NP101: What Makes a Great Nightscape Photographer?

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.

For this 9th article, I’m going to discuss my thoughts on What Makes a Great Nightscape Photographer. Out of all the photographers that inspire me, what sets these people apart? What do they do differently, or what do they have in common, that makes them great?

What Makes a Great Nightscape Photographer?

What Makes a Great Nightscape Photographer?

So what makes a great nightscape photographer?

I’ve tried to narrow it down into a set of skills or behaviours, or a list of traits and attributes, that the best nightscape photographers have. I’ve also included a “How to Learn / Actions for You” section at the end of each of the skills with ideas for what you can do.

To improve your own efforts at nightscape photography, then I’d start by evaluating yourself against these and see what you can do to develop these skills.

An Understanding of the Night Sky

Milky Way Freeway Fog

Freeway Fog Milky Way. Blog. By knowing where the Milky Way will be and in what orientation, you can plan some interesting compositions.

When you’re planning to take photos at night, it certainly helps to understand the celestial mechanics of how the night sky works. Here’s just a small set of questions which you’ll need to be able to answer, or at least find out the answer to, when you’re planning a nightscape shoot. It’s going to put you in a better position to take an image that comes out as you planned or hoped.

  • Which way do the stars travel? And how does that change when you’re facing South, or East, or North or West?
  • How far across the sky do they move in an hour?
  • When does the sky get dark or light? (and I’m not just talking about sunset or sunrise)
  • When does the Moon rise or set, in which direction, and where will it be in the sky?
  • What phase will the Moon be, and what lighting and what direction of light will it give to my scene?
  • Where will the Milky Way be? Overhead, or rising in the East or setting in the West? What orientation will it be in comparison to my landscape scene?
  • Am I sitting under a flight path?
  • How do I find out when meteor showers are on?
  • When are the best conjunctions of the Moon and Planets during Twilight?
How to Learn / Actions for You

How do you find out the answers to these? Start learning the basics of astronomy and celestial mechanics – but also make it easy on yourself and use the right tools. There are loads of apps and websites that you can use to simulate the view at different times of day or times of the year. For starters, use Stellarium on your computer and 5 Stars for your iPhone or Android. The tools won’t replace the need to have a deeper understanding of how the night sky works, but it’ll certainly help to get you started.

The Eye

Iconic Stump at Lostock

Iconic Stump at Lostock. Blog.

What’s the ‘eye’? An imagination – an ability to see something in a scene, whether that’s during the planning stages or while out in the field.

Some of the best nightscape photographers simply take great photos – even without a night sky scene in it. They’ve got “the eye” – the eye for composition, for portraying a scene. They can foresee where the Moon will come up to light the foreground in a timelapse, or that the Milky Way will look great rising behind that mountain or next to that tree, or vertically rising up from the sea, etc.

How to Learn / Actions for You

No “Eye”? All is not lost. Even without a ‘photographers eye’, you can still take great photos – you probably just have to work harder at it than someone who has that gift already. It will mean more practise, and start by simply emulating those you admire.

If you’re like me, you’ll take heaps of shots and then spend some time in Lightroom or similar flicking between the shots, finding the one that has the most impact and drama, the best composition. Sometimes it’ll jump out at you!

The Ability to Plan

Timely Conjunction by Phil Hart. This image was possible because of thorough planning!

Timely Conjunction by Phil Hart. This image was possible because of thorough planning!

Planning is a big aspect of Nightscape photography – and the best nightscape photographers plan well. Very rarely do they simply go for a drive at night, pull up in some random location and use ‘luck’ to get a good image.

They know the right tools to use in their planning. They use stellarium, TPE, their knowledge of the night sky and their knowledge of the location they’re planning on shooting from. They know in advance (or will find out) what will be in the sky on that given night – where the Moon will be and when it will rise or set – is it even a good time in the lunar cycle for nightscapes? They’ll know (or find out) where the Milky Way will be and whether they plan on an East or West facing composition, what likely foreground elements there will be or what foreground elements they will try to find. If there’s a lake or dam, they’ll work out where to stand to get the best possible reflections.

As nightscape photography is becoming more and more common, a lot of images start to look the same – so being able to plan a scene, and execute on it, sets the best ones apart.

How to Learn / Actions for You

Before you head out for your next shoot, do some planning. Get your location up in TPE or PhotoPills. Open up Stellarium and wind the clock forward to the time of night you’ll be out, and swing it around to see what the night sky will look like. Then advance the clock hour by hour to see how it changes throughout the night.

Start to incorporate that planning into your location choices. Where will it look good with the Milky Way in that position? When the Moon rises it’ll give a nice light to that mountain range, etc.

Good Gear

My Cameras and Lenses, acquired over many years

My Cameras and Lenses, acquired over many years

It’s not a ‘requirement’ to have the top of the range cameras and lenses, accessories, dollies and time lapse gear to be a great nightscape photographer, but it just helps.

The modern cameras with high sensitivity and low noise, and great fast wide field lenses, simply open up more opportunities for you – you’re no longer ‘restricted’ by your camera and lens to be only able to capture certain types of shots.

How to Learn / Actions for You

Having said that, It’s rare that great nightscape photographers started with the gear they have now. It was likely built up over years – so don’t be discouraged if you don’t have that gear now. Practise your craft with what you have and learn the other elements of nightscape photography that you can control. There are very talented nightscape photographers still using older or cheaper gear. Be inspired by what they can achieve and emulate them.

And then plan. Plan your next purchases and save! :) Check my article My Nightscape Gear and Recommendations for details about what I use and some of my thoughts on what I would recommend.

Know Your Camera and Know Your Craft

It obviously helps to know your camera well and to understand the more technical and advanced aspects of photography. You need a good understanding of exposure, aperture and ISO and how they affect your image given a certain lighting, a certain foreground, and what you’re trying to achieve. Like I explained in The Fundamentals of Nightscape Photography, what do you do when the ‘nightscape recipe’ doesn’t work, because of light pollution, or because of the Moon, or because you want a different type of image?

How to Learn / Actions for You

You need to know the right settings for the right scene. Experimentation helps! Take notes if you need to. Keep practising and make sure you’re reading – the settings other people use, read your camera manual, read blogs etc.

Variety

Star Trail Reflections off Lake IISAC

Star Trail Reflections off Lake IISAC. Being able to do time lapses, star trails and night sky shots keeps it interesting. Blog.

The guys I admire most can do it all – whether that’s single night sky shots, star trails or timelapses. They mix it up and keep it fresh. They try new things, they experiment, they go to new and different locations.

It also helps to keep it interesting for yourself, and also to be able to adapt if the scene doesn’t present itself how you imagined. If there’s clouds that ruin a single nightscape scene, then try a timelapse for example.

How to Learn / Actions for You

Can you put together a startrails image or a timelapse? It might not be the first thing on your list to learn, but I’d start thinking about it and even just practise at home to learn the settings and the tools, your intervalometer, the software etc.

A Long-Charge Internal Battery

Reaching Out

Reaching Out. Captured at 3:45am – no sleep for nightscapers! Blog.

It goes without saying that being a nightscape photographer means being out at night – sometimes for long periods, sometimes up very early before dawn, sometimes being up all night! All of that can take its toll, especially if you have to work, spend time with family and perhaps have other hobbies too.

How to Learn / Actions for You

You need to get used to living off little sleep, or plan for ‘down time’ – maybe during cloudy or rainy periods, or maybe during Full Moon week, where you can catch up on rest and sleep!

The Three P’s. Patience, Persistence, Perseverance!

Waiting... all setup, waiting for night!

Waiting… all setup, waiting for night!

Being a nightscape photographer requires the three P’s – Patience, Persistence, Perseverance! You’ll often be waiting – waiting for clear skies, waiting for a star trails session to finish, waiting for a timelapse to finish, processing in front of the computer.

Some nights you’ll head out and it’s clear on your way there, and comes over cloudy just as you set up. Sometimes you go to a location that you think will give great results, and sometimes even looks ok on the back of the camera, but you get them onto the computer and discover they’re not what you’d hoped.

How to Learn / Actions for You

It takes persistence and perseverance to keep trying when things don’t go your way. Sitting out under the stars at night takes time and requires lots of patience.

Sometimes you might plan a shot that requires the Moon or the Milky Way to be in a certain position that only occurs once a year! You need patience for that – and hope it’s not cloudy that night! :)

Don’t stress over the things you can’t control. But make sure you learn how to read the weather maps and charts so you can start to predict whether you’ll get clouds, wind, rain etc.

An Understanding Family

The best nightscape photographers are often away all night. They may need to travel to get to the location they want, or to dark skies, so they could be away all weekend. If you have a family, a wife and kids, being away from home on a regular basis can really take its toll on your partner – so having an understanding family certainly helps.

I’ve noticed lately that a lot of great nightscape photographers are younger guys – without a wife and young kids at home. Having that ‘freedom’ of being able to drop everything and head away for the weekend, simply gives them more opportunities to hone their craft, to travel to the best locations or to dark skies, or to be in the right spot at the right time.

How to Learn / Actions for You

For people like me, who don’t have he ability to do that, it requires even more care in planning, negotiating, building up brownie points, dealing with sacrifices and trade-offs, etc. Your opportunities will be more limited so you’ll need to do your best to make the most of the time you get under the stars.

Ability to Travel, Access to Dark Skies or great foregrounds

Shooting Star and the Milky Way over Cape Leveque

Shooting Star and the Milky Way over Cape Leveque. Blog.

Some guys live in exotic or remote locations with dark skies and can literally step out their front door to great nightscape locations. Some people have the money or the life circumstances that gives them the ability to travel regularly and be away for days or weeks at a time.

This is no doubt a distinct advantage. Like mentioned in the point above, it gives them more opportunities to hone their craft and to experiment, to capture amazing scenes with great foregrounds or dark skies.

How to Learn / Actions for You

If you have neither of those, it doesn’t mean you can’t be a great nightscape photographer. It just means you may need to work a bit harder, plan more, and like above, do your best to make the most of the limited opportunities you have.

A Digital Workflow

Lightroom for importing, categorisation, filtering, some processing

Lightroom for importing, categorisation, filtering, some processing

When you’re back home, you need a good digital workflow to turn those well planned and executed efforts out in the field into an image to share.

That includes knowledge of tools and skills in things like:

  • Lightroom for importing, categorisation, short-listing and processing
  • Photoshop for more advanced processing, masking, composites
  • Processing in general – how much, how little, finding your own style
  • Star Trails software if you captured images for a star trails shot
  • Video production software for putting together a timelapse, including smooth transitions, music, intro/outro
  • Great presentation – how to resize and save your images for web presentation without compression artefacts
How to Learn / Actions for You

The most important if you’ve just started out, is knowing how to save your image without compression artifacts. Most photography tools let you save as jpeg and choose the ‘quality’ or ‘compression’. You need to know how that works and play around with it to work out what it does to your image. If the image started getting too compressed, reduce the size/dimensions, and then save as jpeg.

There are lots of online tutorials and YouTube videos for processing, and no doubt I’ll cover some aspects of it during an upcoming NP101 article. So keep reading, and keep practising!

As you can see from all of the above, there’s more to being a great nightscape photographer than meets the eye. The best guys around, the ones that inspire me, have all of these attributes – but I’m sure they weren’t ‘born’ with them. Some of them require practise, learning, discipline – others require lots of hard work.

But it’s within the reach of everyone. So make some goals, decide on your priorities and get started!

I hope that in seeing and reading this list, this criteria, it sets you on a path that takes you to being a great nightscape photographer. 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
  • noise reduction techniques
  • planning and preparing nightscapes

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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3 Responses to “NP101: What Makes a Great Nightscape Photographer?”

  1. Doug Ingram says:

    Mike, you contribute so much to those of us venturing into astrophotography for the first time or people like me who are wanting to improve our results. Thanks for another well thought-out and easy to understand article.

    One point, though. A couple of times in the article you mentioned “TPE”, but as far as I could see you didn’t say what that is. I found it with some Googling, but I thought it would be helpful if you could put a link into the article for TPE, or at least mention what the software is and does.

    Cheers,
    Doug

  2. […] you’ve read my What Makes a Great Nightscape Photographer article, you’ll know that I’m a big advocate for planning and preparation. Especially […]

  3. […] What Makes a Great Nightscape Photographer? […]

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