Setting up your Camera for Night Photography

NOTE: I have updated this tutorial after some years experimenting with the settings, as of January 2013.

In this image, I photographed the landscape in a full moon, then began my series of exposures that later were “flattened” in Photoshop. I painted the tree trunk with my Surefire incandescent flashlight for several minutes. Each exposure was for 15 minutes which I determined with the testing sequence I will describe below. My intention was to create a spinning star effect around the North Star and centered at the top of this tree. Lets explore how you can do this yourself.

The Basics

Night photography consists of 3 steps after deciding what you are going to photograph.

  1. Test your exposure
  2. Paint with light
  3. Make the exposure

Lens choice is pretty critical and wide angle lenses are most desirable. Zooms can work but the demands on your equipment will be tested to the limits and prime wide angle lenses will actually make a BIG difference in the results. I suggest a maximum focal length of 24 mm. Many of my photos are shot at 17mm. And yes, I am using a Canon 17-40 L series zoom. The quality is good, even damn good, but I borrowed a Canon 24mm F1.4 lens, which costs about $1700 and believe me, it made a difference. Which ever lens you use, be prepared before you go out for the night with a few different focal lengths.

Testing your exposure is by far the most time consuming but, other than choosing what to photograph, the most critical.

I use a Canon 5dMk II for several reasons, one of which is its incredible low light performance. In addition, “custom functions” will let me automate this entire setup once I am done. Note: I am now using the Canon 5dMkIII and it has double the dynamic range of the 5D MkII and a much faster processor. This will make a difference in the time you spend waiting for your exposure. It was already very fast with the 5dMkII, now it’s even faster still.

Programming the Custom Functions

The lesson I’ve learned is to make operating in the dark as foolproof as possible. By using this approach, mistakes are hard to make because everything will be pre-set for you. Start by setting up your camera with the following settings:

  1. ISO 6400 for 10 seconds. This will be for test exposures.
  2. Set your image quality to RAW only.
  3. Set aperture to F7.1 on manual.
  4. Set the white balance to 3200K.
  5. Check exposure compensation and make sure it’s set to zero.
  6. Set the brightness on your LCD screen manually to the lowest level
  7. Make this a custom function; C1 on Canon bodies.

Use “C3” so it will be the last click on the exposure wheel. The reason this is critical is because it is now simple to choose C3 in the dark.

Now, we are going to reset the camera in the following way and lock these settings into C2. This set up for making your working exposures:

  1. Set your ISO for 100.
  2. Set your image quality to RAW only.
  3. Set aperture to F 7.1
  4. Set your color space to Adobe RGB — NOT SRGB.
  5. Set your exposure mode to bulb “B” exposure mode.
  6. Set the white balance manually to 3200.
  7. Set the LCD brightness to the lowest setting.
  8. Once again, make sure that nothing else will “influence” exposure such as exposure compensation.
  9. Lock this into custom function C2.

Now, your camera is simple to operate; Test exposures with C3, shoot with C2.

Using The Intervalometer

I use an inexpensive Satachi which is available on Amazon for about $50. This is a critical piece of equipment, make sure you get one with an illuminated faceplate and (important) an on/off switch. The Satachi has the  same functionally as the ones made by Nikon and Canon except 1/3 the price. Reports are that Canon’s version is not as good as the Satachi but I haven’t tried it myself to judge.

There are four functions on the interval time and I will briefly describe them here, but experimentation is going to teach you a lot more than reading about it.

The lock button turns on the backlight for a few seconds, holding it will lock the controls. There are four functions you access by pressing the right arrow key. They are printed on the display:

  • DE- delay/self timer
  • BU – bulb/ long exposure
  • INT – interval timer
  • N – exposure count

Before you connect the remote to your camera, make sure both are turned off. Then plug it in to the remote release socket on the side of your camera. Now you can turn them both on.  While there’s a lot that can be said for using an intervalometer, I will simply show you how to set it up for exposing a series of 10 minute exposures, starting the second you click the start/stop button, lasting 60 minutes.

  1. Set the DE control to 0
  2. Set the BU control to 10 minutes (your exposure setting)
  3. Set the INT to 1 second
  4. Set the N to 6 for the number of exposures you want.

That’s all there is to it, your timer is all set up. Warning, if you turn off the timer, you will have to reset all the settings in the dark so be careful.

Going Out in the Dark

The conditions I look for are a clear night and stars visible. There’s a period between when the sun goes down and the moon comes up. I avoid that period even though it seems “dark” it’s not. Do a test exposure and see for yourself. Also, the exposure will vary widely during this time of night.

Now, here’s the key to how the whole exposure test system works:

Each second at ISO 6400 equals one minute at ISO 100.

SO each test of 10 seconds means you will expose for 10 minutes at ISO 100.

Testing Your Exposure Setting

Lets take a look: This is my first test exposure at the playground. I don’t care much about what is in the frame, I am looking only for proper exposure, depth of field and highlight/shadow detail. I use this to see where I need to add light with my flash lights.

Test exposure at ISO 6400

Notice how the composition stinks, or that there are shadows in the frame I didn’t intend.  But notice the exposure, it’s darn close, don’t you think? I did a series of these and found the perfect composition, determined where I would shine flashlights to increase illumination in shadow areas, where to add light using a colored gel and potentially if this would be a star circle candidate. It wasn’t for two reasons; the clouds “break up” the star circles and I had 3 people waiting for me to complete this so I wasn’t going to hang out for a few hours making interval exposures.

Here’s how I test my light painting: I set the camera to C2, and my timer to 10 minutes then I open the shutter and walk into the frame and I count “one one thousand, two one thousand, etc.” while sweeping the flashlight where I want it. I do one or two steps at a time. I close the shutter even though I know the whole 10 minutes is not up. All I am testing here is the light painting. Did it cover to heavily? Do I need to add more? Did I miss an important shadow area I wanted to fill? Can I vary the light from front to side lighting to make the image more interesting?

Then I try it again and again and again, until I am satisfied.  As you can see, this can be a time consuming process. I recommend you keep children, spouse and girlfriends/boyfriends at home, you don’t want to be worrying about the time or how long it’s taking if you want great images. However, two people working on the same image makes for a great night out. I promise you that your pictures will be very different even though you might have been set up inches away from your buddy.

The next frame shows skipping ahead to the final image. Notice how it’s darker. Notice how the composition changed. Also notice how the shadow areas are carefully lit, the insides of the little roofs are too, how I highlighted the outside with a red gel to give it some strangeness and color. I also purposely left the shadow of my tripod/camera in the frame. I could erase it in 10 seconds but maybe it belongs there. I am not yet sure. Also realize that I could have done much more if I had the time or the inclination to piss off the rest of my friends.

Final image adjusted for exposure, composed and lit.

Notice how the clouds were well defined in the 1st exposure but fluffy and soft in the second. If you like this then go out on cloudy nights and you will get a puffy, wistful blanket overhang in your pix. Sometimes it’s the perfect effect. Also notice the little building on the right. It’s was the brightest point in the frame until some editing toned it down.


This next part is about histograms. I “knew” about histograms before but they become REALLY important in night photography. By exposing for the center or even the right side of the histogram, never touching the sides, will provide you with a perfect digital negative to work with. I will spare you the discussion of how there’s far more noise in shadows than highlights but suffice it to say that you need to check your histogram as part of your exposure evaluation process to make sure the RGB values are in the middle or “right biased.”

Even if the image looks wrong on the back of the camera, it’s easily adjusted and you didn’t sacrifice shadow detail while preserving all the highlight detail too. This alone should put an end to the discussion about shooting RAW vs. Jpg. None of what I just discussed is even possible with jpgs.

If you find that your exposure times are getting longer than you like, and you are not concerned with star trails, you can increase the ISO but be sure to use full stop increments. Image quality is said to be better at native ISO multiples and the math is easier to do in your head. Same goes with aperture values, but be careful not to exceed F8 if you want sharp star trails. More than F8 and you are not letting in enough light from the star to register.

Some Enlightening Information on Flashlights

Next; think about are the accessories you might want to consider bringing with you as you head out for a night in the dark. Your choice of flashlights is critical and there are some specific criteria I use to select the best ones:

  • Light weight
  • Bright, sharply focused beam
  • Choice of lighting temperatures (incandescent or daylight)
  • Long life, inexpensive batteries (preferably rechargeable)
  • Waterproof (very important)
  • Plastic, not metal
  • Momentary touch trigger for precise timing
  • Belt clip or belt sheath
  • Low priced

My favorite all-around flashlight is the SureFire G2 Nitrolon Tactical Incandescent Flashlight which is the closest any flashlight has ever come to being perfect. You should also get the daylight version which is the Surefire G2-LED Nitrolon Tactical Flashlight. It’s pretty powerful at 80 lumens, runs 2 hours on just two inexpensive CR123 batteries and throws a clean, powerful beam. The reason I particularly like these models is because they are designed to go on the barrels of high powered weapons. There isn’t a lot of room for failure in that application, so you get a solid, light powerful flashlight in a tiny package.

They are both super bright, small and use inexpensive CR123 batteries which sell for about a buck a piece.  The downside is that you can’t focus the beam. When light painting it’s good to create a “snout” with cardboard that you can slip over the front to adjust the beam.  The Gerber Recon is a good small low-powered light that allows you to change the colors with a selector wheel, so you won’t lose your night vision making adjustments.

Others carry Mag Lights which are much, much heavier but do have a powerful, focused beam. They use “D” cells and those too are expensive and don’t last as long. Rechargeable batteries are a good strategy if you are using them often enough.

Colored gels are good to carry in your bag of tricks along with double sided tape to keep the gel on the front of your flash light. You can get the Rosco Lux color gel sampler for about $4.00.

Thanks again Scott Martin and Lance Keimig for the immersion into your dark, bleary-eyed world.

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