5 exposure settings to try for night-time photography – an advanced guide

Mikko LagerstedtViaggi e panorami31 mag 2024Lettura di 6 minuti

Capturing the night requires planning, focus and the right equipment, says creative landscape photographer and Nikon Creator Mikko Lagerstedt

Stepping out into the dark with your camera gives you a new perspective on familiar scenes, turning them into something extraordinary. Having photographed for The Lonely Planet, The Telegraph and many other publications, as well as brands such as Samsung, Nokia and Chevrolet, here I’ll share five essential exposure settings that can transform your night-time photography from good to breathtaking. Everything starts with a plan for the occasion.


1. Star trails

Prolonged exposure is your go-to setting for capturing the mesmerising movement of stars across the night sky. Set your camera on a sturdy tripod and dial in a slow shutter speed – anywhere from 30 seconds to several minutes, depending on your desired trail length. Use a wide aperture like f/2.8 to let in enough light and keep ISO as low as possible to minimise noise. A remote shutter release or your camera’s timer can help avoid shaking. These settings perfectly showcase the earth’s rotation in a stunning frame.


Kit up: For night photography, I use a Nikon Z 8, NIKKOR Z 14-24mm f/2.8 S, and NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S, as well as a Really Right Stuff sturdy tripod.


2. Moonlit landscapes 

Shooting landscapes under a moonlit sky requires a balance to capture the moon and landscape effectively. Depending on how bright the moon is, try to keep a low ISO, but if you have partial moonlit scenery, you can pump the ISO settings higher. Keep the foreground and the moon sharply in focus, extending your depth of field when necessary. A longer shutter speed, several seconds, will help capture the ambient light without overexposing the moon. This set-up is ideal for nights when the moon is bright and the sky is clear.

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Mikko Lagerstedt's images for Nikon magazine
Mikko Lagerstedt's images for Nikon magazine
Left/below: Serene. 14mm, 1/25 sec, f/2.8, ISO 5000 ©Mikko Lagerstedt. Right/above: Night Pier. 14mm, 1/3625 sec, f/3.2, ISO 100 ©Mikko Lagerstedt.
3. Milky Way 

To capture the elusive Milky Way, push your camera’s limits with a higher ISO setting – around 3200 to 6400, depending on your camera’s noise performance. Pair this with a wide aperture (f/2.8 or wider) to capture as much light as possible. Keep your shutter speed around 20-30 seconds to avoid star movement turning into trails. A wide-angle lens will allow you to capture the vastness of the sky. This setting brings out the fine details of the Milky Way’s core.

4. Moody urban night scenes

When photographing nights in an urban setting, it’s fun to do it in mist or on a foggy night. It gives your photographs a fantastic mood. Start with an ISO around 64-800, an aperture of f/8 to ensure sharpness across the scene and adjust your shutter speed according to the scene’s brightness.

Mikko Lagerstedt's images for Nikon magazine
Mikko Lagerstedt's images for Nikon magazine
Left/above: Into the Night. 14mm, 1/25 sec, f/2.8, ISO 6400 ©Mikko Lagerstedt Right/below: Moody Night. 33mm, 1/15 sec, f/8, ISO 64 ©Mikko Lagerstedt
5. Light trails 

Capturing light trails of moving vehicles adds a dynamic element to your night-time shots. Use a long shutter speed, around 10-30 seconds, to let the light paint itself across the frame. Set your aperture around f/8 to maintain sharpness in the static elements of your composition. Keep ISO low to avoid unnecessary noise. Position yourself safely on a bridge or overpass for an elevated view that captures the trails sweeping through the landscape.


With these settings, your night-time photography will capture scenes and narrate stories of the overlooked world. Experiment with these techniques to find what best suits the mood and story you want to convey through your images. Remember, the essence of night photography lies in the ability to adapt and respond to the conditions you encounter. No two nights are the same, and thus, flexibility in your approach is critical.

Mikko Lagerstedt's images for Nikon magazine
Mikko Lagerstedt's images for Nikon magazine
Milky Way. ©Mikko Lagerstedt
Here are a few additional tips to keep in mind as you explore these settings:


Experiment with White Balance

Night-time lighting can vary significantly, from the yellow hue of streetlamps to the cool tones of moonlight. Adjusting your camera’s White Balance can help capture the scene’s mood more accurately or create exciting effects. For example, a cooler White Balance can enhance the ethereal feel of a moonlit landscape or a starry sky.


Use Manual Focus

Autofocus can struggle in low light conditions. Switch to manual focus to ensure sharp images. Using the live view mode on your camera can help you zoom in on a point and manually adjust the focus for precision.


Invest in good lenses

A fast lens (with a wide maximum aperture) is invaluable for night-time photography. It allows more light to hit the sensor, helping to keep ISO down and exposure times shorter. Lenses with apertures of f/2.8 or wider are beneficial. I would love to get my hands on the NIKKOR 20mm f/1.8 S soon to try its night sky capabilities.


Practice, patience and perseverance

Night-time photography often requires patience. Long exposures mean taking fewer shots over a more extended period. Take time to set up, compose carefully and check each image. Sometimes, you may need to wait for the perfect moment when the elements align: waiting for traffic to create the perfect light trail or for the wind to stop shaking the trees.


By embracing these settings and tips, you empower yourself to create vivid, engaging and technically sound photographs under the cover of night. Each setting uniquely portrays the night, revealing scenes and stories invisible under the bright sun. So, grab your camera when the world sleeps and watch how the night unfolds its secrets, one shot at a time.

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