously don’t use this for night photography. I just included it in the photo because it was with my other gear 🙂
Here’s what I’d recommend if you’re looking for a good tripod:
- Make sure it can go high enough (at least your eye-level) and low enough
- Make sure it’s not too heavy that you can’t carry it around one-handed. If you go hiking with it, you’ll appreciate the lighter weight
- Get a spare camera base plate
- Get a quick release plate (and a spare!)
- Most good tripods have at least 2 foam covers around two of the legs (where you grab it) – you’ll appreciate that on cold nights! So make sure you get one that has them!
- Get a good ball head (easier for composition at night). A bad ball head will stick and be harder to tighten and loosen.
- Get a good one and it’ll last you a life-time! They are worth the investment.
Prices can range from $100-$1000, especially if you include the ball head. I’d probably look for something ~$300-$400 as a minimum if you can afford it. Look on ebay for good second hand ones to save some money.
I haven’t actually had many questions about tripods, so I’ve nothing to say here. But check the recommendations above and that would likely answer any FAQ’s I would have.
How to fit all that gear into camera bags? It’s still a work-in-progress for me, because I’m not overly happy with the current arrangement, but I’ll share with you what I currently use.
My main camera bag is very heavy with all of that gear in there; I think it’s over 7kg now which is a problem for travelling on a plane. I wouldn’t want to put my main bag through check-in.
This is a nice bag, backpack style and has been big enough to hold 2 camera bodies and 5 lenses. The problem is, it’s just really heavy now! 🙂 It also has my spare memory cards, spare batteries, 2 intervalometers, lens cloth and a few other things.
LowePro Slingshot 110
I’ve had this for years, and it was my main camera bag until about 2 years ago when I just had too much I wanted to carry at once and it simply wasn’t big enough.
I now use it to keep my Lee filters, hand warmers, 240v power, waterproof covers etc.
Bum Bag / Shoulder Bag
This was probably my first camera bag, just a small one that can be used in bum-bag configuration, or with a shoulder strap. I now use it to keep my Vixen Polarie and accessories in.
The Manfrotto bag is huge, so I usually put the RTS tripod + bag inside the manfrotto bag, so at least it’s just one to carry. I also keep a few spare chemical warmers in the bottom of the Manfrotto bag 🙂
The Sigma 120-400mm lens has a bag of its own, with a nice carry strap. It’s not something I take out often and if I do, it mostly stays in the car unless I need it for something specifically.
Camera Bag Recommendations
I really don’t know! I’m still trying to figure out what to do myself. With more and more gear, I’m still trying to decide whether I want it all in one bag, lots of smaller bags, hard-shell cases like the Pelican cases or similar.
Let me know what you’ve got and what you like or hate about your current camera bags!
Camera Bag FAQ
Like above, I can’t really answer this yet – and I haven’t been asked any questions about my camera bags anyway so that gets me off the hook for this one 😉
There’s heaps more accessories (for comfort, for camping/hiking etc) that I could add, but the article would go on and on and never end! So I think I’ll devote a future article to preparing to head out into the field.
I hope this post talking about My Nightscape Gear and Recommendations has helped you understand the type of photography gear you may need to start capturing great nightscapes, and to plan your next purchase. In the coming posts, we’ll talk about everything you ever wanted to know about nightscapes, including:
- capture techniques for the different types of nightscapes
- processing tips and tricks
- focusing at night
- my thoughts about what makes a good nightscape photo,
- my thoughts about what makes a good nightscape photographer
and much more.
Please feel free to ask questions in the comments section below. Let me know your challenges and frustrations and questions about nightscape photography, and I’ll add them to the list of topics I’ll cover!
Make sure you don’t miss any posts in this Nightscape Photography 101 series!
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I hope you will enjoy this series and your feedback and comments will always be welcome. Please share with your friends too!