Original Publish Date: Mar 27, 2013
Last Revision: Aug 15, 2018
A frequent and reasonable question we are asked is what gear is suitable for night photography. And a corollary question is “what does that gear cost”. If you Google around, you’re likely to find some detailed (and possibly skewed recommendations). But here is my “specifics free” list of things to consider.
The Gear List
I’ve arranged this list from most important to least. And yes, a tripod is at the top of the list!
- Tripod + head ($400)
- Lenses: Manual focus OK, Primes good.
- wide-angle, “fast” and sharp lens
- and perhaps a telephoto
- Camera body
- Layered clothing:
- light gloves,
- warm gloves,
- thermal base layers,
- windproof outer layers,
- scarves / ear-muffs,
- warm hat (I strongly recommend a Balaclava).
- Sturdy shoes
- A sturdy, roomy, well-organized camera bag. I recommend a backpack style bag ($130 and up)
- Extra batteries
- An intervalometer
- Memory cards. Speed is not so important for most night work
- Short strap for your camera – a shoulder strap may cause difficulties. ($25) OPTECH / USA model.
- Flashlight assortment – see Painting with Light (~ $60)
- Incidentals like a clear shower cap or rainsleeve, lintless cloths to wipe lenses dry, and a small towel to wipe your hands or face.
Tripod + Head
You’ll notice that many people suggest a budget that starts at $1,000 USD and goes up from there. You shouldn’t skimp on a tripod. A skimpy, under-performing, overly heavy or wobbly tripod will frustrate you and limit your creative ability more than a second-hand camera will.
Complete tripods need “legs” (the part that extends to the ground) and a “head” which is where you connect the camera to the legs. Any tripod with spreaders in the legs is certainly junk. Indeed, I never recall seeing a tripod worth the money at any electronics store or department store. For details on what we like, see the article here. If you’re looking to spend less, most of the 3-Legged tripods are complete sets and include a “head” and legs. Expect to pay about $400 and up. The two most important aspects of a tripod are its weight (lighter is better for transport, but usually worse for stability), and its stability.
A quick release plate system is a good idea. Look for a plate that can be removed without tools! Many can be removed using a coin which is far better than one that requires a specific sized allen wrench. Someone commented “Really, $400 for a Tripod, why?”. I suspect they didn’t read this portion, but here is an analogy. Imagine you get a million dollar oceanfront beach house. You’re well aware that winds, rain and floods may buffet the house, but decide to support your mansion with toothpick sized columns to save a few hundred dollars in material costs. Sturdy support is what you’d want for ANY house you put on top of those columns. Tripods are the supports for your camera and lens – don’t skimp. Indeed, our advice to you is to dedicate at least 25% of your total camera budget to the tripod.
What you pick for a lens depends a lot on what you want to do with it, but generally wide-angle non-zoom (aka prime lenses) that are fast (f/2.8 or better) are preferable for lots of reasons including taking in more of the sky, more forgiving focusing, and better ability to see to focus and frame your shots. For night photography a manual focus lens may be ideal (it’s the way all photography used to be). The extra cost for focusing motors and image stabilizers is nigh useless in night photography. My widest lens is a 15mm fisheye that I use on a full-frame camera. Sometimes I wish I had a wider lens. If the lens does not have distance markings on it – don’t get it! I would also recommend allocating your camera gear budget at about 60% for two lenses and 40% for a camera body and accessories. Good lenses hold their value. Camera bodies do not.
For night photography it is highly unlikely that you will find a “kit” with a lens and body that it well suited for night photography. That doesn’t mean you should give up if you already bought a kit, it just means it is unlikely that you got a good lens for night photography in the deal. Again, see David Kingham’s comments and suggestions. A Full Frame camera will almost always outperform a “crop camera”. See my article on Capturing the Milky Way for the relative rankings of camera bodies.
Bodies I do NOT recommend include any camera that lacks:
- An optical view finder (eliminates all mirrorless cameras at present)
- A means to adjust aperture, ISO and exposure without having to use a menu on an LCD. Using that menu will not only blind you, but it’s slower and error prone.
- A shutter control (remote release cable) port.
Clothing + Shoes
Many people are not accustomed to being out in windy and cold nights and are surprised how easy it is to be miserably cold. In my camera bag I have finger-less gloves, and warm gloves. A balaclava, a wool knit hat which gives me the itchies unless I put it on over the balaclava, and an extra pull-over item that is like a Dickie (it’s my scarf). These items help me stay warm and don’t take up that much space and weigh almost nothing. I also have a pull-over hooded fleece in that bag and a waterproof shell. And that’s just a partial list. Good shoes may literally save your life or the life of your camera gear.
This is a personal choice. I want a bag that is comfortable to wear, will hold all the gear I need for a nights photography plus snacks, water, and the extra clothing for comfort. While not ideal, I like the Tamrack Adventure 9. It also has space for a laptop which is usually where I keep my outerwear except when travelling by plane in which case I actually put my laptop in that pocket. It’s not ideal because in three years, I’ve had two Tamrack 9’s have zipper failure. The most recent failure occurred in less than a year. I’m now using an f-Stop Tilopa bag and while it’s expensive, it’s held up very well, is spacious and comfortable to wear. In fact, it seems to be the perfect size for carry-on air travel.
Inevitably you’ll need extra batteries, extra memory cards, cloths for wiping your lens dry of moisture, a small rocket blower to remove dust from your lens or sensor and more. Get a “short strap” for you camera, too. Since you’ll be carrying the camera in a secure bag, you really only need a strap for minor use and as a safety device. A small, short strap also won’t be affected as much as a large camera strap when it is windy, and it weighs less. You’ll almost certainly want an Intervalometer too.