How to Shoot Landscapes at Night :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to Shoot Landscapes at Night

by David Peterson 1 comment

Landscape photography has a few basic rules that most people learn pretty early on. First, when you shoot a landscape, you need to use a small aperture. That small aperture makes it possible for you to keep the entire scene in focus, from foreground to background.

Another landscape photography rule you probably learned early on has to do with your ISO. Low ISOs, you've been told, are critical for landscape photography because your ultimate goal is to capture as much detail as possible. When you use higher ISOs, you can get problems like excess noise, limited total range, and muddy colors. So landscapes need to be shot at ISO 100 or, if your camera gives you the option, at ISOs even lower than that.

So what is a conscientious landscape photographer to do after the sun goes down?

  • Nikon D800
  • 800
  • f/9.0
  • 65
  • 24 mm

desert at night after rain by Flickr user ejoui15

You can probably see the fundamental problem with nighttime landscape photography. Low light conditions call for exactly the opposite of what you need to capture a great landscape photo. When you shoot portraits at night, you probably turn up the ISO—maybe even quite a bit. You probably also use a larger aperture. If you have a 50 mm prime lens, that might even be your go-to lens for shooting in low light. But neither one of these strategies is good for landscape photos, so how exactly do you shoot landscapes at night? And why would you want to?

Nighttime landscapes can be absolutely stunning. When you shoot a landscape at night, it takes on a sort of surreal quality. And if you’re shooting sparsely populated areas, you get some artificial light in the mix that can add an otherworldly glow to the scenery. There are lots of reasons why you should try to shoot landscapes at night, and it might surprise you to hear that it’s not as challenging as it probably seems like it should be.

Gear

You’re not going to need that super-fast prime lens to shoot landscapes at night, because the same landscape rules you use for daytime photography still apply. You do need to shoot those landscapes with smaller apertures. And you do need to keep the ISO down. So first and foremost, the most important piece of equipment that you need to have it for landscape photography at night is not your lens, but a tripod.

When you’re shooting at those smaller apertures, sometimes you need a tripod even during the day. So it follows that when you’re shooting landscapes night, a tripod is an absolute necessity. After dark, those smaller apertures require sometimes very long shutter speeds, and you’ll need a way to stabilize your camera. So a good, sturdy tripod is the first thing you need to put in your car when you’re headed out to photograph low-light scenery.

If you can afford it, it’s a good idea to purchase a heavier tripod, because sometimes when you’re shooting landscapes you can be out in rough terrain or windy conditions. A lighter tripod may blow over in the wind or tip if the surface it’s sitting on isn’t perfectly level. Some tripods also have a hook that hangs down between the three legs—you can a hang your camera bag from this hook to further stabilize your tripod in breezy conditions.

The next thing you need is a way to remotely release your shutter. During long exposures, the simple act of touching your shutter button may be enough to introduce camera shake into your photographs. A remote shutter release will prevent this from happening, but if you don’t have one don’t worry—you can also use your camera’s self-timer function. Set it for about five seconds, and that should give your camera enough time to stop moving after you touch the button.

  • Nikon D7100
  • 100
  • f/5.6
  • 90
  • 12 mm

nit estels by Flickr user david palleja

Newer digital cameras perform very well in low light. So despite what you may have heard, when you’re shooting landscapes at night you don’t need to stick to those very low ISOs—though generally speaking, the lower ISO you can get away with, the better. You do have to balance that somewhat with the length of your exposure, however (very long exposures can also add noise to your photographs), so it may not be worth swapping a lower ISO for a very long exposure.

If you’re not sure how well your camera performs at higher ISOs, it is always a good idea to do some tests. Shoot a series of images of the same scene at increasing ISOs, and then look at each one of them at 100% magnification in your post-processing software. Make a note of when digital noise starts to become obvious, and try not to go above that ISO when you are shooting landscape images in low light.

Things to keep in mind

Now that you’ve got all your equipment ready, there are a few things you need to make sure you take note of before you start shooting. First, you need to think about elements in the scene that may be in motion. If you’re shooting on a breezy evening, for example, you may get some motion blur in the branches of trees or in the clouds when you shoot at exposures longer than a fraction of a second. Any living elements will also create motion blur—animals and people should be noted as you’re setting up your shot. Boats floating on the water may seem pretty still, but they can drift a considerable distance even in a few short seconds. Also remember that the stars move, too—if you don’t want to capture star trails in your image you’ll have to take steps to shorten the exposure time instead (usually by adjusting your ISO or aperture).

  • Olympus E-M5
  • 200
  • f/2.0
  • 900
  • 12 mm

F I F T E E N by Flickr user Bryce Bradford

Remember that very long exposures can actually “blur out” faster moving elements such as people and animals, provided that they don’t stop and linger in any one place for an extended period of time. This can actually be pretty useful if you’re photographing a landmark that still has a lot of foot traffic even after dark—if those tourists are just walking in and out of the frame they may not even show up in a very long exposure photograph.

Also consider whether or not those moving objects are necessarily a bad thing—maybe your image could benefit from a little motion blur. I personally like the way moving clouds look during long exposures—they create a sort of streaky blur in the sky that can look really surreal and interesting.

Settings

Keep in mind that your camera’s light meter may not give you the best results after dark, so you might have to experiment a little bit with your exposure. For the most part, you’ll probably be shooting very dark scenes using bulb or “B” mode, which is what you’ll see when you go past 30 seconds when selecting a shutter speed. In bulb mode, you get to choose how long to keep the shutter open—depending on your camera model, you will either push the shutter release button once to open the shutter and again to close it, or you’ll keep it open for the length of time the button is depressed (you need a remote release for this, obviously, since you can’t exactly keep your finger on the button for several minutes or more).

To come up with a rough guestimate for exposure time, first shoot a test image at ISO 6400. Let’s say you get a good exposure at this ISO with a shutter speed of 2 seconds—that’s roughly equivalent to a 2-minute exposure at ISO 100, as long as you use the same f-stop for both shots. If you stick with making your test shots at ISO 6400 and your final shots at ISO 100, this is always going to be an easy calculation—you will always translate from seconds to minutes (3 seconds equals 3 minutes, 5 seconds equals 5 minutes etc.)

This can be a little limiting, however, especially if you don’t want to always shoot at ISO 100. So instead of recommending that you take a few math classes, I suggest downloading a smartphone app to help with this calculation. You can get one for your iPhone called “First Exposure,” which is free and allows you to find the equivalent exposure for any test shot you make at any setting. For example, if you shoot a well-exposed test shot at ISO 3200, f/5.6, 2 seconds, just enter those numbers into the calculator along with your desired f-stop and ISO (let’s say f/8 and ISO 200) and you’ll get a result of 1 minute 5 seconds, which is the exposure length you’ll need at those settings to get an equally well-exposed result. Having a tool like this on hand can help you avoid lots of wasted time spent guessing at your exposure. If you don’t like First Exposure, there are a handful of similar apps available (some paid, some free) that you can try. Other apps will let you specify your lighting conditions (full moon, new moon, street lighting etc.) so you can avoid that test shot altogether, but I find that making a test shot and calculating from there is generally the most accurate way to arrive at your settings.

  • Nikon D80
  • 200
  • f/4.0
  • 404
  • 10 mm

La Tierra: planeta azul by Flickr user  www.mariorubio.com 

Remember that your camera’s autofocus setting isn’t going to work very well at night, either—you’ll probably find that your camera does a lot of annoying “hunting,” (zipping in and out without ever locking on anything) and you may find yourself fighting the desire to throw it at the thing you’re trying to focus on. I almost never recommend throwing your camera, so instead you should try switching to manual focus whenever you’re shooting after dark. It can help to set your focus point to infinity before you leave the house, or failing that if there’s something bright on the horizon (a point of light from a distant building, for example) you can also try locking focus on that. If you’re still not getting great results try firing off a few more test shots at higher ISOs—look at your results on your LCD and then adjust your focus until you’re getting test shots that are tack-sharp.

One final suggestion—make sure you shoot in Raw format if your camera is able to. In Raw, you’re going to be able to capture more levels of brightness than you can in JPG, which means that you have more leeway for correcting minor exposure problems in post processing.

Conclusion

Make sure you practice safe shooting—it’s always a good idea to scout out your after-dark locations during the day, so you can make determinations about where to set up and how to safely get there. Bring a flashlight (and remember to turn it off during exposures) so you can easily see where you’re walking and what settings you’re choosing. And remember to be aware of your surroundings—it’s generally not a good idea to take photographs alone at night, for simple safety reasons—if the wrong person happens to come along you could find yourself (and your camera) becoming someone’s victim. And if you trip over something in the darkness and break a bone, you don’t want to be out there alone. So make sure you bring a friend and that you stay aware of your surroundings—if strange people are lingering, that’s a great indication that it’s time to pack up and go home.

  • Canon EOS 5D Mark II
  • 400
  • f/2.8
  • 15
  • 24 mm

Mountains in Motion by Flickr user chasedekker

Now that that’s out of the way, you are probably going to amaze yourself with your night photography results. Landscapes photographs shot at night often look nothing like what you saw with your eyes, because at those long exposures your camera can capture details that aren’t obvious to the average human in dark conditions. So if you’re not happy with your initial results, keep trying—those fabulous photos are likely to be just a few experiments away.

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Comments

  1. Oon Thiam Swee says:

    A very detail explanation I learn a lot from here.Thanks to David

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Difficulty:
Beginner
Length:
16 minutes
About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.