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Night Lights: Tips for Spectacular Night Photography

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night sky
The St. Deroin cemetery at Indian Cave State Park. Nikon D750, Samyang 14mm f/2.8. Exposure: f/2.8, ISO 3200, 30 seconds.

Written by Renae Blum | Photo by Zach Hanson


Time slows down when you’re shooting photos at night.

A single shot can take half a minute to produce, so there’s plenty of time to think, to plan the next image, to look up at the stars and appreciate the serenity of the moment.

“It’s my sanctuary,” says Zach Hanson of Omaha. The 39-year-old funeral director and father of two fell in love with night photography several years ago during a camping trip, and now uses his hobby as a way to de-stress from the pressures of the day. “This is my therapy,” Hanson says. “When I go out at night, I find peace in it.”

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platte river state park
Platte River State Park. Nikon D750, Samyang 14mm f/2.8. Exposure: f/2.8, ISO 6400, 30 seconds.

Hanson is self-taught, and takes pride in his hands-on methods.

For example, to darken particularly harsh light in the foreground, Hanson will continuously move his hand or another object in front of the light while the camera exposes the image, a technique he picked up from a video about dark room techniques. It might be quicker to use a filter, combine separate images or perform these actions afterward in Photoshop, but Hanson prefers his “old-fashioned” style.

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Photography is more than a hobby.

To his surprise, Hanson regularly receives calls at work from people who have been inspired by his photos. “Last week, somebody from a different state tracked me down to say that she had lost her passion for photography, and she saw a picture of mine and it rejuvenated her,” Hanson says. 

“Having people seek me out because of my pictures was never something I set out to do. I started doing this just for my own therapy, and it just turned into something a little more than I ever thought it would be.” ■ 

sunset

Zach’s Night Photo Tips

Learn how to take photos at night like a pro with these tips from Zach

Equipment essentials

You don’t need expensive equipment to make pictures you’re proud of.

  • Tripod
  • A remote shutter release
  • Wide-angle lens that’s fast, with a large aperture

For night photos on a budget try a basic DLSR, kit lens & tripod. One of my first shots at night that I really loved was taken with a basic DSLR, a kit lens, and a tripod from Costco – so a $400 camera and a $49 tripod. And it’s still one of my favorite nighttime shots.

For astrophotography try a Samyang 14mm 2.8 lens. One of the cheapest you can buy but it’s amazing at night.

For lights use whatever’s on hand: I’ve used Tiki torches, lanterns, flashlights, headlamps – be creative.

Camera settings

Set your camera on manual for full control of aperture and shutter speed. Choose your ISO based on the amount of light available.

In western Nebraska, you won’t have to bump up your ISO because of how much light is available from the stars.

Closer to Omaha or Lincoln, you have to shoot a little higher to make those stars pop, and I’ll often turn down highlights in post to get rid of some of that city light. It can be hard to see stars in a city photo if you don’t do that.

On my full frame camera (Nikon D750) I’m comfortable shooting up to an ISO of 6400 On my old crop sensor camera (Nikon D3200) an ISO of 1600 is my limit.

Shooting stars

Timing is everything; my shots usually are between 25 – 30 seconds.

Stars streak after about 30 seconds, the camera will pick up the movement of the stars and produce star trails. Stars may start to streak after 20 or 25 seconds on a crop sensor camera. For sharp-looking stars, focus your camera on the stars to get them as clear as possible.

Planning your shoot

Be safe, smart, and plan out the shoot ahead of time.

  • Use the PlanIt! and PhotoPills appsThe apps include a dark sky map, a sun/moon finder, visualizations of the Milky Way, and times of sunrise/set and moonrise/set, among other features.
  • Choose a location with something in it – a tree, a barn, a waterfall, etc. – that will draw the eye. You don’t necessarily need to light this area of the picture; sometimes silhouettes are just as interesting.
  • Keep safety in mind, I like to shoot at state parks and recreation areas and go with others when possible.
camping
Nikon D750, Samyang 14mm f/2.8. Exposure: f/3.2, ISO 4000, 25 seconds.
tower
Nikon D750, Samyang 14mm f/2.8. Exposure: f/3.5, ISO 2000, 25 secs.

Taking Pictures at Parks

If you’re going to shoot nighttime photography at a state park or recreation area, please remember the following:

  • Before heading out, you need to contact the park superintendent in advance to let them know you are coming, and to discuss any special considerations (restricted areas, ongoing construction, events or activities, known hazards, etc.).
  • You need a park permit if you are driving a vehicle into a state park area.
  • Do not enter or take photographs in campground areas.
  • Remain on trails or other publicly accessible areas.
  • Prepare for cooler temperatures and use caution when walking in low visibility.
  • Use a minimalist approach to avoid disturbing wildlife.
  • Practice Leave No Trace principles.
  • Story by Renae Blum

    Renae works for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and has written for NEBRASKAland Magazine and the Lincoln Journal Star.

    Photos and Tips by Zach Hanson

    Zach Hanson is a self-taught photographer, see more of his work on his Facebook photography page.

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