Camera & Lens:
A camera where the settings can be adjusted manually is the preferred type to use rather than a point & shoot. I currently use for night shoots a 42MP Sony A7rII Full Frame Mirrorless Compact Systems Camera with a Sony FE 24-240mm f3.5-6.3 OSS Lens.
A tripod is an essential piece of equipment for night photography as the camera needs to be kept as steady as possible for the long exposure shots that can be generated. It needs to be sturdy enough to take the weight of the camera and heavy enough to remain steady if there is a bit of a breeze blowing. If there is a breeze blowing then you can lean your camera bag against one of the legs to steady it and I tend to use my body to shield the camera from any wind as well during the exposure. Make sure the camera strap is not flapping about as that can create vibrations in the camera.
Remote Shutter Release Cable:
A remote shutter release with cable is a basic necessity, to help cut down on possible camera shake when the on-camera shutter release button is pressed. The in-built camera timer can also be used but it can take a bit longer. Even better is a remote wireless shutter release, as the camera is not touched at all. I have an elastic band wrapped around the top of one of the tripod legs through which I pass the shutter release cable to secure the release button and stop it hanging loose or dangling around as I’m moving from one shot to another. When I need it, I know where it is and not hunting for it in the dark.
If your camera or lens has built in ‘Image Stabilisation’ then it should be turned off. The in-camera or lens stabilisation is designed to reduce blurring associated with the movement of the camera during the exposure of the image, particularly when hand held. Slight compensation movements of the internal sensor/lens elements achieve this. When mounted on a tripod there is no camera movement but the Image stabilisation system could still twitch while trying to detect camera movement and produce soft/out of focus images, so switching it off it locks the sensor/lens in place.
Aperture Priority, or AV (Aperture Variable) on some cameras, is the preferred option, although Shutter Speed can be used. I tend to set the Aperture in the f/8 to f/13 range which gives a better depth of field and produces an image that is in focus from front to rear or side to side. The higher the Aperture number the greater the depth of field, the better the detail but longer shutter speeds. Set the ISO at 100 as this helps to cut down on image noise/grain but again increases the time the shutter remains open and the time images write to the storage card. White Balance - I leave this on AUTO and do any adjustments in editing software.
If there is enough light then Auto Focus works very well but some events may not be so fortunate with the amount of lightning they have and the AF could hunt around a bit to focus. You may have to resort to Manual Focusing using the Live View Screen or Electronic Viewfinder. I generally use Spot or Zone to focus on the aircraft and not the background, but sometimes resort to Flexible Spot if I want to get more sky into the shot with the aircraft at the bottom of the frame. With Flexible Spot you can move the focus area around the sensor.
Long Exposure Noise Reduction:
I have this turned off. How this works is basically the camera takes a long exposure photo of the subject matter and then takes another long exposure, for the same length of time, with the shutter closed producing a black image. Through a piece of in-camera software it compares the two images and removes any ‘noise’ or random light coloured pixels, particularly in the black areas, that should not be there before writing the image to the card. As you can appreciate this doubles the time it takes to transfer the image from the buffer to the storage medium. If you are doing long exposures then it would be best to turn it off and save yourself a bit of time and correct any noise in editing software.
If possible shoot in RAW. This will produce better results in post processing unlike Jpeg’s that are part processed in the camera.
A torch, or head torch for hands free, is a handy piece of kit to have not only for checking the settings on the camera in the dark but lighting your way should you be wandering around a museum or site that has no permanent external lighting. Depending on the time of year, comfortable and/or warm clothing, including gloves, should be worn at all times as there is nothing worse than standing around shivering on a cold winter's evening as you wait for the camera to do its thing.
Make sure the on-camera flash is turned off.
Always remember to wait until the camera has finished its long exposure before you move it.
Updated: March 2019
There are no real hard and set rules, as in you must do this, that and the other, in photographing aeroplanes in the dark. What follows are the techniques that I use and have refined and developed over the last few years for the night photo shoots that I have attended.
(The settings and techniques described below should be used as a guide only as I use a Sony Alpha camera and you are advised to experiment with your own make of camera and lens so as to get the best out of your own equipment.)