6 Tips for Better Night and Star Photos with Mirrorless Cameras
Mirrorless camera systems can be a delight to shoot with for traditional landscape photography, since you’re almost always shooting at lower ISOs (so you might get away with shooting on an APS-C or Micro Four Thirds system) and you’re not shooting at faster apertures.
Nightscape and astrophotography, however, are a different story with mirrorless cameras. You’re usually shooting at a high ISO and with a wide aperture, which require a bigger camera body and lenses (in some cases almost as big and heavy as an entry-level full-frame DSLR). This can make things a little tricky with the “limitations” of a mirrorless camera.
With that said, the camera sensors from Sony and Fuji in particular, not to mention the selection of lenses, have been getting more and more phenomenal in recent generations, and they can be a delight to shoot with if you learn these five simple tips for maximum performance!
1. Power Source
First and foremost, the primary obstacle that any mirrorless nightscape photographer needs to overcome is ensuring that they have sufficient power to last the night. Whether you are doing ordinary stills photography, or all-night timelapse photography, it will not be enough to simply pack one spare battery (or even two).
Unfortunately, spare batteries (top brand ones) can be $50 a pop at least, and they don’t have great capacities either. The majority of Sony mirrorless cameras, from the full-frame 7-series to the point-and-shoot RX10 series, are still using a 1050 mAh battery, the NP-FW50.
So, instead of spending a lot of money on four or five spare camera batteries, a much better solution is external battery power. There are two ways you can go about this:
More and more cameras are letting you not only charge your battery in the camera via the USB port and a common USB battery, but also run the camera directly off an external USB power brick you may have for your smartphone. Whilst it isn’t the most efficient use of voltage, you can still power a mirrorless Sony camera for many hours of continuous exposure on a $40-50 Anker or similar battery of 20,000 mAh capacity.
If you would like the most efficient and affordable solution to battery power possible, though, the best choice is to use a dummy battery in the camera and a battery source that can deliver exactly the right voltage directly to the camera, or through a voltage converter like the Tether Tools Case Relay.
Either way, these battery solutions can power your camera for 5-10 hours of exposure, yet weigh only a few ounces and may cost less than a sack full of brand name spare batteries.
2. Airplane Mode On
Even with all the battery power in the world, there is still very little reason to be wasteful with your power. Whether you’re shooting astro-landscape photos or trying out time-lapse photography, if you are out in the wilderness where your battery power could be in short supply, the best thing to do with mirrorless ILC cameras is to turn on airplane mode. This disables all of the wireless connectivity settings that you’re probably not using for nightscape photography. Well, unless you’re using a wireless app on your phone as a cable release or something, but I recommend just using self-timer and electronic shutter usually.
3. Viewfinder (EVF) & LCD Brightness
The next recommendation is to turn the brightness all the way down on both your electronic viewfinder and rear LCD display. The primary benefit of this isn’t battery power savings, though, it’s preserving your night vision of your own eyesight! Nothing ruins your night vision, your ability to see the stars with your own eyes, like having a bright LCD screen turning on between each exposure.
Personally, I can’t look through an EVF (electronic viewfinder) for very long before I get a headache, when out in the inky black of a moonless night, so I always use the rear LCD to shoot.
Of course, if your displays are at their absolute dimmest setting you cannot use anything other than your histogram to gauge your exposure anyway!
If, for any reason, you are running short on battery power, here is one more tip about your EVF and LCD: the EVF may consume more battery power than the rear LCD, and for stills photography you’re probably better off using the rear LCD exclusively. However, if you are shooting timelapses, and will be away from your camera for hours on end, then on some cameras (most Sonys) the rear LCD will never really turn off completely, but just display a blank black screen instead.
4. Focus Aides & Manual Focus
One of the oft-mentioned advantages of any mirrorless system over a DSLR is the abundance of focusing aides, for both still photography and video.
Whether focus peaking (“marching ants”) works well for your nightscape photography or not will depend on which camera and lens you are using. Some lenses just aren’t sharp enough for focus peaking to correctly pick up a dim star in such a dark situation and, similarly, some cameras’ focus peaking function might not be precise enough to trust.
Therefore, unless you have already done extensive testing with your own camera and lens, I would recommend relying on more common, simple manual focusing techniques to ensure that your images are always sharp.
Further Reading: How to Get Sharp and In Focus Stars in Starscape Photos
5. IBIS (Stabilization) Off
While in-body stabilization (IBIS) can sometimes be smart enough to not ruin your images captured from a tripod at certain shutter speeds, the territory of nightscape photography is one where IBIS ought to be left off 100% of the time, whether you’re shooting a moderate telephoto image at 85mm f/1.8 and 6 sec, or a star trail photo at 14mm and 30 minutes.
6. Adapter Quality
One of the things that can make landscape astrophotography such a challenge is the precision with which a camera and lens need to render a flat plane of focus at infinity, so that stars are evenly sharp across the board.
If your lens has been damaged, or if it was a bad copy to begin with, its optical elements might still appear plenty sharp at normal focus distances and apertures, yet render a field of stars only partly sharp, and partly blurry, sometimes even looking like you were using a tilt-shift lens.
A similar issue can occur if you are using an adapter to mount your Canon or Nikon lenses onto a Sony or other camera, unfortunately. Whenever you buy an adapter, get a camera and lens mounted and then test the adapter for “slop”. If the lens feels like it has even a little bit of sway in between it and the camera body, then either the adapter or the camera body itself are potentially not strong enough to perfectly render a flat, sharp plane of focus year after year. Your adapter may eventually start showing even more play, especially if it is ever dropped with a camera and/or lens attached, and this can even damage the lens mount itself, or basically whichever is the weakest link.
In short, a cheap adapter may be a source of soft nightscape photos, so – if you can – save up for a good quality one. Make sure to take as good care of it as you possibly can, and test it periodically with your fastest lens to make sure that stars stay sharp in all four corners / edges of the image.
Hopefully this article was helpful to anyone who is thinking of getting into nightscape photography with their mirrorless camera, or to anyone who is thinking of switching to mirrorless from their current DSLR system for nightscape photography. There are many great advantages to a mirrorless system, however there is also a whole new set of technical know-how that comes with it.
Please leave a comment if you have any additional questions specifically about using mirrorless cameras for nightscape photography, or even traditional landscapes, and I’ll do my best to answer them!