Today’s post comes from extraordinary surf and landscape photographer Chris Burkard, who was recently featured by Smugmag’s short film, Arctic Swell. Chris has made it his life’s work to find wild, remote destinations and then capture the juxtaposition of humans in these environments. The world is an oftentimes harsh, humbling, and magical place, and Chris wants to photograph it all.
He shares his essential night landscape tips below. You can browse his portfolio and print store on his site.
It’s hard to beat the enchanting feeling of star gazing at a clear night sky. You soon become lost in its beauty like a giant kaleidoscope full of shooting stars, planets, and glow from the setting sun or nearby cities. I’ve traveled to countless countries over the past ten years and some of my fondest memories occur long after the sun has set. Whether it’s camping near my home in Big Sur or witnessing a rare northern lights show in the Arctic, I’ve had the privilege and challenge of documenting these night landscapes.
My introduction to night photography happened when I took a road trip in 2006 along the entire California coastline. My friend Eric Soderquist and I spent over two months on the road in his Volkswagon bus in search of waves in every California county. The trip was later turned into a book, The California Surf Project, and looking back through its pages you can see some of the early stages of my night photography. Camping under the stars literally every night made me that much more appreciative and eager to capture the beauty of the night sky. Fast forward 8 years and I’m still drawn to these dark moments where my friends and I are huddled around a campfire in Iceland or getting lost in the magic of the northern lights in Norway. Photographing in the dark certainly requires some adjusting but here’s some tips to prepare you for the next time you’re shooting night landscapes.
Night Landscape Photography Tip 1: Get Away From the City
The farther you are from city lights the clearer you will be able to see stars and the less light pollution you’re going to have. The photo pictured above was shot in Big Sur, CA a few hours from any major cities.
Night Landscape Photography Tip 2: To Infinity!
Set your focus to infinity or focus on far away light sources to make sure you get the sky in focus. If you want to focus on your subject shine a light on them.
Night Landscape Photography Tip 3: Trial & Error
Don’t be afraid to test settings to see what works best. The beauty of working with digital cameras is that you get instant feedback. I usually open my aperture as wide as it will go (f/2.8 or wider) and then vary my ISO depending on how bright the sky is. In this particular photo I exposed for 30 seconds at f/1.8 and 400 ISO. I like to keep my ISO as low as possible.
Night Landscape Photography Tip 4: Frame Up
Remember that the sky is your hero in the photo. Try framing the sky in the upper 2/3 of your image and then vary your angle depending on the scenario. With the northern lights creating a really dramatic light trail I framed up. You could do the same with the milky way or stars in general.
Night Landscape Photography Tip 5: Expose Long & Short
Long exposures are going to leave you light trails and short ones should make the stars nice and sharp. Try both methods for variety in your imagery.
Night Landscape Photography Tip 6: Bring a Headlamp
You can use a headlamp to light up your tent or even light paint a tree or waterfall. Practice the amount of light that you are shining out of your headlamp because it is easy to wash out the picture with too much light.
Night Landscape Photography Tip 7: Add a Subject
Adding that human element to a picture can give it a sense of perspective and depth. Play around with where you place the subject in your frame. The less busy your framing is the better.
Night Landscape Photography Tip 8: Mind the Moon
If you want to have clear stars shoot underneath a new moon or when the moon is below the horizon. If the moon is out you can play with the effects that it can have on your photograph. Use it to backlight trees or your subject but be careful not to let it wash out your picture.
Night Landscape Photography Tip 9: Use a Tripod
Or a rock or the hood of your car. A tripod is you’re most crucial piece of night photography gear. Joby makes great camping tripods cause they are small and packable. I also recommend a remote so you can make sure your shots are even more stable.
Night Landscape Photography Tip 10: Stay Up Late
Night skies are often darkest and most active late into the night. I’ve seen tons of meteor showers and northern lights shows way past midnight. Set an alarm and wake up if you have to or use a remote to take photos periodically throughout the night.
Check out our short film, Arctic Swell, to see Chris Burkard and pro surfers Patrick Millin, Brett Barley, and Chadd Konig brave sub-zero temperatures in the Arctic Circle. You can also read an interview with Chris Burkard on his career and photography