For some people this is a daunting task which can seem like a mountain too steep to climb. For others it's a challenge they are happy to embrace with both hands. Either way however, it's not until we develop a sense of what our cameras are capable of that we will see our image quality improve.
When knowledge of our camera intersects with an intuition of how the camera will render the scene that confronts us ... well that's when the magic happens. Let's take the above image as an example of what I'm talking about.
As listed above this is a panorama consisting of 14 individual shots. When I arrived at this location I knew I wanted to capture the full expanse of the milky way stretching across the sky from North to South. To do that I had to calculate which lens would be best to use and the camera settings for each exposure. I decided on the Nikon 20mm f1.8 because this lens is sharp and even though not an ultra wide lens it still gives plenty of scope to overlap the images enough to get a "good stitch" in the panorama software.
Just to clarify why I needed 14 shots to get this perspective because some of you may be thinking why not use a wider angle lens ..?
Well, the reality is that even with an ultra wide lens such as a 14mm this width of shot is impossible to achieve with just one shot. Yes, I could have used a 14mm lens and possibly only needed half the amount of shots to achieve the same image. That would probably work but my experience with extreme wide angle lenses is that they introduce a lot of distortion by nature of the wide optics which can interfere with stitching software. Anyone whose experienced a stitch that just wont join properly knows what I'm talking about. A lot of people use 24mm, 35, or even 50mm lenses when doing panoramas .... like lots of things associated with night photography, it becomes a creative choice but I'd like to emphasise that this choice must come from at least a basic knowledge of what each focal length does to an image.
Anyway, I've included some straight out of camera images (obviously not all 14) below to show you that each shot is pretty narrow when compared to the final compilation. The other thing you'll notice is how much brighter the final image looks compared to these ... thanks to the fabulous Nikon D750 dynamic range. I could have shot these at iso 3200 or even 6400 but I don't really have to as i can easily retain shadow detail in the Nikon raw files and simply bring the exposure up in Lightroom.
Another factor I've mentioned before is the ability to pre-visualise a scene. Most of us tend to do this via a kind of second hand approach .... that is, we look at what others are doing and try to get similar results ourselves. This is a completely valid approach to the learning process and gives us a solid launching pad to understand how to achieve a particular type of image based on tried and true camera settings and techniques.
As an extension of this however I strongly encourage you to spend some time when you arrive at your shooting location and simply look at the scene before you. Let your eyes become accustomed to the dark and soak in every detail. Look at the stars, the silhouetted trees, the foreground objects ... whatever you see. You may well find an opportunity to "improvise" and include elements that weren't in your initial planning. This happens to me all the time, even though I've done a scouting trip beforehand in the daylight there is always something else that will catch your eye under the cover of darkness.
One further point on these shots. To the naked eye the yellow reflection wasn't very bright so I had to dig into my previous experience with such scenes to even know that it would show this way. The camera sensor during a long exposure at high iso is so much more sensitive than our naked eye and it will always capture even more detail than what we can actually see.
Anyone who follows my work will know that I make use of extensive light painting in my nightscapes. This obviously requires a lot of improvising to achieve the image that may have been pre-visualised.
And finally I strongly encourage anyone who takes the time to go shooting at night to enjoy the process. Get the odd selfie, take some food and drink and take in the view. The majority of people living in our cities never get to experience the awesome night sky in all it's splendour. Take some like minded photographers with you .... even if they don't know what to do at first, I guarantee they'll thoroughly enjoy the experience.
* An intuitive understanding of your camera
* The ability to pre-visualise a scene
* Persistence & determination
* A love of what you do
All of these elements are related and revolve around our ability to connect our senses and imagination with the reality of what our camera equipment can technically deliver.
Nothing beats actually getting out there and giving it a go. You can develop your ability in these areas but it will take time. Listen to those who have experience in the field, ask for assistance if necessary. Learn by trial and error, encourage yourself to try something new, it doesn't matter if it doesn't work out the first time ... persist and you'll be surprised at the awesome work you will begin to produce.
Just remember that it's a process, a series of creative/technical decisions that we embed into our minds, into our hands and eventually into our hearts. When the process becomes intuitive yet somehow natural we are well on our way travelling the journey of a lifetime.