Night landscape photography yields amazing looking images, sometimes showing things not readily apparent in daytime images. It can also obscure certain elements of the scene.
Good news! Nighttime landscape photography can be done with equipment you probably already own. As we discuss how to photograph landscapes at night, we’ll look at night nature photography as well as cityscape landscapes.
Astrophotography will be included in some of the night photography tips since the night sky is often one of the reasons photographers want to engage in night landscape photography in the first place.
We’ll start our night landscape photography tips with a few ideas on digital camera gear that works well with capturing night time images.
You can create many nighttime photos with simple gear, even our smartphones probably have camera features or modes that can be used. In order to craft an image to show what you want seen, it’s usually preferred to have a camera with manual exposure and focus control, the ability to capture RAW files, and interchangeable lenses.
For almost anyone reading this website, that means you already have a camera and lens combination you can use. Entry level, advanced, prosumer, and pro models of current DSLRs and mirrorless cameras will have the features needed.
Interestingly to some newcomers to night landscape photography, a fast lens is not a prerequisite. A fast lens is great for some of this type of photography though, especially if you’re trying to shoot without a tripod.
What we want is a high quality lens, one that handles point light sources well without much distortion. Outside of reading test reports, a little experimentation of our own can tell us if our lens is a good candidate. Just take some pics of point light sources and check for the common distortions.
The three most common distortions of point light sources is coma, the point looking like a comma. Halo (my personal term), where the point has a ring around it. And color fringing, where some colors may appear out of register, or as a coma or halo.
How the lens handles points of light is important in night landscape photography because of stars, planets, and manmade sources. Thankfully, almost all distortion in modern lenses, including kit lenses, disappears when we stop down a couple of f-stops in aperture.
A tripod, camera mount, or tripod alternative is a necessary tool for night landscape photography. The low light levels and longer exposure times are the primary reasons. Any sturdy and adjustable mount will work.
Blue Hour is the time period before sunrise or after sunset when the sky is still illuminated by the Sun, but with the Sun below the horizon. Depending on season and latitude, Blue Hour can be as short as about 20 or 30 minutes or it can last an hour and a half or so. The light levels will change rapidly during this time.
Composition will determine how nightlike the sky will appear. Shooting towards the sun direction will yield a lighter sky, shooting away from it will be darker. The color spectrum leans towards the blue and violet end of the spectrum, hence the label Blue Hour.
Night landscape photography gives us an opportunity to show the stars, planets, and other celestial objects like nebulae and aurorae. During Blue Hour or when the Moon is out, clouds may be visible.
An especially beautiful sky feature that shows up even after Blue Hour is mostly over are noctilucent clouds. These won’t show in full night, but can stay visible during the long astronomical twilight.
By the way, I’m speaking mostly with regard to sunset and after only to avoid repetition. For pre dawn imagery, simply reverse any time sensitive references I make and it will cover pre dawn twilight and Blue Hour.
Regular, terrestrial weather types of clouds might be visible when the Moon is up or if we’re shooting a cityscape style landscape at night. Skyglow can be really bright depending on what urban area you’re in. It can also affect nature night photography since it’s a feature of modern civilization. There are specialty lens filters that block the spectrum of a lot of skyglow if it is an issue in your landscapes.
A landscape illuminated by moonlight can be a gorgeous part of night landscape photography. Moonlight is essentially reflected sunlight. A full moon’s light is much brighter than a gibbous or crescent moon, though it still be far lower in intensity than any sunlight.
The light quality of moonlight is special. It’s a little bit like using a silver reflector in portrait or product photography but it’s applied to the entire scene in nighttime landscape photography. A favorite of many nature photographers is moonlight on water, whether still waters like a lake or running water such as a brook or waterfall.
Including the Moon itself as a sky feature may require some exposure processing modification. This is because the Moon is often much brighter than we imagined.
Remember that the Full Moon is practically an object lit by full sunlight, so we can even apply the Sunny 16 Rule if we were only imaging the Moon alone. Including it as a small part of the landscape image may require some balancing out the exposure values through post-processing.
Astrophotography rules! Sometimes I say it like I’m a cheerleader or an avid fan. If you have yet to try out astrophotography, engaging in night landscape photography is a great opportunity to get your feet wet.
In relation to the subject of night landscapes, we need to keep certain exposure rules for astrophotography in mind to avoid the stars recording as smears or streaks of light.
The 500 Rule is the often applied method for our calculations. Remember that the 500 Rule also applies to the length of time required for HDR photography.
Recording as RAW files or using high dynamic range (HDR) photography allows us more options in how the final image may appear.
RAW files hold much more information than a JPEG, most importantly for night landscapes that involves the deep shadow exposure information. This gives us an opportunity to really pull out detail in the darker parts of the image which is often a large portion of the image in night landscape photography.
HDR photography, also known as the bracket and merge technique, provides us with even more image detail which we can adjust to our heart’s desire. Simple post-programs can be used for both of these concerns.
An interesting sub genre of night landscape photography is adding foreground interest by illuminating subject elements with artificial lights, such as portable LED light. Light painting can also be included here, as can including traffic in your composition.
Night landscape photography has some special challenges and a few added rules or techniques, but everything you already know about landscapes and cityscapes applies. Composition rules and tips, exposure balancing, depth of field or selective focus, color or B&W, it’s there at night, too.
Simply take your great gear and ever expanding skill set to your favorite site, just do it at night! Night landscape photography is a blast to do, and the images can be truly outstanding.