Figuring out how to quickly and efficiently compose night photography images while in the dark is an essential component of getting great photos and making the most out of your adventure.

The easiest way to figure out compositions is by scouting during the day. It’s straightforward to walk around, look at different components, check perspectives, and so on. If you want to figure out if a night sky subject will line up with your foreground ideas, you can use an app like PhotoPills or Sky Safari. For example, these apps can utilize your phone’s camera and show you what the sky will look like at certain times of night and year with your chosen foreground.

But, what happens if you didn’t scout during the day? And how do you refine your composition when it’s dark?

The trick I use is to take a very high ISO and short exposure shot. Here is the step by step process:

  1. Choose your lens (prime vs. zoom coming up)
  2. Set aperture (usually wide open)
  3. Set your ISO to max value
  4. Take a 1-3s shot
  5. Decide if you like the focal length if you are using a zoom, then adjust the framing.
  6. Focus (if you’re using a prime lens this can be done after step 3)
  7. Take another 1-3s shot and check it.
  8. Readjust and repeat until you get what you want.
  9. Change your settings! 
  10. Take a real shot.

Here’s a series you can scroll through to see my process in the field:

The first images are shot at ISO32254, 3s. I set the camera to take a series of shots in order for me to see the composition and get a good idea of my position. I didn’t like where I stood initially because I was not completely framed in the snow. In the second round of tests, I picked a better spot (would have been easier if I was shorter). Once I decided I like the set up, I noted where I had to stand and changed my settings. I always take more than one self portrait to ensure I get one where I am very still. Here’s the final edit:

Solo woman hiker in red jacket stands on ridge in front of snowy mountain with milky way in the sky

I have lots of resources available in my blog, from editing tutorials like Making Stars Pop in Photos to planning shoots. 12 Months of Milky Way is a popular one 🙂

If you’d like to work on specific techniques I am available for private workshops online and in person. My annual Banff Night Photography workshop, Milky Way March is back for Mar 25-27, 2022 as well!