I have been photographing nighttime landscapes for about 20 years now capturing images of star trails like the one pictured above with good success even in the film days. The arrival of the digital camera and their high ISO capabilities has allowed me to push the boundaries of nighttime landscape photography and allow me to capture the milky way and stars just as we see them. I released my e-book on that subject in February 2011 but wanted to revisit some of the images I had captured with the Sigma 12-24mm lens as I liked the wider view it afforded me and allowed me to implement some of the new lessons I have learned since then. The above image is the newest version of my cover shot but this time the illumination you see is from just the moon. A rock solid tripod and ballhead are a must for this genre of photography. A wide-angle lens is also a must so the Sigma 12-24mm lens is now my choice for my Canon 1D Mark 3 bodies although the Sigma 20mm F1.8 EX DG ASP RF would also be a good choice. For those of you with crop sensors, the 10-20mm F3.5 EX DC HSM should be your go-to lens but keep in mind with any of your choices that 20mm on full frame is the max you should go with the settings I will be providing.
Focusing at night
These types of images are best done with little or no visible moon. A moon that is about ¼ of full moon size to the eye is ideal and makes for the most natural look. You can also light paint as I did in the image above and I will go into that a bit more in depth below but the hardest thing to do is focus at night. How do you do that? A very easy solution is to test your lens during the day. At the top of your lens, there is a hyperfocal distance scale. Set the distance to 12mm (or all the way wide for any zoom). Auto focus on a subject approximately 20 feet away from you. Look at the scale and where it lines up on the white line. Now turn your lens to manual focus. You should now hear the beep (if enabled) or the little focus light show up that you are in focus. If you check the hyperfocal distance calculator with my setup, you will see that everything from about 4 feet to infinity will be in focus! You need to check your specific camera model and lens but testing it out during the day and finding the location will allow you to go out at night and consistently manually focus and get sharp images as long as you keep your subject 20 feet away from you or more. Below is an example of what to look for on the lens but remember, check to make sure where your camera body and lens combination line up!
OK, so now you know how to focus at night but how do you compose? One way is to go out during the day and compose your subject and then return at night. That works well for one location, but if you plan on doing multiple locations, that would prove difficult. An easier method is to use a very powerful flashlight so you can see through the viewfinder. You would point the light at the left edge of your subject and then the right, making sure you could see it through your viewfinder. Then point it at the bottom of what you want in the frame. You can now quickly compose at night in a matter of seconds. In the image below of Turret Arch you can see how that would work especially when you use a wide-angle lens.
I chose to do my high ISO exposures first so that I can compose quickly and judge the amount of light painting I need or if I need to do it at all. This workflow allows me to compose in a matter of minutes and if I chose, then do a long exposure of the same subject. Here are the starting point settings for photographing the stars: ISO 6400, f/4.5, for 30 seconds. Remember that these are just starting points and you can adjust your settings especially if you use one of the faster fixed lenses! A good rule to follow is focal length times shutter speed = 500-600. The closer you stay towards 500 the more the stars will appear as points of light. I also used DXO Pro Optics 9 noise reduction on all of the high ISO images in this post.
I composed the image above using the high ISO settings provided above. I simply lowered the ISO and set the camera to bulb. Using a cable release, I locked the camera open for just over an hour. The illumination is from the moon. The starting point setting for star trails are: ISO 100-400 (depending on size of moon), f/4.5, lock shutter open for an hour or more. Note that you will only achieve circular trails if you include the North Star or the Southern Cross. I have never achieved a successful star trail image when the moon was ¼ moon phase or larger.
Light painting a subject is an art form not a science. I cannot give you specific settings because the power of the flashlight as well as your distance to the subject can greatly affect the final image. The main light on the image above is from a street lamp just out of frame on the right hand side. I placed a headlamp or small flashlight in each of the windows hidden by the frame. Finally, I painted the bell tower and shadow side of the building with a larger LED flashlight from about 50 feet away to give detail on that side. The illumination you see behind the building are the city lights of the town of Moab, Utah.
I hope these basic settings inspire you to go out and try some of these images for yourself and enter the exciting world of nighttime photography.
You can find more of my night images, workshops, lectures, galleries, e-books, blog and more at: http://www.roaminwithroman.com