Whether you’re enjoying a camping trip or taking an evening hike, nothing beats the incredible views you get of the nighttime sky when you are far away from the city lights.
Capturing the moment on camera, however, is easier said than done if you don’t know a great deal about photography.
Luckily, we are here to share some night-time photography tips and tricks that will allow even the most novice photographer to take incredible landscape photos at night.
Plan your trip
While some photographs will be taken spontaneously, if you are purposefully setting out to capture night-time images, you should scout the location during the day first.
Choose a place away from the city to avoid light pollution; this is particularly important if you are planning on shooting the stars. You can use the International Dark Sky Association’s website to find a place with limited light pollution.
Getting to know your surroundings and checking for hazards during daylight hours will not only make it easier for you to get around in the dark, but it will also allow you to find great locations, so you can work more efficiently once the sun goes under.
While you’re checking out the location, check things like where you are allowed to park, if you are allowed to be there after a specific time, and think about how long you will have to walk around in the dark, so you can be well prepared and take enough food and water with you.
Don’t forget, it tends to get colder at night, and you’ll really start to feel it once you’ve chosen your spot and stopped moving around. Therefore, make sure you layer up before heading out, so you don’t get too cold while you’re out there. You may even want to consider taking some hand warmers with you.
Take the right gear
If you’re shooting in the dark, the gear you need is going to be a little different from what you find on your average photography gear list, so be prepared and take the following:
DSLR: Obviously you’re going to need a camera; ideally carry a DSLR with a bulb facility, along with a lens. For your lens, you want good speed, so look for an aperture in the f/1.4 to f/3.5 range.
Flashlight: A small flashlight or headlamp is a must not only to help you see your way around but also when it comes to setting up your equipment. Pack extra batteries or bring a spare so you don’t have to worry about being left in the dark.
Tripod: Make sure you pack a sturdy tripod, as you will require low shutter speeds for night-time photography. A cable release will also come in handy to ensure you get the sharpest pictures possible.
LED flashlight: Sometimes, during a long exposure, you may want to highlight an individual object in your shot. For that, you’re going to want a powerful LED flashlight or night vision flashlight.
Spare batteries: We mentioned spare batteries for your flashlight, but don’t forget to pack some for your camera too! Long exposures will drain your battery fast, so you want to ensure you have some spare, fully charged batteries in your bag.
Ideally, you should arrive at your location a little before dark, so you can get set up and find a composition you like while you’ve still got a bit of light. Once the sun goes down, the light and colors in the sky are going to change pretty fast, so you want to be around to capture that and get some interesting shots.
You’ll experience various shades of yellows, oranges, and reds before the sky turns a nice, deep, dark shade of blue. This can last for about half an hour to an hour after sunset, and then it will go completely dark.
When setting up your camera, think about your composition. Having a strong focal point in the foreground is a good idea whenever you’re doing any type of landscape photography, but this is especially the case when shooting in the dark.
Your foreground element could be anything from a rock formation to a mountain peak or small tree. While you may choose to include it as an interesting silhouette against the moonlit sky, you could also use your LED flashlight to paint the object and really bring it to the forefront.
Having this element in your shot will make the image that much more engaging for the viewer. Play around with the height of your tripod and take a few practice shots until you are happy with the composition.
Of course, one of the best things about shooting at night is that incredible night sky, so try to capture the Milky Way in the background sky. This is where you’re planning will come in handy; pick a clear, moonless sky for some really dramatic shots.
Getting the right shot
Now, it’s time for the more technical stuff.
To get the best results, use manual focus. While cameras these days come with some pretty advanced autofocus systems, the AF sensor in your DSLR will likely not perform as well at night since there is not enough light to allow it to lock onto the subject.
While illuminating your foreground element can help with this, you should try and get your manual focus skills up to speed in case this doesn’t work out. This will also stop the focus from inadvertently changing once you’ve already locked onto your chosen scene. For nighttime shoots, you want to focus at infinity, or just before; you may find it tricky to do this at night so prepare in advance and do this during the day.
The next thing you need to tackle is your camera’s ISO capabilities. Now, you may think low light equals high ISO to avoid slow shutter speeds, but this is not always the case. Often, when shooting landscapes at night, that means low exposures, which tend to create extra grain. For this reason, you may want to turn the ISO as low as you can.
However, these days many of the newer cameras are quite adept at handling higher ISOs. That’s why you need to learn more about your camera beforehand to understand its ISO capabilities. It’s all about finding the right settings to allow your camera to perform to its full potential, so take a few test shots at different ISOs and try to find the right one.
Once you’re ready to start taking photographs, take that cable release and lock open the shutter (this is where bulb mode comes in handy). Take note of the start time with a stopwatch or using the stopwatch function on your phone.
Once the shutter is open, it’s time to illuminate your foreground element. When painting with your flashlight, try to use slow and even strokes. You should avoid shining the light on one particular spot for too long.
It may take you awhile to find the right exposure and figure out how much light you need, which is why it’s important to note down timings and how long you illuminated your subject.
Since you’re likely going to be doing a bit of guesswork on your exposure time, so it’s a good idea to shoot RAW instead of JPG. This allows you to capture the full dynamic range of a scene, giving you more possibilities in post-processing.