Night photography: ISO settings and panoramas

Abandoned gold mine night panorama -- by Joe Reifer

An abandoned gold mine above the living ghost town of Randsburg, CA

Night photography panorama technique
This night panorama is composed of 10 vertical images shot with a 28mm lens at f/8 on a Canon 5D Mark II. I use an L-bracket on the camera for verticals, and an Acratech Leveling Base on my tripod to keep the plane of rotation level. The leveling base saves time in the field, and ensures you don’t lose too many pixels at the edges of your shot when stitching. The camera can be tilted slightly upward to change the sky/ground relationship, and the pano will still stitch fine. I don’t use a nodal slide. The pano was stitched using Photomerge in Photoshop CS5 using the cylindrical setting. Keeping the exposures short is necessary when there is cloud movement in your pano. Shorter exposures also help the stars look correct by minimizing star trails.

The best ISO for night photography
For digital night photography, shooting at the native ISO of the camera yields the least noise. Typically this means ISO 100 or ISO 200, but it’s best to do some controlled testing with your camera to see what works best. I often shoot at ISO 200 with the 5D Mark II and find little difference in noise between ISO 100 and ISO 200. A properly exposed shot at ISO 200 is going to have a better noise profile than an underexposed shot at ISO 100.

Due to the speed of the clouds I bumped the ISO to 800 to keep the exposure time down to 45 seconds for each shot. Sometimes the rules about the best ISO for night photography need to be broken in order to get the shot. This is especially true when shooting clouds. The weather was around 40 degrees, which helps quite a bit with keeping long exposure noise at reasonable levels. Only a minimal amount of noise reduction in Lightroom was necessary. Make sure to test your camera’s capabilities before an important shoot, and review the images to decide how much noise you can tolerate. Pay close attention to the the temperature when testing — the colder it is, the more you can push the limits of short exposures with high ISOs, and long exposures without noise reduction.

8 thoughts on “Night photography: ISO settings and panoramas”

  1. I like that shot Joe! Thanks for the tips. I want to try this on some homestead sites on the next full moon.

    1. Hey, Scott. ISO 160 is the native setting for 5D II video – so using 160-320-640-1250-3200 is correct if you’re filming. However, most of the testing I’ve seen for still photography with the 5D Mark II indicates ISO 100 is the native ISO — which means sticking to 100-200-400-800 is best for stills.

  2. Yup. The difference between when you probably went and when I did (last year prior to the workshop in the Spring), the temp. the two days prior was up around 65F. My 50D was smoking by the time I got done with the pano. I had NR turned off and was shooting at around ISO 400. I took the less traveled path out to Johannsburg to the mine that’s up on the hill by the grave yard and took some shots with the Benz in much the same fashion. I can’t for the life of me figure out how my shots turned out so horrid. I think its simply because the 50D has such shitty noise control over ISO 200.

    1. Oh cool, John. I didn’t realize you hit this area up. Lots to shoot! Most dSLRs will show more noise at 65 degrees — even with shorter exposures at the native ISO. Hot weather and high ISO without noise reduction don’t mix well, as you found out. I learned this stuff the hard way, too.

      One cool thing I realized after writing this post is that the 5D, 5D Mark II, and 7D can be used to shoot panos with long exposure noise reduction turned on. These cameras all allow you to open another shot, saving the work of noise reduction in the camera’s buffer until later. Of course the size of the buffer will determine how many images you can make in a row before the camera locks up.

      1. I have the 7d with the tc-80n3 timer remote and I cannot get it to work in LENR mode for multiple exposures. The camera locks up even with a 1 second interval between frames. Am I missing something? I did some networking to get lined up with some potentially cool homesteads and abandoned blacksmith shop and a motel to shoot on Wed night. The temp might be pushing up to nearly 60 and I don’t know how my camera is going to perform.

        1. Hey David – Thanks for the heads up about stacking using a remote with LENR on. I’ll have to test that with the 5D Mark II. I wonder if it works if you stack the images manually (i.e., maybe it’s something about the interaction with the remote).

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