Night photography can be technically daunting. Even with modern cameras, it's not easy to capture high-quality night photos. While photographing the stars already requires high ISOs combined with wide apertures, capturing details in the landscape is even more difficult in the dark. In this article, I walk you through my night photography workflow, which combines image averaging with time blending and focus stacking to achieve high-quality results.
I've always been fascinated by the night photos of other landscape photographers, yet I waited many years before I got into astrophotography myself. I dabbled in it over the years but was never satisfied with the results. When I visited the Erg Chigaga in Morocco in 2019, I decided to give it a more serious effort.Canon EF 16-35 f/4 lens to capture it. It isn't a great night photography pair. But with special techniques, I was able to circumvent its technical limitations.
For a long time, I thought the only way to get noise-free photos of the night sky was to use a star tracker. Although those devices have gotten smaller and lighter over the years, I could never justify bringing one onto my photography travels for the few night photos I take.
Here's the good thing: it's possible to achieve results that rival the image quality of the photos captured using such a device with a technique called image averaging. Instead of having a star tracker follow the movement of the stars to keep them from trailing during a long exposure at low ISO, you can take multiple medium exposures at high ISO and use software to align and blend the images based on the stars later. The resulting image will have a blurry foreground, but the stars will be sharp without much noise in the sky.
You can get such a result by applying the following settings:
Calculate the maximum exposure time you can use to get stars without trailing with the so-called NPF formula. If you want to print your night photos, forget the often-mentioned 500 rule. You'll not be happy with the results unless you view your images from a distance. You can use PhotoPills to find the correct exposure times for different focal lengths. For example, abiding by the NPF rule gives me a maximum exposure time of 7.3 seconds at 15mm.
Such relatively short exposure times compared to the 500 rule require as wide of an aperture as possible to let enough light onto the sensor. My RF lens is limited to f/2.8, which is good but not ideal. If you want to get serious about night photography, consider purchasing a fixed lens with a wider aperture. But as you can see in the desert photo above, even with f/4, you can get great results if you use image averaging.
If you use a f/2.8 lens as I do and your calculated exposure times are in the realm of 10 seconds or less, you'll have to use ISOs between 3,200 and 6,400 to capture good detail in the night sky.
Even modern cameras will give you a noisy image at such ISOs. To solve this problem, take between 20 and 40 photos with the same settings. Use a cable release and the burst mode of your camera for this. With the cable release, you can lock in the shutter button, and the camera will take photos until you release it.
For this to work, you have to deactivate long exposure noise reduction. It would create too large of a gap between the individual exposures. To still get its benefits, end the sequence by capturing a dark frame with the lens cap attached. You can apply this dark frame to all images to remove hot pixels, as I show in the video below.
Now, you might be wondering what to do with all those photos? On Windows, the free software Sequator can handle the image averaging and even consider the dark frame. For the Mac, I couldn't find a free software solution, but based on the reviews, a good option seems to be Starry Landscape Stacker. I haven't tested it myself, so if you know a better alternative, feel free to share it in the comments.
To give you an idea of what such software can do, I now show you a 100% crop of the photo above. You can see what averaging 40 images taken at ISO 6,400 looks like.
Although it would be much more realistic to keep the foreground black in a night photo, I like to show at least subtle details. To achieve this, I could use image averaging again, this time for the foreground. An alternative is exposures of many minutes, taken at medium ISOs. In the example above, I had a rising moon in the east, which lit up the foreground. But often, I capture my night photos when there's no moon in the sky to get even more stars to show in the final image. Then, even taking exposures of 10 minutes or more will not give me the detail I want.
That's why I recommend the following workflow whenever the constellations allow it:
Capture the star photos during astronomical twilight in the morning or in the evening. It's dark enough for many stars to be visible.
Take the foreground photos during blue hour.
Between the two sets, keep the camera in place. I use this time either for a quick nap or to listen to a podcast.
Combine the blue hour photos with those of the night sky in Photoshop. Depending on the scene, it can be challenging, but with some practice, it's possible to constantly achieve great results.
Here's one tip for the processing: don't go overboard with the blend. It's good practice to darken the foreground photos significantly before the blending to create an image that still feels like night. Similar restraint should be applied while working on the star images to allow for a natural blend.
Most of the time, focus stacking is also part of my night photography workflow. When you capture the foreground photos during blue hour, it's easy to take multiple images focused on different points between near foreground and infinity. The exposure times usually don't exceed 30 seconds, and capturing all the required photos takes a fraction of the time of a single photo taken at night.
Planning and Scouting
The above workflow deals with the technicalities of the shoot. But planning and scouting are also involved. In the feature video, I show how I use the apps Planit Pro and PhotoPills for it.