When you think about your favorite landscape photos, the images that come to mind are probably classic shots of forests, mountains and natural rock formations. And they are probably daytime images, too, with an occasional sunset and sunrise thrown in for good measure.
We don’t really see a lot of landscape images shot at night, which is actually a bit surprising when you think about it. Because nighttime landscapes can be quite stunning, if you know the right tricks.
[Top image by Flickr user Marty.FM]
And it doesn’t take a whole lot of special equipment, either. As far as camera gear is concerned, all you need is a tripod, a DSLR with a “bulb” setting and a cable or remote release. You’ll also need a pair of flashlights: a small one to help you see your camera and its settings and a powerful one to help you illuminate your subject so your camera can focus on it.
Preparing and Planning
Blundering around in the dark in search of that perfect shot is not generally a good idea, so make sure you choose your location ahead of time. Think back to some of your favorite landscape shots from your own portfolio, and consider revisiting those places at night. Since you already know the locations are good ones, there will be less guesswork involved in your shoot. This is important of course because getting it wrong on a night shoot is more than just a matter of blowing a few frames; you may also blow a few hours of your time in cold, dark conditions.
Try to get away from the city if you can, since light pollution may taint your images, especially if you want to include a lot of sky and stars in your photos. Of course, light pollution can also create some interesting colors, so just be aware of it and choose your setting according to your own personal goals for the finished image.
Also think about things like parking, how long you’ll have to walk in the dark and how safe the area is in general (think places with clear, flat trails and legal parking). Visit the location in the day time before embarking on your photo shoot and look for hazards ahead of time. Make sure you know where you will be setting up and how you will get there. You may even want to arrive at dusk so that you’ll have time to compose your shot before the low light makes that difficult. And also be sure you are on public lands and that you are permitted to be there after dark. And for safety, bring an assistant along with you.
Composition is important in any landscape photo, but nighttime photos in particular can benefit from having a strong focal point in the foreground, such as an interesting tree or rock formation. Think about the way the object might appear in the finished image and then experiment with the height of your tripod. A composition that places a strong subject against the sky will be more dramatic than one shot from a higher position. For even more drama, do your shoot on a full moon – the moonlight will help illuminate your scene and give it a sense of mystery.
On darker nights, remember that your camera is going to have a difficult time focusing on your subject. This is where that super-powerful flashlight comes into play. You can use it to illuminate your subject just long enough to lock the focus, or you could even leave it on during the shot to illuminate a single part of the scene and add an interesting lighting effect to the final image.
Don’t neglect the sky, since that’s probably going to be one of the most striking features in any nighttime landscape. Remember that in a long exposure the sky isn’t going to look a whole lot like what you see with the naked eye – on a clear night you’ll get star trails, and on a cloudy one the clouds will probably look more indistinct and whispy. You’ll also start to see colors and light that aren’t visible off-camera.
Since your environment is going to be dark, you will have to take a few experimental shots before you perfect the composition, so start by shooting a sample image with a wide aperture (low F-number) and a 30 to 45 second exposure. You can adjust your composition based on the results of the sample image, and then make exposure adjustments from there.
The Technical Stuff
It may be tempting to turn up your ISO when shooting nighttime landscapes, because low light naturally makes you think high ISO, right? Actually the opposite is true; when shooting long exposures at night, you want to turn the ISO down as low as it will go, since long exposures tend to create extra grain, which is not something you generally want in a landscape whether you are shooting it during the day or at night.
You will need to use your camera’s bulb setting to take these photos, since an exposure taken at night where there is no artificial lighting can take anywhere from a minute or two to 15 minutes or more, depending on how much moonlight there is. And, obviously, your cable or remote release is an important tool when taking long exposures of any kind.
You’ve probably heard photographers talk about “dynamic range“, which essentially refers to the highlights, shadows and everything in between in a photograph. An image with a high dynamic range has a broad range of shades and tones between those highlights and shadows. Shooting in RAW is a good idea if you want to capture the full dynamic range of a scene, which is a particularly good idea when shooting landscapes at night. Since you’re probably going to be doing some guesswork on your exposure time, having a broad range of data available in your final image means that the exposure itself doesn’t have to be perfect in order for you to end up with a perfect shot in post-processing.
Your camera can see a nighttime landscape in ways that your eyes simply cannot, which means that experimenting with these techniques has the potential to be a great learning experience with a lot fun wrapped up in it. With a little luck and a lot of planning, you’ll bring home some amazing shots, too.