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.
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.
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)
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>.
- 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.
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.
Preferable conditions for night photography
If you’re aiming to get as much star light possible with minimum interference
- 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.
- 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.
- Air pollution/clouds: If the air is polluted or filled with clouds it will be hard to see the stars.
- 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.
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 freelance landscape photographer and owner of Wild Travel – adventure and nature expeditions company. Tomer guides photography expeditions in Israel and around the world.