Recommended night photography equipment for Nikon photographers

December 14, 2014  •  4 Comments

The Milky Way from the Grand CanyonThe Milky Way as seen from the base of the Grand Canyon.

Updated: 9/27/17

The question I get asked the most when people view my night photography is what kind of gear I use. I also receive many messages from folks asking for recommendations on what kind of camera and lenses they should invest money in. I've been doing night photography for about four years now and I think I can offer up some good recommendations for Nikon photographers. I have no first-hand knowledge of Fuji, Olympus, or other brands; therefore, I won't be providing any recommendations on those for you here. I'm going to try to offer up my suggestions in three categories - low budget, medium budget, and "budget is not an issue." 

Before going into more depth on the recommendations, let's explore the variables that impact night photography:

  1. The camera sensor. Camera sensors can be made more or less sensitive to light by adjusting the ISO (meaning, the sensor becomes amplified as ISO increases). For night photography, you'll normally be shooting at very high ISO levels (I usually shoot at ISO 3200 or 6400 on a very dark night). Higher ISO usually yields a nasty side-effect - noise. Typically speaking, more expensive camera bodies have more sophisticated sensors that are better equipped at handling low light without adding significant noise to the photograph. This has to do with many factors, including the size of the photosites on the sensor as well as the pixel density. I'm certainly no expert when it comes to all of the technical details; however, I can tell you that Nikon's camera bodies have improved dramatically over the past few years and do well in low light scenarios. Typically, Canon sensors are a bit better at handling low light; however, many of the higher end Nikon bodies are some of the best on the market, not to mention have the best dynamic range of any camera bodies on the market. Dynamic range is the ability of a camera sensor to capture highlights (bright areas) and shadows (dark areas) simultaneously. 
  2. The lens. In the world of optics there are many things that can impact how well an lens will perform in low light situations, including the maximum aperture, maximum usable aperture, and coma. Aperture is simply how large the opening at the back of the lens can get (lower number f-stop = a larger opening). A large aperture (wide-open) allows more light to reach the camera's sensor and therefore is better for night photography. Not all lenses are made equally though, and so you'll have to understand the maximum usable aperture, which is simply the widest the aperture can get on a lens without compromising image quality significantly. And, yes you've guessed it - typically more expensive lenses have better usable maximum aperture. Coma, or comatic aberration, refers to aberration due to imperfection in the lens that results in off-axis point sources such as stars appearing distorted, appearing to have a tail (coma) like a comet. This is usually not a desirable effect; however, it is often not something you can easily identify unless you are pixel-peeping.
  3. Stability. It should go without saying that in order to do night photography you need to leave the shutter open for long periods of time, usually at least 20 seconds or 30 seconds. This will require you to have a good, solid tripod to keep the camera from moving. With cheaper tripods you will notice some unfortunate side-effect, especially in breezier conditions - your camera will shake and rattle and you'll notice blur and a lack of sharpness in your photos. So, investing in a decent tripod is an absolute must - do NOT skimp here.

DreamworldDreamworldThe Milky Way reflected in one awesome lake somewhere deep within Colorado. I've been working on this photo for months. When I originally shot this panorama, I had captured the Milky Way reflected in the lake but could not get the stitching to line up right. I figured out finally how to do some manual adjustments in another program and got it to line up. This is two rows of vertically oriented shots stitched together. I used a Brinkman Dual Xenon light to add some exposure to the shore and blended exposures to get a good match. Hope you like it.

This photo is only available as a limited edition print.

OK let's go ahead and move on to the recommendations!

Low-range Budget Options:

You would be surprised at the quality of photos you can achieve on some of the less expensive Nikon camera bodies.

For starters, I would recommend checkout out Ebay or Craigslist for a used D700, as these used to be top-of-the-line cameras that you can now pick up really cheap. With that being said, here is the Nikon equipment I'd recommend for someone just getting into the game of night photography:

  • Nikon D7100 - 24.1 Megapixels with excellent night photography capabilities - I learned on the first generation version of this, the D7000.
  • Nikon D3300 - 24.1 Megapixels with entry-level night photography capabilities.
  • Nikon D5200 - 24.1 Megapixels with decent night photography capabilities.
  • Nikon D5300 - 24.2 Megapixels with a newer microchip than the 5200 and better capabilities.
  • Rokinon 14mm manual focus lens - It might be manual focus only, but it performs well at night, when auto-focus is not needed.
  • Rokinon 24mm manual focus lens - See above - another great performer at a low price.

Mid-range Budget Options:

  • Nikon D7200 - 24.2 Megapixels. Updated D7100 body. Better low light capabilities.
  • Nikon D7500 - 20.9 Megapixels. 4k video and high FPS capabilities. Not really intended for night photography but can be a solid performer. 
  • Nikon D610 - 24.3 Megapixel full-frame camera with excellent night photography capabilities - this is probably one of the best values in the Nikon line-up.
  • Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens for DX format - this is the first wide-angle lens I owned, and it is tremendous for night photography - note, if you opt to go full-frame, it won't really be usable except at 16mm, but if you go DX (crop-frame) such as the D7100/5200/3300, you won't find a better lens
  • Tokina 16-28mm f/2.8 lens for FX format - this is the 11-16's full-frame cousin - a great value with auto-focus capabilities.

High-range Budget Options:

  • Nikon D850 - This is the most advanced Nikon full-frame camera available on the market and is an absolute beast in every way... 
  • Sony A7R2 - This is my current camera. I love the lightweight aspect and the high pixel count as well as some other features that I won't go into here. You can see what this thing can do here. For a full list of my current gear for night photography, visit this page.
  • Nikon D810 - This is an updated version of the camera I used to use, the D800. It is a landscape photographer's dream, with 36.3 Megapixels of resolving power, long battery life, and a rugged weatherproof build.
  • Nikon D750 - This is a hybrid full-frame camera with 24.3 Megapixels - think of it as a cross-between the D610 and the D810 with more bells-and-whistles than the D610 but less resolution than the D810.
  • Nikon D5 - While this is more of a sports / wildlife camera, it can be used quite effectively for night photography. It is very expensive though, and not really meant for this sort of photography.
  • Nikon D4 - This predecessor to the D5 is solid for night photography, but not really meant for that use. The backlit buttons make for a nice feature in the dark though!
  • Nikon Df - This is a throw-back to retro camera styles, but don't be turned-off - this camera is highly capable of producing fantastic night images.
  • Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens - this is my favorite lens in the Nikon line-up and my go-to night photography lens. 

Milky Way arching over Mexican HatMilky Way arching over Mexican HatMexican Hat is a huge rock formation in eastern Utah - when I saw it I knew it would make an amazing scene at night. I decided to photograph a large panorama from a hillside west of the rock formation at blue hour and then blend in the Milky Way from a couple of hours later from the same location. Hope you like it!

Tripods:

Remember when I said earlier that you should not skimp on the tripod for night photography? I meant it! This is not where you want to sacrifice, as the tripod is crucial for stability at night for those juicy long exposures you're going to be taking with your new camera. The critical variables you'll want to weigh are cost vs. weight vs. stability. I personally have two different tripods that I use for night photography - a heavy-duty Gitzo tripod that I was able to purchase on Craigslist, and a much lighter, albeit less stable Feisol tripod for long hikes and backpacking trips. Both are amazing tripods; however, if weight is no concern, I always use the Gitzo. I also prefer using Arca-swiss style ball-heads for my photography, as I find them versatile and easy to adjust in the field as compared to the plasticy levers and toggles offered on other styles of mounting hardware.

With all this being said, here are some tripod and ball-head recommendations I would make:

Meteoric Maroon BellsMeteoric Maroon BellsThe Maroon Bells are quite possibly the most photogenic mountains in Colorado. They are photographed by thousands of people per year, especially during the autumn season from Maroon Lake. In this somewhat rarer view of the iconic peaks, I've taken the liberty of photographing both the Maroon Bells, the Perseid Meteor Shower, and the Milky Way, all reflected beautifully in Crater Lake. This nightscape of two of my favorite 14ers near Aspen, Colorado is sure to remind of of the wonder and awesome beauty that this wilderness area has to offer.

This photo is only available as a limited edition print, of which there are 500 available - 50 through my website and 450 through Starscape Gallery in Hawaii. If you're interested in a limited edition print, please contact me.

Recommended Accessories:

If you're to take this photography stuff seriously, I highly recommend a few accessories that will take your craft to the next level, improving your workflow and allowing for more creative outlets: 

  • Kirk L-Bracket for your camera - L-Brackets are one of my favorite accessories - they allow for quick transfer from landscape to portrait mode on a tripod without adjusting anything on your tripod. This is a huge time-saver when composing shots. It also makes your camera a bit more sturdy and durable. Nikon D850 versionNikon D800/810 version | Nikon D750 version | Nikon D7100 version | Nikon D610 version
  • Battery grip - this accessory has a couple great things going for it and one minor drawback - it allows you to double your effective battery life, which is sometimes crucial for night photography on very cold nights. It also adds some comfort when shooting without a tripod in portrait mode. The drawback is that it adds a bit of weight to your camera. Nikon D850 versionNikon D800 version | D610 version | D750 version | D7100 version. Don't forget, if you get a battery grip and like the idea of an L-Bracket, you need a different version! You can find those versions here.
  • Cable shutter release / intervalometer: If you want some expanded controls to be able to do super-long exposures or easier star-trails capabilities - a cable shutter release is a must-have. It also keeps your hand off of the camera, preventing any unnecessary shaking. I've heard great things about the Vello versions; however, I only have experience using the Nikon versions. Be careful before you buy, to ensure compatibility with your particular camera. Nikon D610/D7100 version | D810 version.

If you have any questions about my choices or have other choices you think are good, please feel free to drop a comment below. Thanks for stopping in!


Comments

Fernando Barillas(non-registered)
Any advice between picking the a7rii/a7s-I and the D750? I am upgrading to my first full frame. I’m mainly into landscape/nightscapes and Astro, really wanted the a7rii ( a7s/II as well for lowlight but hard to rationalize the price for the 12mp) but have been holding back due to the star eater issue that hasn’t been resolved. I am mainly doing this for a hobby but want to be able to have the right tools for prints in the future, I heard 12mp is enough for most standard prints but still unsure where to go. Seeing you switched from Nikon any advice to help me make up my mind ? Thanks
Suraj Kashyap(non-registered)
Hey Matt,

Great post! Been trying to make up my mind about getting a D7100 for quit some time, but this cleared my doubts. Also, beautiful photos. :)
Matt Payne Photography
Hi Mike,
Thanks for your comment! I agree, the Nikon 14-24 is an absolute beast. I should probably update this blog soon since Nikon has released some new cameras. I agree with your comment about tripods with center columns, with one caveat - my Gitzo has a center column and is rock solid when it is not extended.
Mike Hammon(non-registered)
Craig,
Great post, especially for beginners, who will appreciate the budget-targeted options.
I'd like to add a couple of comments, based upon my experiences. First, avoid tripods with center posts, since once extended, they can introduce vibrations, especially on breezy days or nights. In those times, I hang a bag of rocks from the tripod's or post's hook to stabilize the it. I use a Bed, Bath, and Beyond mesh laundry bag, since it weighs nothing empty in my backpack. Second, stopping down the lens a stop or two will very often improve resolution, but remember to increase ISO an equal number of stops to compensate. An exception is the Nikon 14-24 f2.8, which is pretty sharp wide open edge to edge.

Your images are really outstanding; thanks for sharing how they were done.
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