NP101: What are Nightscapes?

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 first post, I’m going to explain what nightscapes actually are, and how they differ from what would be considered ‘Astrophotography’ or normal ‘Landscape Photography’. I’ll also explain the different types of Nightscapes, and talk about the Technology enablers that have changed the game in the last few years.

Nightscape Photography 101: What are Nightscapes?

Nightscape Photography 101: What are Nightscapes?

What are Nightscapes?

Nightscapes is a relatively new genre of photography, combining beautiful foregrounds with a night sky scene – often in a single exposure, sometimes as a composite of varying exposures.

They’re also referred to as:

  • Starscapes
  • Night Photography
  • Landscape Astrophotography

The key feature is that it combines land and sky, and of course the prerequisite is that it’s taken at night (or twilight) – otherwise it’s just landscape photography ūüôā

Isn’t it just Astrophotography?

In the past, nightscapes would’ve just been considered Astrophotography, but Astrophotography has come a LONG way in the last few years. Telescopes are getting bigger and more affordable, astronomy cameras are getting more sensitive and more affordable, and different types of astrophotography are now much more prolific – so it can be broken into more categories than in the past.

Nowadays, there’s brilliant nightscape photographers, just as there are brilliant deep space photographers and solar system photographers. The equipment, techniques for capture and processing are different for each, too.

Solar System Astrophotography

Taking great hi-res pictures of the Moon or Planets requires a big, heavy, expensive tracking mount with a long focal length telescope (reflecting telescope or SCT usually). In most cases, the camera is a purpose-built colour or monochrome solar system astrophotography camera such as the DMK series by Astronomy Cameras, or Flea series by Pt Grey Research.

Mike with his 12" scope

Mike with his 12″ scope

The photo above is the gear I use to capture high-resolution solar system images. It’s a 12″ Newtonian on an EQ6, with a DMK camera.

Jupiter + Callisto

Jupiter + Callisto

Deep Space Astrophotography

Taking beautiful, deep images of galaxies, nebula and star clusters in deep space requires a big, heavy, expensive tracking mount with a refracting or reflecting telescope. Cameras include standard DSLR’s, but also cooled and modified DSLR’s or cooled purpose-built colour or monochrome astrophotography cameras such as cameras by FLI, Apogee and QHY.

Deep Space Imaging Setup

Deep Space Imaging Setup

The photo above was my deep-space imaging gear, consisting of an ED80 refractor, with a 400mm guide scope on the same EQ6 with a bunch of other bits and pieces, reducers, etc. I used a Canon 350D/20D when I was actively doing deep-space work (3 years ago). It’s very modest compared to the guys that do it really well, especially for today’s standards.

M42 - The Great Orion Nebula

M42 – The Great Orion Nebula

Nightscape Photography

The great thing about nightscape photography, is that it often requires nothing more than a fixed tripod, a Digital SLR and a widefield lens. Like all forms of photography, there’s certainly extra bits and pieces you will want and need, but it can certainly be very low-tech; simple to setup and get going.

Nightscape Gear - Tripod and Camera!

Nightscape Gear – Tripod and Camera!

I have two sets of nightscape gear so I can run them at the same time, capturing different types of nightscapes at the same time. The basics are:

  • Two tripods (Manfrotto 055ProB with 484RC2 ball head) and a generic RTS tripod and ball-head
  • Two cameras: Canon 6D and Canon 5D Mk 2
  • Various lenses for nightscapes: Samyang 14mm f/2.8, Canon 24mm f/1.4, Canon 50mm f/1.8.
  • Loads of other bits and pieces, which will be the subject of another post.
Double Up

Double Up – Nightscape

Nightscapes is a specialist genre now, sometimes more closely tied to landscape photography than astrophotography – however it really is a combination of both. That’s why you’ll see it sometimes referred to as landscape astrophotography.

Sub-Types of Nightscape Photography

The beauty of nightscapes is that even within that genre, there’s so much variation in the types of photos you can capture – and they’re all possible with just a tripod, Digital SLR and lens.

Twilight Scenes

Photos taken just before sunrise or just after sunset, usually featuring the Moon and/or Planets to give the astronomical interest. Capturing conjunctions of the Moon and Planets (when they are close together in the twilight sky) are always popular.

Sydney Opera House and Planetary Conjunction

Sydney Opera House and Planetary Conjunction

More conjunctions by Mike Salway.

Star Trails

Star Trails capture the rotation of the earth while the camera keeps exposing, creating streaks of light where bright stars are. They can capture trails as short as a few minutes, up to many hours – creating long streaks and swirls.

Star Streaks

Star Streaks (20 minute single exposure)

More star trails by Mike Salway.

Capturing a star trails image can be done with multiple short exposures combined later in software, or a single long exposure with the shutter left open. There are pros and cons to each, which will be discussed in a future ‘How to capture star trails’ post.

Night Sky (Stars and Milky Way)

This type of photo is what you would call the ‘typical’ nightscape – consisting of a landscape scene with a night sky scene. The night sky could be a simple star field, or could involve the Milky Way or other bright objects like the Moon or Planets.

Exposures are typically short (under 30 seconds) so the stars don’t appear as trails, but rather as points of light. They’re usually captured with a widefield lens (24mm and under) but not in every case (it depends on the foreground).

Source of Light

Source of Light

More nightscapes by Mike Salway.


Timelapses are basically a sequence of Night Sky shots made into a movie. They can depict the stars moving overhead, rising or settings over the course of a night, can transition from day into night, and longer timelapses consist of multiple sequences captured at different times.

More timelapses by Mike Salway.

There’s more advanced techniques during capture (such as panning and movement) as well as during processing (growing star trails, comet star trails etc) that can make timelapses more unique, and they’ll be covered in a separate post.

Longer Focal Length

The last sub-type of Nightscape i’ve called ‘Longer Focal Length’, ¬†where it usually involves the Moon as a background with a landscape scene in the foreground. With a longer telephoto lens, and with the right positioning of yourself compared to the foreground scene or object, the photo can give the “Moon Illusion” where the Moon appears huge compared to how we normally see it in nightscapes.

Melbourne Moon by Phil Hart

Technology Enhanced

One of the main reasons for the growing popularity of nightscape photography, is that it’s simple more achievable now than it was in the past.¬†Certain scenes combining foreground and sky (such as the milky way) simply wasn’t possible many years ago without having tracking mounts to do longer exposures of the sky to get the star/milky way detail, but at the sacrifice of the foreground.

You could do long exposures on film to get star trails, but you simply couldn’t do short exposures to freeze the stars and still capture the amount of light and detail that you can now. Today’s DSLR’s are so sensitive, you can capture detail in the Milky Way in 30 seconds or less!

  • Camera and CMOS/CCD Technology
    • High ISO without the noise. Modern prosumer level DSLR’s like the Canon 6D or Nikon D800 can capture images at ISO12500 or above with little noise. This allows us to get more light in, in a shorter time.
    • Less hotpixels. I remember the bright blue and red hotpixels that used to be scattered all over my Canon 20D when I did exposures over 30 seconds.
    • Increased sensitivity. They’re just more sensitive in low light!
  • Lens Technology (and competition)
    • For nightscape photography, fast lenses (f/2.8 or faster) are very important. Previously there was little competition, or what was available just wasn’t very usable wide open or it was very expensive. Nowadays, there’s heaps of choice available and you don’t need to spend $1000-$2000 to get it!
  • Affordable Portable Tracking mounts or heads – more on this below
  • Affordable Dolly systems such as the Dynamic Perception Stage 0
    • These type of Dolly systems are more for the advanced photographer who does timelapses, but there’s now more choice and they’re more affordable.
  • Processing Software and Techniques
    • Better noise reduction plugins, local contrast enhancement plugins and other tools for Photoshop, Star Trail programs, video editing software – they’ve all increased our ability to get the most out of our data and extend our creative juices wherever we want to take them.
Unedited 30s exposure at ISO6400 with the CAnon 6D

Unedited 30s exposure at ISO6400 with the Canon 6D

The image above is an unedited shot of the Milky Way over Forresters Beach, captured in a single 30 second exposure @ ISO6400 with a Samyang 14mm f/2.8 lens. Unedited! No noise reduction, no increase in exposure, contrast, saturation. Shots like this simply weren’t possible with the technology available even just a few years ago.

Portable Tracking Devices

Small, portable tracking devices have come onto the market in the last 18-24 months. There’s always been ‘small’ equatorial mounts but they’ve been designed more for small telescopes and not for cameras. These devices are extremely portable, fit on top of a normal camera tripod, run off AA batteries and they’re affordable (under $500)!

Some examples are the Vixen Polarie, Astrotrac and iOptron SkyTracker.

Vixen Polarie

Vixen Polarie

You align them like an equatorial mount – make sure it’s facing north/south, tilt it to set your latitude, but once aligned (usually taking only a minute), you can then capture longer, deeper exposures without star trails. The foreground will start getting blurred as its tracking, but that may be acceptable depending on your scene. You can also capture two images (one with tracking on, one with it off) and combine them in software later.¬†You can also turn them on their side and use them for panning while shooting timelapses.

They just increase your ability to be creative with your nightscapes. Their portability and affordability is what makes them unique – they’ve really changed the game for nightscape photography.

Cape Leveque Nightscape with the Vixen Polarie

Cape Leveque Nightscape with the Vixen Polarie

The image above from Cape Leveque is a composite of 2 exposures with the Vixen Polarie – a two minute exposure with tracking on, and a two minute exposure with tracking off – combined later in software.

I hope that explains and helps you understand what a Nightscape is. 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!

I hope you will enjoy this series and your feedback and comments will always be welcome. Please share with your friends too!

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