The night has fallen. I am alone, on top of a mountain, at an altitude of 3,000 meters (~9,800 feet). Fog is floating along through the valleys below, illuminated by the pale light of the moon. For a moment I feel like I’ve landed on a distant planet, lost in space. It’s a privilege to be here, a refreshment of the soul.
The above is a common scenario for night time photo sessions of mine.
I’ve practiced night photography for years now, and I can say it’s the most instinctive and natural way I know to connect one of my deepest passions ever, the science of the cosmos, with my ordinary life.
During those priceless moments on the Alps, the act of taking a good photo is like building a bridge between the ancient questions that will never be answered by our limited senses and the tangible reality of this world.
And, hey, I can do this with the means I have at my disposal: technology, passion, and health!
Many of the photographs I’ve taken would have been extremely difficult or impossible just 15 years ago, but thanks to the advancement of cameras and their performance at high ISO, night sky photography is now within the reach of any dedicated photographer.
Like music, photography is all about rules, skill, style, and personal perspective. There is, however, an objective aspect (which turns out evident in the extreme night applications) that I will now analyze: human beings and cameras adopt totally different modes of observation, both showing just one possible reading of reality.
There is no “right” or “wrong” (who really knows how true reality is?), only different approaches leading to different results.
During daylight, our eyes offer superior performance to any camera available on the market, but when darkness falls, the situation is reversed. Electronic equipment can be far beyond our powers of observation due to its ability to capture light for long periods of time.
Even when our eyes communicate with our brain that there is no more light, there is light to be captured when we only see darkness.
So the point is: we must learn to think like a camera and adapt our purposes to its specific way of seeing.
To be precise, the question is not: “What do my eyes suggest that I photograph?” but instead: “What would work best through the eye of my camera?”
It has become fashionable these days to post-process and “overcook” night photos well beyond what the camera originally captured. Personally, I aim for a middle ground between what my eyes saw at the time and what my camera was able to capture in the RAW file.
Here are some tips and words of advice from my 11 years of shooting night photography in the Alps:
- Use a full-frame camera if possible for better high ISO performance compared to APS-C cameras
- Use as fast a lens as possible
- Find a quality tripod that solid and lightweight. I recommend carbon fiber ones.
- Knowing how to choose the right location is as crucial as knowing how to photograph
- Study your locations during the day so you have a better idea of what the area is like at night
- Find detailed information on the starry sky and moon using websites and apps. I use Stellarium.
- Some clouds can be great for photos, especially in long exposures
- Photograph the stars and the Milky Way on a moonless night as far away from civilization as possible
- Exposure time shouldn’t exceed 30 seconds for a 17mm lens to capture stars as dots instead of lines
- Use an extremely long exposure time to capture stars as trails instead of points
- The moon reflects a considerable amount of light, enough to kill most stars in your shots
- Light pollution can be combined with moonlight for beautiful photos
- Use the mirror lock-up function on a DSLR to avoid vibration-inducted motion blur
- Never touch your shutter button — always use a remote shutter release. Wireless is best.
- Your histogram is more reliable than your LCD for reviewing photos, since screens can make photos look much brighter than they are.
- Composition is key. Tell a story with your landscape photos.
- Good nighttime star photos should still be good photos even if the stars are removed
Shooting at night in the Alps means dealing with an infinite number of factors and often things you can’t prepare for — I haven’t even begun to discuss survival in the great outdoors. There’s a reason I haven’t though: high mountains cannot be adequately explained in a tutorial. You’ll only gain proper experience through progressive experience.
So tread carefully in this field. At stake is not only your life but the lives of those who might come to your rescue if anything happens.
The Alps at night are among the last outposts still offering the same dark sky as admired by our ancestors. Documenting this allows those who have never lived such priceless moments to contemplate one of the most secretive faces of our planet.
About the author: Roberto Bertero is a mountain photographer and a professional musician based in Turin, Italy. He has been shooting mountains since 2007. His work has been widely published around the world. You can find more of his photos on his website, Facebook, and Flickr. This article was also published here.