Resources for Low Light Photography – by Robin S. Kent

Presentation by Robin S. Kent, Silver Spring Camera Club, November 3, 2017

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Resources for Low Light Photography


Reference Information

Astrophotography,  by Thierry Legault, 2014.  One of the leading practitioners of astrophotography, this book contains a wealth of information for beginners to advanced astrophotographers.  He also has a website:

Night Photography and Light Painting: Finding Your Way in the Dark, by Lance Keimig,  2nd Edition, 2016.  A former student of Steve Harper who, probably more than anyone else, was responsible for initiating the American night photography movement as a teacher in San Francisco. Back in 1979, the Academy of Art listed a night class simply called Night Light. It was taught by San Francisco photographer Steve Harper once a week at 7 p.m. and would end at 10 p.m. — though sometimes it would go all night. Harper would teach students to use a tripod and leave the shutter open long enough to make night light as sharp as daylight.

Harper’s class, said to be the first in night photography at any college in the country, soon made the Bay Area a destination for shooters of darkness, who eventually formed a loose collective called the Nocturnes.  See their website at

National Parks at Night:  Lance Keimig and Chris Nicholson. A blog about photographing at night in various US National Parks.  Tips, techniques, and workshops about night photography.

Washington by Night, Vintage Photographs from the 1930s by Volkmar Wentzel, Introduction by James Goode, 1992.   The classic example of photographing Washington, DC at night. 

Washington Sculpture, by James Goode. The best source of information on monuments, memorials, and statues in and near Washington, DC.

High Speed Sync Flash using Pocket Wizard System (  For those occasions when you need additional light with high shutter speeds, beyond the normal flash sync speed of 1/250th sec.


Where the Full Moon will be rising over the next year

  • November 4, 2017,  rises at azimuth 72.5 degrees, 49 minutes after sunset (Lincoln Memorial opportunity on Friday night, November 3rd; moonrise at 6:12, location on Virginia shoreline about 745 feet north of Memorial Bridge; parking at Theodore Roosevelt Island parking lot, easy walk to south down Mount Vernon Trail)
  • December 3, 2017 rises at azimuth 66.4 degrees, 30 minutes after sunset
  • January 1, 2018 rises at azimuth 64.0 degrees, 5 minutes before sunset
  • January 31, 2018 rises at azimuth 69.6 degrees, 23 minutes after sunset
  • March 1, 2018 rises at azimuth 77.4 degrees, 13 minutes before sunset
  • March 31, 2018 rises at azimuth 93.3 degrees, 19 minutes after sunset (Washington Monument on previous night)
  • April 29, 2018 rises at azimuth 102.6 degrees, 17 minutes before sunset
  • May 29, 2018 rises at azimuth 113.9 degrees, 2 minutes after sunset (Jefferson Memorial)
  • June 28, 2018, rises at azimuth 117.0 degrees, 24 minutes after sunset
  • July 27, 2018, rises at azimuth 114.3  degrees, 2 minutes after sunset (Jefferson Memorial)
  • August 26, 2018, rises at azimuth 103.9  degrees, 23 minutes after sunset (Dulles Terminal)
  • September 24, 2018, rises at azimuth 95 degrees, 11 minutes after sunset  (Washington Monument)
  • October 24, 2018, rises at azimuth 79.4 degrees, 28 minutes after sunset (Lincoln Memorial)
  • November 23, 2018, rises at azimuth 66.3 degrees, 46 minutes after sunset


Milky Way Guidelines

If you are photographing the stars, you want to see lots of them.  If you have never done this before, it is a good idea to sign up with a workshop that specializes in this subject at a location that not only has dark skies but an interesting foreground or iconic location.  Plus guidance on the post-processing.  I have taken several workshops on this subject with Michael Frye and can recommend him highly.

Here is a list of general guidelines for shooting the Milky Way:

  • Best time: May through September when the “core” is visible (This is the more dramatic section of the Milky Way and will be seen when pointing the camera toward the section of the Milky Way on the southern horizon rather than the opposite side.)
  • Find a dark location, best locator is at Dark Sky Locator, website for the International Dark-Sky Association; identifies specific locations across the world where the skies are devoid (or nearly so) of light pollution:
  • Pick a night when the moon is not in view or is a narrow crescent
  • Lens: Wide Angle: 24mm or wider
  • Tripod is a must
  • Focusing: Manual Focusing, using Live View (Just setting the lens to infinity manually or racking the lens out to its maximum focus will not work as well as a precise focus).  Here is a link that describes this in detail:
    • But in brief, point the camera toward the brightest star (or the moon if it is visible), turn on live view and locate the object, setting the focus point near or on the selected star.  Crank up the magnification gradually to ensure you don’t lose track of the target, keeping the focus point on the target until you are at maximum magnification. Then, using live view, adjust the focus manually until the point of light is as sharp as possible.  Then use a piece of masking tape to keep the focus at this setting and, if using a zoom lens, to keep the zoom setting from changing which would require a re-focus . (Practice all this before your first real shoot)
  • ISO: 3200 to 6400
  • Exposure: Start with 15 seconds @ f/2.8  (There are a lot of different calculation methods to choose the correct time to avoid star motion, but it is probably faster to start with this setting and adjust as needed.)


Star Trails Guidelines

Locations that work for the Milky Way also work for star trails, essentially long time exposures that track the movement of the stars across the sky.  In the days of film, the usual procedure was to set up a camera on a tripod, open the shutter and wait for two hours or so, then close the shutter, go home and process the film.  You can do that with a DSLR, but such a long exposure will produce significant noise.

The preferred procedure today is to take a series of 4-minute exposures and then load them as a stack of layers in Photoshop.  The command sequences is File->Scripts->Load  files into Stack.  A dialog box opens and you can choose the option of “add open files”  or “Browse.”

  • Lens: Wide Angle: 24mm or wider
  • Focusing: Manual Focusing, using Live View
  • ISO: 400, higher if needed
  • Intervalometer to control sequence
  • Exposure: Series of 4-minute exposures (I use f/5.6 at 400 ISO)
  • Noise Reduction turned off
  • Duration 2 hours or longer


Exposure Guide for Lunar Eclipse (Source: Michael Frye)

  • Full moon, or moon more than half visible:              1/60 sec. at f/11, 200 ISO
  • Half to one-quarter of the moon visible:                   1/30 sec. at f/11, 200 ISO
  • Less than one-quarter of the moon visible:              1/15 sec. at f/11, 200 ISO
  • Just the edge of the moon lit:                                      1 sec.       at f/11, 200 ISO
  • Fully eclipsed at the beginning and end of totality: 8 sec.       at f/11, 800 ISO
  • Fully eclipsed, deepest totality:                                   8 sec.       at f/11, 1600 ISO

Another way to photograph a lunar eclipse is to capture a sequence of images as the event takes place and then incorporate them into a single composite image.  It is quite similar to the technique of star trails except that the required exposure changes radically during the event as we see from this chart.  (11-Stops)  So you can’t just set the intervalometer and let it alone for the one or two hours.


More on the Milky Way and How to Focus at Night by Michael Frye

Capturing pinpoint stars requires relatively short exposures, otherwise the stars become streaks instead of points. You can get away with exposure times as long as 30 seconds with wide-angle lenses; while a close look will reveal that the stars are short streaks, rather than pinpoints, the overall impression will be that of a sky full of stars. With normal or telephoto lenses the exposure times have to me much shorter—15 seconds or less. Also, the closer the stars are to the North Star, the slower they move, and the longer the exposures you can make before the stars start to streak. A rule of thumb that works in most cases is to divide 500 by the focal length. So if your focal length is 20mm, 500 ÷ 20 = 25 seconds.

To gather enough light to show faint stars and the Milky Way during such short exposures, you need both a wide aperture and a high ISO. The wider the aperture and the higher the ISO, the more stars will appear in your photograph. But, as I said earlier, you might not want to use the widest aperture on your lens, because all lenses are sharper when stopped down a bit. Or if you have something in the foreground you may need to stop down slightly to get sufficient depth of field.  Of course pushing up the ISO will create more noise, but I’d rather have a sharp photograph with some noise than a noise-free image that’s not sharp. To start with, try 15 to 30 seconds at f/2.8, with the ISO at 6400. If that doesn’t show enough stars, try a wider aperture or higher ISO.


Workflow Considerations

  1. Learn to use the camera info screen controls and buttons in the dark before going out to shoot, you won’t be able to see them at night. 
  2. Pack your gear in a consistent configuration in your bag, return each item to designated place after using it.  (saves time fumbling around and/or losing items in the dark)
  3. Have a small flashlight on a lanyard looped over your neck so hands are free.
  4. When you need a flashlight in truly dark situations use a dim red flashlight to reduce the time your eyes need to readjust to the darkness.


Night Photography Apps

  • Essential if you don’t already have it: “The Photographer’s Ephemeris” (TPE) (larger screen on the tablet/iPad version is preferable if you don’t mind the portability issue)
  • Valuable for visualizing the path of celestial objects across the sky in advance: “Photo Pils” (more functions on the phone version)
  • For checking out the real-time movement of stars and more: “Star Walk” (iOS)
  • For determining hyperfocal distance or Depth of Field:
    •  “DOF Master”
    •  “Tack Sharp”
  • For photography in Yosemite National Park (not really for night photography but if you are there at night, you will also be there in the day):   “Michael Frye’s Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite National Park” (worth every penny)


Websites of interest

Dark Sky Locator, website for the International Dark-Sky Association; identifies specific locations across the world where the skies are devoid (or nearly so) of light pollution:

Time and enables you to find dates and times of the next lunar or solar eclipse anywhere.

For the January 20-21, 2019 lunar eclipse:

Michael Frye, Starry Night workshops, Bodie Ghost Town, Yosemite, and other locations:

Removing people from a scene:


More on Air Glow:

How to See Airglow, the Green Sheen of Night


Photoshop Techniques

Removing People from your image with Image Stacking Mode or Scripts/Statistics technique:

Reducing Noise:  This video lasts 11:41, and the first 3 minutes is stuff you already know, but be patient:

How to Reduce Noise in Photoshop


What others are doing:

An exhaustive (and exhausting) compendium of information of the history of light painting, tutorials, supply sources, and more:

Vincent Lafloret, what can be done when given a blank check: a video as well:

Michael Frye’s  interpretation of the August 21, 2017 solar eclipse:

Michael Frye’s interpretation of the September 27, 2015 lunar eclipse:

Vicki Dasilva, Light Painting as a means for Political Activism: 

Lance Keimig, night photography workshops:

Troy Paiva, specializes in abandoned sites of American West:

Ian Hobson, light painting:


And if you want to explore the fringes of the low light photography genre:

DC Urban Explorer Group:

Sparkle Poi, an example:

Sparkle Poi, how to do it: