Photographing Natural Phenomena at Night

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The natural world offers hundreds of possibilities for the eager photographer. From volcanoes to waterfalls, the motions of the earth can be easily captured with a bit of time and the willingness to explore. And the sky often offers the best photography opportunities. From eclipses to the stars, there’s always something to see. But some nature photography tips take a little more work than others to capture properly.

The Milky Way

Most urban dwellers have no idea of the majesty of a night sky free of light pollution. Without the light scattered by cities and pollution, the blazing band of bright stars of our home galaxy, the Milky Way, would be visible around the world at night. Instead, most people have to travel to remote areas where city lights don’t reach. In smaller countries, that might even mean an international trip. The website DarkSkyFinder has a map showing where the best patches of night sky around the world are.

You should also try shooting at least an hour after the moon has set or on a moonless night. The moon is so bright its light will interfere with your efforts to photograph the Milky Way, so plan accordingly. Also geography is an important factor. In the Northern Hemisphere, the central bulge of the galaxy may not be entirely visible. February through September are the best viewing times. But the bright centre of the Milky Way can be seen for most of the year from the Southern Hemisphere.

Because the Milky Way covers a large area of the sky, a wide angle lens is required. Anything below 50mm on a crop sensor is a wide angle lens. But getting to 20mm or below is much better for showing the entire sky and creating a sense of vastness.

Because the rotation of the earth will create star trails and blur the image, we want a relatively high ISO for the Milky Way. Go for 1600 to 3200, and adjust as needed. Ideally, you also have a lens with a wide open aperture. If you can get below f/3.0, you’ll be able to allow plenty of light to stream in, which allows us to stay away from the extremes of your sensor’s ISO values. When you start getting to the extreme ends of light sensitivity, you’ll start to see noise creep into your images. You’ll also need to shoot with a long shutter speed, which means you should be using a tripod for the shoot.

Many of the points covered in our astrophotography post also apply to photographing the Milky Way. The exact aperture, shutter speed, and ISO will depend on the local light levels and the seasons. So bring a jacket and make time to experiment with your settings until the Milky Way reveals itself in its full glory.

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Lightning

Lightning photos may seem to be mostly luck but there are a few trick to capturing these stunning bolts of energy. Once again, slow shutter speeds are your friend. And a slow shutter speed means you want a tripod and remote shutter to keep your camera stable and your photos blur-free. With a shutter speed of 15-30 seconds, you’ll have a good chance of capturing lightning as it flashes for an instant. If the storm is particularly active, you may only need 5-10 seconds.

However, you’ll need to reduce your ISO as low as you can, to 100-200. Reducing your aperture to f/11 or greater is also necessary to reduce the amount of incoming light. Remember slow shutter speeds mean more light is entering the camera. And while we want to capture the bright bolt of lightning, the clouds and the rest of the scene will be overexposed if we don’t somehow reduce the total amount of light.

Reducing your aperture also increases the depth of field, so the entire scene of clouds and landscape will be in sharp focus. If you need longer shutter speeds, Neutral Density filters can reduce the amount of light further to keep your overall exposure correct.

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Aurora Borealis/Australis

The Aurora Borealis (or Aurora Australis, for folks in the Southern Hemisphere) is another type of astrophotography that is one of the easiest. The only real difficulty is ensuring you are in the right location. The auroras are caused by charged particles from the sun interacting with planetary magnetic fields, including the Earth’s. The size and intensity of the display depends on the orientation of the planet and the cycles of the sun. These cycles happen on 11-year periods and the height is known as the Solar Maximum. Near the geomagnetic pole of the earth (not True North or South), the solar winds cause a display of pulsing light called auroras. But auroras are not found only at the North and South pole. They can be seen across Northern Europe, Asia, and North America, sometimes even into the northernmost of the lower 48 States, depending on the solar maximum. The AuroraZone is a great resource to predict the best place to view the Aurora Borealis. The Aurora Australis is much harder to witness, as there is little land in the Southern Hemisphere that far south besides Antarctica. Australia, New Zealand, and the tips of Chile and Argentina all have chances to view the Aurora Australis. Read our post Top 5 Places to See the Northern Lights this Year for more information.

Being astrophotography, capturing pictures of auroras means you’ll need a tripod and remote shutter to avoid shaking the camera. It also means long exposure times but not as long as photographing the Milky Way. It can be harder near the Arctic Circle however, because during the summer the sun never truly sets. The aurora can easily be overwhelmed by the sun’s light. Timing is just as crucial as location for aurora photography. Lastly, remember to set your camera to Manual Focus. The autofocus system of digital cameras won’t be able to lock into an aurora and will treat it as a static background. So look into your viewfinder and focus manually to ensure you capture it in proper focus.

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Natural phenomena like the Milky Way, lightning, and the aurora are some of the best light shows Mother Nature has to offer. You may have to travel and prepare for poor weather to capture photos like these. But with the knowledge presented here, you’ll have a great chance of capturing some amazing photography. And even if you get wet or catch a cold, you’ll certainly appreciate the natural world just a little more!

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