Generally speaking, after the sun goes down, most photographers pack up their gear and head inside. After all, the good light has passed and it's time to relax after a long day. Admittedly, I've been guilty of doing this very thing on many occasions, as the lure of the comfortable couch or easy chair is quite enticing as the daylight fades away.
However, with the setting of the sun and the onset of night comes a great opportunity to try some different photographic techniques and to see and make images of our surroundings in a different ‘light’. These 11 tips, given in no particular order, will help you on your way to making some stunning night landscape images.
Tip #1: Get to know the landscape
Whether this is your first time at a particular shooting location, or if you have been there a hundred times before, it is a good idea to get the lay of the land before nightfall. This may mean showing up an hour or so prior to sunset to get familiar with the surroundings and to figure out the best place to set up for the shot. Getting to know the landscape will help to determine what you want to include (or not include) in the composition. So get out there early, even if it is a place you have been before. Another benefit to arriving early is that you will have time to set up the camera in the daylight instead of fumbling around in the dark and will also allow your eyes to slowly adjust to the changing lighting conditions. This will undoubtedly make for a much more enjoyable evening and night of shooting, as you will feel more confident and relaxed, enabling you to make some great images.
Tip #2: Start shooting before dark
Once the sun sets, the colors and light in the sky quickly change. There may be various shades of reds, oranges, and yellows or blues. The sky will become a deeper and darker blue for the next 30 to 60 minutes after the sun goes down, before becoming completely black. If you have arrived early enough, found the composition you like, and set up your camera on the tripod, then go ahead and start shooting early. You will find that although you are shooting the same scene, the different colors and light will give each image a very different look. For instance, silhouettes will be much more visible against a dark blue sky rather than the total blackness of night.
Tip #3: Include a foreground element
This is not a hard and fast rule, but you will typically want to find something to include in the foreground when shooting a landscape. This applies not only during the day, but also at night. Maybe there is an old barn or car, maybe a tree or some rocks, or even a small pond or lake. Since it will be dark, the foreground may be a silhouette against a starlit or moonlit sky. Alternatively, use a small flashlight to ‘paint’ the foreground object to give it some definition (more on that later). A foreground element will make the shot much more interesting and engaging to the viewer, and will help to lead the eye through the scene. After dark, it may be more difficult finding something that will work for the foreground, so get on-location early (see Tip #1).
Tip #4: Use a tripod
Shooting at night, you will likely be working with relatively long exposure times, with shutter speeds of five to ten seconds or even longer. A good, sturdy tripod and ball head will be critical to stabilize the camera and give you sharp shots. Jim gives his suggestions for some great tripods and ball heads to fit every budget here.
Tip #5: Use larger aperture settings
Shooting daytime landscapes will typically call for stopping down the lens to f/16 or even f/22 for maximum depth of field. However, you will not have that luxury shooting night landscapes due to the lack of usable light. You will need to find the right balance between the depth of field needed (aperture) and the amount of light (or absence thereof) that you have to work with. Start out with an aperture of maybe f/5.6 and work from there. If more light is needed, you may need to use even wider apertures. Using these larger apertures may mean that you won’t be able to get everything in focus in a single shot. If this is the case, take two or three separate shots, focusing at different depths in the scene and blend the shots in post-processing.
Tip #6: Find your focus
Focusing for landscape photography can be a challenge, especially at night. The challenge will be how to achieve focus when there is not enough light for the camera’s autofocus system to lock onto the subject. In many instances, using a flashlight or spotlight of some kind to illuminate something in your scene will provide enough light for the camera to focus. Another option may be to use a distant streetlight or house light to focus deep into the scene to provide the background focus that you need. Once you have locked on to the scene, switch your lens to manual focus to prevent inadvertently changing the focus while shooting.
Tip #7: Bring a headlamp
I believe it was mentioned before, but it will be dark when you are shooting night landscapes, making it difficult to see your camera to change settings or see into the camera bag. Wearing a headlamp is a great option to provide some light when you need it, but more importantly, it will keep your hands free to adjust camera settings, change lenses, or to find the spare battery that is buried somewhere in the bottom of your camera bag.
Tip #8: Shoot for the stars
When shooting landscapes during the daylight hours, we typically prefer to have some nice clouds in the sky to provide a little more drama in the scene. Shooting at night, however, is a bit different. If possible, get out on a clear, moonless night, away from the lights of the city. The number of stars visible to our naked eye is amazing under the right conditions, and can really make for some dramatic images. You’ve probably seen night landscapes with the beautiful, nebulous gases of the Milky Way. Try to set up for your shot with a strong foreground subject, possibly some trees in the middle ground, and the Milky Way in the background sky. Another great option is to set up your composition so the camera is shooting in a northerly direction. Then shoot a series of images and stack them in Photoshop or other stacking software to create some amazing star trail images.
Tip #9: Take a test shot
Once you have set the composition you want, achieved focus, and leveled the camera, take a test shot or two that is overexposed by several stops. I typically do this by cranking the ISO way up and speeding up the shutter to decrease the time to take the shots. The overexposed images will allow you to see what’s going on in the scene and catch things that you may otherwise have missed. You can make adjustments to the composition and also check the horizon line for level, incrementally taking test shots until you get the desired result. Once everything is adjusted to your liking, return the camera settings to the desired exposure to take the shot.
Tip #10: Paint with light
When shooting at night, everything in the foreground is likely going to be just a silhouette against the night sky. One great and really fun way to add interest to your night landscape images is to ‘paint’ part of the scene with light. Some great tips for painting with light can be found at this link. Generally, what you want to do is use a flashlight to light up a part of the scene while the shutter is open. For instance, if you have say a barn, or an old car in the foreground, you will click to open the shutter, then move the beam of light over the subject during the exposure. Then check the image on the LCD to see if you like the result. Most likely, you will want to give this several tries to get the lighting just the way you want it in the photo.
Tip #11: Try Something you Think is too Ordinary
Don’t forget that you are out in the dark making images because it is fun! We all want to get ‘the shot’, but don’t be afraid to try a different composition of even a new technique that you may not have tried before. Maybe that old car in the foreground would really look cool if there was a colored light inside to make it appear to glow. Or perhaps you want to put yourself, or someone else, in the scene. Experiment with different camera settings. You may be surprised what you come up with and in the process give yourself a wide variety of images to choose from when you get them home and on the computer.