How To Properly Shoot Landscape Night Photographs

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Shooting landscapes during the night can make for a stunning photo. Our eyes can see the night sky in great sensitivity – we can look at the stars and even see the Milky Way if the conditions are right. DSLR cameras, however, have even greater abilities than our eyes and can produce night photos with fantastic details of the night sky. These photos can be achieved by using the advantages of DSLR cameras like high ISO capabilities, fast aperture lenses and long exposures. But shooting night landscapes does not come without its challenges – noise and shallow depth of field (DOF) issues.

Shooting landscapes in during the day has an huge advantage when it comes to exposure settings. Low ISO means high quality, low noise and high dynamic range photos. Small aperture settings gain us large DOF, and the shutter can be set to almost any speed we want creating short or long exposures. When shooting at night, we have less control over the settings and some are almost pre-determined to allow enough light to reach the sensor.

Exposure Settings

1. ISO

Shooting at night forces us to use high ISO settings. From my experience, in order to get sufficient exposure you’ll need to use ISO settings of 800 or higher in order get good results (this of course, depends on many factors, like your lens and how much ambient light there is, but it is pretty hard to go below that). Using high ISO makes the camera more sensitive to light, but not without drawbacks.

Problem: High ISO generates noise. The noise makes the photo grainy and distorts colors.

Solution: There are two options for dealing with High ISO noise: 1) Using a higher quality camera that can produce high ISO photos with minimal noise (e.g. full frame cameras). This solution is obviously not going to work for you if you have a different type of camera so option 2) is to clean the noise at post production in editing software like Photoshop or Lightroom, Topaz Labs Or Noise Ninja.

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2. Aperture

Shooting landscapes at day time allows us to use small aperture to get large DOF. At night time we need every bit of light we can get our hands lens on, so we usually opt for the widest aperture our lens can offer.

Problem: Wide aperture means shallow DOF.

Solution: In order to get the largest depth of field possible, one which includes both the sky and as much foreground as we can get, we will have to use something called hyper focal distance. The hyper focal distance is the closest distance we can focus on while still maintaining Depth Of Field that lasts to infinity.

Here are some examples with numbers, you can always calculate the DOF using a DOF Calculator. For example, if I use a 14mm lens with 2.8 F-stop, the hyper focal distance is 2.5 meters. That means I can focus on 2.5 meters and the in-focus area will stretch from 1.5 meters to infinity. Each focal length and aperture combination has its own hyper focal distance which can be calculated with a DOF calculator available in the internet or a smart phone application (here is one for iDevices and one for Android)

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3. Shutter speed

Using slow shutter speeds and making long exposures is probably one of the easiest to get more light in the camera. Depending on the camera, long exposures can generate some noise but the more advanced the camera is, the less noise it produces. The bigger issue with long exposure is that earth is rotating on its axis and the sky moves relatively to our position.

Problem: Stars can look smeared (or create strikes) if we expose for too long and, so they will look like small lines rather than dots. If we don’t mind smearing the stars, exposure time can be as long as we want. Actually, if you make it long enough (or stack several photos), it can be quite interesting.

Solution: Get the stars to look like the dots we are familiar with by limiting the exposure time. The maximal exposure time depends on the focal length we use. The wider the focal length – the more we can expose. There is a rule for that – it is called the 600 rule and it says that you have to be faster than 600/<focal length>.

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Here are my recommendation for maximal exposure time:

  • 24mm (FF) / 17mm (crop): 30 seconds
  • 16mm (FF) / 10mm (crop): 45 second
  • 14mm (FF): 50 seconds

*The times are based on my own experience.
*Using these exposures you will smear the stars, but it will only be noticeable if you zoom inside the photo. If you want to avoid smearing at all I recommend 10-15 seconds less.

Composition

Undoubtedly one of the most important elements in your photo.

In a typical night photo, the night sky will take the majority of the frame. So the camera will have to be close to the ground and pointing upwards. Even though we’re shooting mostly sky, it is still important to include at least some foreground with a powerful element. This will add interest to the photo and connect the viewer to the ground. Good foreground elements can be mountains, old trees, interesting rock formations, rock arches and more. We will usually compose them at the bottom part of the frame.

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Preferable conditions for night photography

If you’re aiming to get as much star light possible with minimum interference

 

  1. Light pollution: Try to get as far as you can from any city or artificial light source that will disturb the night sky and create yellow/green glow on the horizon.
  2. Height: The higher you are – the closer you will be to the stars… At high altitudes the layers of air between you and the sky will be thinner and you will see the stars brighter.
  3. Air pollution/clouds: If the air is polluted or filled with clouds it will be hard to see the stars.
  4. Moon light and foreground lighting: Moon light is an important factor when shooting nightscapes, so it’s important to plan ahead and know the time of moon rise and set and the appearance percentage. Moon light has advantages and disadvantages. When the moon is shining, it lights your foreground and it doesn’t look very dark, but it also lights the sky and the stars don’t stand out as much. When the moon isn’t shining, your foreground will be darker (unless you paint it with artificial light), but the stars stand out the most against the sky. Sometimes the best conditions are met when the moon is shining but in the beginning or the end of its cycle at about 10-20%.

Artificial light painting

If you want to shoot with no moon light to get better lighting from the stars you might need to paint your foreground with artificial light. Light painting can be done with all kinds of light (Flash, led lamps, torches…). To make the lighting amount on your foreground look natural it is important to make several shots and see how much time/how strong you need to do the lighting. I recommend to light the object from both sides to create shadows and make it look 3 dimensional. If you want to the sky in your photo to look Bluish you’ll usually have to choose low Kelvin temperature for the white balance of the photo (2500-3500). Choosing low Kelvin temperature will also make your Foreground look Bluish so it is recommended to light your foreground With a CTO gel on top of the light source to give the foreground a more natural color.

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Recommended Gear

Cameras: Naturally,  cameras that can handle high ISO like Full Frame DSLRs are preferable. Whatever camera you’re using, try to learn the maximum ISO you can use and get descent results.

Lenses: Wide angle lenses with fast aperture are highly recommended. A wide angle lens will allow you to capture a very wide view angle of both the ground and sky and will also allow long exposure time without smearing the stars. Faster apertures let more light through the lens.

Tripod: A sturdy tripod is important so the camera will be stable and won’t move during the long exposure. Another advantage is a tripod that can get really low and allows you to compose with the camera pointing towards the sky.

About The Author

Tomer Razabi  is a passionate landscape and wildlife freelance photographer. Tomer also guides landscape photography courses and  guides photography trips in Israel and around the world. To See more of Tomer’s work you can visit his website, and his facebook page. This article is based on Tomer’s articles section.

  • http://wilcfry.com/ Wil Fry

    I don’t do a lot of night photography, so I’m not “quibbling”, but simply asking: If you’ve got a decent tripod, what’s the reason for wide aperture and/or high ISO? Can’t you simply lengthen the exposure?

    Having shot a lot of high school and college sporting events (night/indoors), I’m very familiar with super-wide aperture and super-high ISO — because I want a fast exposure (1/400 or faster, if possible) to freeze the action. But I would think for a night landscape that I could go with ISO100 and f/8 (or similar) and simply let the shutter run as long as needed.

    Obviously with stars, this introduces some streaking, and any motion of the trees/grass would introduce motion blur — is that what you’re trying to avoid?

    • tvrdak

      Long exposure (and long focal distance) = stars stop being just dots, but star trails instead. Earth is moving too!
      Read this article more carefully, its right there! (and I actually think it is a great article about this topic, its just like a manual) :)

      • http://wilcfry.com/ Wil Fry

        The article (and my comment) both mentioned star trails. Is this the only reason to avoid long exposure? What if the stars aren’t in the frame? I checked the few night shots I’ve recorded, and about 80% of the time the sky was overcast.

        Again, I’m just asking (whether high ISO and wide aperture are always the best way to go). :-)

      • Jim Bernardi

        I’m just getting my feet wet regarding night photography and have the same question. And I think star streaks are kind of cool!

    • GS_790

      I think the basic idea is the more light you can get on the sensor plane, the more options you have. Better to have too much light and stop down than to have too little.

      If I can remember correctly, the conservative estimate is the rule of thumb of 500. 500 divided by focal length equals the time you can expose before stars change from discreet points into wandering blobs. I think you need to adjust for crop factor so probably use 600 is you’re using a crop camera.

      • http://wilcfry.com/ Wil Fry

        That makes sense, I guess. Thank you.

    • http://www.flickr.com/photos/bluegreenorange/ Mike Donahue

      The streaking of the stars is exactly the reason for the shorter exposure time. Check out the part about the 600 rule (some people use the 500 rule) as different focal lengths actually will affect how long you have before things start streaking.

      • http://wilcfry.com/ Wil Fry

        GS_790 said as much below. Thanks for the confirmation. As I said, I don’t shoot much at night, and when I do the stars aren’t often in the shots (or it’s cloudy). I’ll keep that in mind, just in case. :-)

    • Jim

      Another problem for long exposure is that your camera heated up. CMOS sensor is sensive to heat. The hotter it gets, the noisier image will be.
      Try to take a series long exposure photo (say 15 mins each at ISO 100), you will see that the images are noisier than “everyday ISO 100 images”.

      I hope it helps. :)

  • https://www.facebook.com/ilan.zvuluni Ilan Zvuluni

    יפה! העברת אינפורמציה מעולה!

  • Nate Cochrane

    I do a bit of night photography and this article is a good starting point. Some other things you might like to add are a laser pointer to help with auto-focusing (if you’re not good at manual focusing) and a remote shutter or cable release. You may also like to consider enabling mirror lockup to reduce shake when you press the shutter.

    With newer full-frame cameras you can shoot easily at 1600 or 3200 ISO – even 6400 at a pinch. Shooting over water will also give you a bit more reflected light in the scene.

    Here’s an example of the sort of image you can get following the advice outlined above https://flic.kr/p/cuqQNy