Having looked at a variety of equipment options in previous night photography articles its time to suggest some recommended setups.
Before I do, I'll qualify these recommendations by mentioning that as technological innovation marches on the equipment I recommend today may well become dated in the near future.
Canon and Nikon are traditional owners of the lion's share of the film and digital camera markets and have options available to photographers the other systems simply can't match. However, new players are emerging and making life difficult for the "Big Two".
Sony are offering some increasingly attractive models lately. The incredible low-light abilities of the Sony A7s is of particular interest to night photographers.
Samsung have also just entered into the market with their first serious attempt at a pro level APS-C camera: the NX-1. The 28 Megapixel CMOS sensor design in the NX-1 is more technologically advanced than any of Nikon, Sony, or Canon offerings and image quality and low light performance is comparable to full a frame sensor. This camera also uses a powerful CPU and imaging chip that offers more computing power than any other camera ever made. Much of the functionality of the camera can be enhanced or have features added through firmware updates. Samsung have been updating this software rapidly and adding many interesting new features.
Given that there are a variety of good options out there today, and undoubtedly many more coming tomorrow, what criteria should you be looking for in a camera body for night photography?
A bigger sensor: As the sensor gets smaller image quality usually declines. Pixel density can also greatly influence image quality.
RAW capture: A camera with RAW capture capabilities is important. Shooting JPEG-only just won't cut it. Light sources in night photography are mixed and variable, so being able to post-process colour after image capture is a very important feature.
Manual control: You also need to be able to take full manual control of your camera and all of its exposure settings.
Lenses are the one component of your system that require some long term planning if you wish to future-proof your purchases. You need to know exactly what type of subjects you will photograph before you can make an informed decision about purchasing glass.
Before you buy a lens do some research and make sure it is compatible with the body you wish to use it on. For example, if you choose a full-frame (135mm) camera body you will also need a lens that produces an image large enough to cover the full frame sensor. You might like to read my two lens articles here on Tuts+ before you jump into lenses. In them, I cover the features I personally find useful in a lens, the merits of zooms versus fixed focal length lenses, and manual versus autofocus lenses.
Most situations can be covered with a full-frame equivalent focal range of about 20mm on the wide end to 200mm on the telephoto. It's up to you to decide what the best selection of lenses is to cover this range.
Modern autofocus lenses will deliver excellent image quality and are generally a more versatile option. Autofocus lenses will cover you for the majority of photography situations you might encounter. They aren't always the best money spent, though, when it comes to night photography.
Being able to focus in low light is something I personally find very useful in a night photography lens. This is why I have a set of Nikkor primes in my kit. I find them to be excellent in terms of value and performance. They have well matched colour balance and sharpness and contrast is consistent across the set. Many of these lenses are still available new, despite their manufacturing being more-or-less unchanged for years.
Manually focusing with modern autofocus lenses is difficult. Focus throw is generally much shorter with autofocus lenses and the manual focus mechanism on autofocus lenses is usually inferior. Many of the latest digital cameras do, however, have a live image preview on the display to assist with manual focus. Normally you can zoom into this view far enough to carry out very precise focusing if there is enough available light.
In some night photography situations getting critical focus is very hard due to a lack of available light. A good example of this problem arises when photographing lightning in areas where there is very little ambient light.
The lightning photo above illustrates perfectly the inadequacy of autofocus lenses in certain night photography situations. There was no ambient light source other than the intermittent flashes of lightning going off to allow me to set focus in this shot.
I have previously been in a situation where another photographer who was shooting the same subject alongside me using autofocus lenses. In situations like this having a calibrated hard infinity stop will allow you to set critical focus easily without having to confirm focus in the viewfinder. Autofocus lenses do not have a calibrated hard infinity stop and it can be nearly impossible to achieve focus in these situations. Bottom line: I got sharp photographs using a Nikon manual focus prime and the other guy using autofocus lenses didn't!
By complementing a set of autofocus lenses with the addition of a manual focus 50mm, 85mm or 135mm prime lens with a hard infinity stop you effectively plug this gap in your night photography equipment collection.
The other notable element in this image is the presence of chromatic aberration. It is quite visible but in this instance I think it actually adds some character to the lightning by surrounding it with a pinkish hue mainly visible around the main bolt. Sometimes deficiencies in a lens can add some unexpected spice and flavour. In any case, the chromatic aberration in this shot can be easily removed during RAW processing if needed. It is therefore something that can be ignored to a certain degree.
Mix, Match, and Adapt
Let's say you decide to purchase a full frame body. Does that mean you automatically buy all of your lenses to suit just that particular model of camera? Canon, for example, makes many different lenses in a variety of lens mounts that include EF, FD, L, and EF-S. versions. These cover a range of options if you wish to shoot with one of their camera bodies.
What if you don't want or need autofocus capabilities in your lenses? If you prefer a manual focus lens then you have two additional options:
- Choose a third party lens manufacturer, like Zeiss, Voigtlander, or Samyang, that offers a product in the native lens mount.
- Adapt a manual focus lens from another manufacturer, such as Leica, Nikon, Zeiss, Olympus, Konica, Minolta, or Contax (among many) to the native lens mount. This is a very viable option.
Thrid-party lenses can be as good, or even much better, than their first-party equivalents. With adapters, the pool of available lenses is large. Don't overlook older lenses: they are often very high quality. There are some interesting lenses with unique qualities out there, too! Be aware, though, that there are some limitations with certain lens and body combinations.
The Sony E-mount has the shortest flange distance. This means the Sony cameras have the largest pool of compatible lenses for their full frame and APS-C bodies.
If you decide on a Nikon full frame body your lens options are more limited in some respects due to the native F-mount. The long lens flange to focal plane distance of the Nikon F-mount means that Nikon bodies really only work with Nikon F-mount lenses. Few options exist to adapt lenses to Nikon bodies other than esoteric mounts like M42 (once popular with Russian manufacturers) or certain Leica lenses.
Nikon F-mount lenses, however, can be adapted for use on nearly any camera body! This includes 35mm film, digital full-frame, APS-C and Micro Four Thirds camera bodies from Canon, Sony, Panasonic, Pentax and Olympus. Nikon F manual lenses are high quality, solidly built, and relatively affordable.
You can also get Zeiss, Voigtlander, Samyang and other premium brand manual focus prime lenses in Nikon F-mount that can be be used on many other camera systems by using an adaptor. The Zeiss F mount prime set is of the highest optical quality but you pay a price premium for this glass. Only you can decide if the expense is worth it.
Olympus, Pentax, Konica, Canon, Leica and other lens makers have older manual focus prime lens sets available as well. There are some hidden gems among these lenses that beg to be adapted to a modern DSLR.
Don't skimp when it comes to adapters. A bad adapter from a disreputable (or no name) manufacturer isn't worth the hassle of misalignment or a loose fit. Voigtlander and Rayqual adapters are recommended.
Bits and Pieces
Most DSLR cameras have a shutter speed range of between thirty seconds and 1/8000th of a second. This is quite limiting for night photography. It is definitely worth having a dedicated external remote timer. This will allow you to program shutter speeds far longer than the limited thirty second maximum exposure time built into your camera.
I suggest you purchase one with a built in intervalometer and the ability to program shutter speeds longer than a few hours duration. This will give you a great deal of flexibility allowing you to take a single image for the entire duration of the night or to shoot a series of shorter duration images.
The Yongnuo ones I have purchased allow you to program a shutter speed of approximately four days duration with an unlimited number of images. They are also inexpensive.
Another alternative to a remote release or intervalometer is to run camera control software from a computer or use a smartphone app like trigger trap.
You should also get yourself a set of filters. This should include neutral density filters and perhaps some special effects filters like a spectral filter or star filter which work really well with point light sources like fireworks and city lights.
Neutral density filters are very handy for extending the shutter speed for certain subjects and are particularly useful around twilight. I have 2-stop, 4-stop, 9-stop and 10-stop ND filters to control the amount of light entering the lens.
This allows you to use long duration shutter speeds without having to stop down your lens to minimum aperture settings. This will help to prevent diffraction from softening your images.
When purchasing filters it is worth buying large size versions and using step-down conversion rings so you can adapt them to all your lenses. This will save you money as you don't need to have multiple versions of exactly the same filter with different thread sizes. I have a set of filters with 77 mm threads and these can be adapted for use on all my lenses, many of which have 52 mm filter threads.
Alternatively, you could look at getting a filter system like those made by Cokin, Schneider or several other manufacturers. These use a filter holder rather than the traditional screw-in filters you attach to the front of the lens. I have the "P" series ("Professional") Cokin filter system which covers lenses up to an 82mm diameter. The larger "L" series is probably a better option for full frame camera systems as the smaller filter diameter can cause vignetting problems at wider angles of view.
Suggested Camera Systems for Night Photography
I have divided my selections into several categories according to budget and prices are approximate at the time of writing. Don't forget to also allow some money for a tripod, filter set and cable release.
Entry-Level Full-Frame System: Budget $1500 USD
If you want a full frame camera body and have a tight budget I suggest you look for a secondhand camera body on Ebay or similar.
- Canon EOS 5D Mk1 - 12.8MP Full Frame Digital SLR Camera Body - $500 USD (Used)
- Nikkor AIS 20mm f2.8 Lens $450 USD (Used)
- Nikkor 50mm f1.4 AIS $150 USD (Used)
- Nikkor 80-200mm f4.5 AIS $100 USD (Used)
- Rayqual Nikon F-mount to Canon EF-mount adapter - $150 (New)
- Nikon D700 - 12.1MP Full Frame Digital SLR Camera Body - $750 USD (Used)
- Nikkor 18-35mm f3.5-4.5 D $250 USD (Used)
- Nikkor Series E 50 mm f1.8 AIS $50 USD (Used)
- Nikkor 85mm f2.0 AIS $250 USD
- Nikkor 135mm f2.8 AIS $150 USD (Used)
- Nikkor 200mm f4.0 AIS $75 USD (Used)
Mid-Range Full-Frame System: Budget $5000 USD
For those with some more money to spend I suggest looking at a one of the three models listed below.
- Nikon D750 - 24MP Full Frame Digital SLR Camera Body - $2000 USD (New)
- Sony A7s - 12MP Full Frame Digital SLR Camera Body - $2000 USD (New)
- Canon 5D Mark3 -22MP Full Frame Digital SLR Camera Body $2000 USD (New)
Add the following three lenses to these cameras and you would have the basis of an excellent night photography setup.
- Tamron SP 15-30mm F/2.8 Di VC - $1200 USD (New), an excellent full frame lens with superb low light performance.
- Sigma ART 50mm f1.4 Prime - $800 USD (New), state of the art optics and low light performance.
- Sigma, Nikkor or Canon 80-200mm f2.8 Zoom - $1500 USD (New)
Proven performers that will cover the longer focal ranges and deliver sharp images.
High-End Full-Frame System: Budget $20K+
The D810 offers state of the art performance and is perfect for night photography.
- Nikon D810 - 36MP Full Frame Digital SLR Camera Body - $3500 USD (New)
Currently rated the best performing sensor on DXO mark.
Add a set of Zeiss primes....
- Carl Zeiss 15mm f2.8 Distagon - $3000 USD (New)
- Carl Zeiss 21mm f2.8 Distagon - $2000 USD (New)
- Carl Zeiss 35mm f1.4 Distagon - $1750 USD (New)
- Carl Zeiss 55mm f1.4 Otus APO Distagon - $4000 USD (New)
- Carl Zeiss 85mm f1.4 Otus APO Planar - $4500 USD (New)
- Carl Zeiss 135mm f2.0 Apo Sonnar - $2200 USD (New)
- And to get us to 200mm add a Nikkor 200mm F2 VR prime lens - $7000 (New)
The combination of a high resolution full frame camera teamed with these premium lenses offers the ultimate in night photography performance. No excuses with this kit!
APS-C Camera System
The APS-C format is an excellent alternative to full frame sensor cameras and there is a huge range of models to choose from.
You really can't go wrong with any of the newer generation of bodies available from Samsung, Sony, Pentax, Fuji, Canon or Nikon.Modern base model camera bodies offer excellent picture quality. A Nikon D5500 with the standard 18-55mm kit lens would be a great starting setup for night photography.
If you intend to use older legacy manual focus glass on these bodies though I would opt for one of the higher pro level models, like the Nikon D7100, that support exposure metering and EXIF data when using older legacy lenses.
Micro Four Thirds Camera System
Choose this option only if you need a compact camera kit. I rarely use my Micro Four Third cameras for this type of photography as they simply don't have the dynamic range, colour reproduction and low light performance of larger sensor camera bodies.
Here is a list of the camera gear that I own and use. Much of this equipment has been specifically chosen for night photography but other items have been selected based on other criteria, such as performance and suitability for video use.
- Nikon FM (35mm Film SLR)
- Nikon FM-2 (35mm Film SLR)
- Nikon D700 (Digital Full Frame)
- Nikon D7000 (Digital APS-C)
- Nikon D7100 (Digital APS-C)
- Panasonic GH-1 (Digital Micro Four Thirds)
- Panasonic GH-2 (Digital Micro Four Thirds)
- Panasonic GF-5 (Digital Micro Four Thirds)
Manual Focus Prime Lenses in Nikon F-Mount
- Samyang 8mm f3.5 Fisheye (Un-calibrated Hard Infinity Stop)
- Samyang 14mm f2.8 (Un-calibrated Hard Infinity Stop)
- Nikkor 20mm f2.8 AIS (Calibrated Hard Infinity Stop)
- Nikkor 28mm f2.8 AIS (Calibrated Hard Infinity Stop)
- Nikkor 35mm f1.4 AIS (Calibrated Hard Infinity Stop)
- Nikkor 50mm f1.4 AIS (Calibrated Hard Infinity Stop)
- Nikkor 85mm f1.4 AIS (Calibrated Hard Infinity Stop)
- Nikkor 135mm f2.8 AIS (Calibrated Hard Infinity Stop)
- William Optics 310mm f4.5 Apochromatic Telescope
Auto Focus Lenses in Nikon F-Mount
- Nikkor 18-35mm f3.5-4.5 AF-D
- Nikkor 28-105mm f3.5-4.5 AF-D
- Nikkor 28-200mm f3.5-5.6 AF G
- Nikkor 50mm f1.8 AF-D
- Nikkor AFS 80-200mm f2.8 AF-D
- Tokina 80-400mm f5.6 AT-X D
- Olympus 17mm f2.8 pancake lens (Micro Four Thirds)
- Panasonic X-series 14-42mm OIS lens (Micro Four Thirds)
- Konica AR-mount Hexanon 45mm f1.8 pancake lens (Calibrated Hard Infinity Stop)
- Nikon MC-30 Cable release (Nikon 10 pin connector)
Yongnuo MC-36b Electronic cable release/remote timer
- 1 x 77mm BW 10-stop Neutral density filter
- 1 x 77mm Hoya NDX-400 9-stop Neutral density filter
- 1 x 77mm Hoya CPOL filter
- Cokin "P" series filters
Look at the big picture. Think about your needs and the kind of photography you do. What can you do with the equipment you have today? Before buying into a new camera ecosystem look at how you photograph. Are there things you can do to get the most from your gear? Think about using adapters, for example, to expand your choices for wide-aperture lenses.
No system is ever truly complete. There's always some better, newer, cooler lens out there. If only we had such and such piece our photography would be that much better, right? It's hard not to get sucked into the marketing spin and gear envy.
It's true that good quality lenses make a big difference to image quality. And today's sensors have incredible sensitivity. However, manual focus lenses from 30 years ago are, in most cases, just as good as the clinically sharp lenses of today. Digital cameras of two and three generations ago are more than sufficient for top-quality night photography.
As you've seen, you absolutely can make great pictures with old gear. If you have an older camera or a limited budget don't feel bad about having something less than the state-of-the-art. Be happy to make great pictures! That's what really matters here.