Light is the most important element of any photograph. Understanding and appreciating light and the ways it works can make all the difference between a decent photo and amazing photo, and this is never more true than when you have very little light to work with.
Night exposures tend to require a very long shutter speed, which can make the effects of the available light somewhat counter-intuitive, but with a bit of practice you’ll get the hang of it. These tips will should help make your experiments that much easier!
Invest in Good Equipment
It may seem like an obvious point, but investing in high-quality equipment can make a huge difference in night photography. Whether you’re shooting starscapes, landscapes or a blend of both, having access to a sturdy tripod makes all the difference in the world. Virtually all of your night time photographs will be long exposures, so a solid, stable tripod that’s quick easy to assemble, balance, and disassemble becomes essential.
It can also be extremely useful to have a remote shutter trigger. For certain types of night time landscapes, you’ll want to use the ‘bulb’ shutter setting on your camera. Usually shutter times only measure up to 30 seconds and anything longer requires ‘bulb’, which means that the shutter will stay open as long as you hold the shutter button. Since you don’t want to be actually touching the camera during an exposure that long (to avoid camera shake/blur), a remote trigger is another great item to pack in your night photography kit.
Avoid Light Pollution
Living in or near a city presents a ton of excellent opportunities for photography, but it can actually be a bit of a problem when you’re shooting at night. In an age of widespread electricity we tend to forget just how bright the nights are in the city – at least until we start taking long exposure photographs. Even driving to a point just outside a city doesn’t always save your images from light pollution, so be prepared for a bit of a trip to get a truly natural nighttime sky.
Light pollution can occur even in more rural areas, where even a single light or two can really stand out from the rest of the darkness. It might not seem too bright to the naked eye, but a 15 or 30 second long exposure can dramatically change the way it appears.
Be Aware of Long Exposure Motion
Most landscape photographers are familiar with the tactic of using a long exposure time to blur the water in a stream or river. This blurring or ghosting effect is even more pronounced at the extremely long exposures usually used for night photography, and even the slightest touch of wind can turn the trees in your shot into foggy apparitions.
Of course, you can use this effect to your advantage to create ghostly landscapes that would never be seen during the daylight hours. Like in all things photographic, awareness and intent is the measure of your skill!
Be Aware of Long Exposure Skies
Alternatively, you may find that during a long exposure, your camera sees things very differently to your own eye. In the photograph below, you can clearly see the aurora borealis (the Northern Lights) along the horizon, showing up a bright green and red in-camera. When looking at this scene with the naked eye, the Northern Lights were just a pale white haze on the horizon. I was completely surprised by this result, but pleased! Unfortunately, the foreground is a mess because I wasn’t expecting to do any night photography from the cottage dock 😉
One of the other great things about long exposure motion is that you can occasionally capture the brief arc of a meteor in your skies. Pure chance (or a great deal of time and patience!) can make your night landscapes truly special. The orbital path of the Earth regularly takes us through meteor clouds that appear to us as shooting stars, so a bit of research into the best nights to see them at your latitude is time well spent.
Keep Your ISO as Low as Possible
It’s usually a good idea to keep your ISO as low as possible while still being able to keep your shutter and aperture at the desired settings, but it becomes even more important with long exposure photography.
In some situations, having a camera with an incredibly wide ISO range is very useful. Since you’re already going to be shooting with a fairly long exposure time, you get a bit more leeway in your choice of ISO than you would if you were shooting handheld in low light conditions.
Higher ISO settings are almost always a direct cause of higher levels of digital noise in your images, and it can be very frustrating to remove in the post processing phase. Some cameras have extra noise control algorithms for long exposures, but they won’t apply if you’re shooting RAW (as you should be!), so to be safe, keep your ISO low.
Experiment: Foreground Light Painting
One of the best tips for a good landscape photograph, whether it’s day or night, is to have well-balanced interest in both the foreground and the background. This helps the eye move through the image and keeps things interesting, unless you’re intentionally going for a stark aesthetic.
When you’re shooting at night, the foreground often winds up taking a backseat to the skyline and the sky itself. Even if you’ve got a nice balance of lighting throughout the scene, you might want to highlight certain elements in the foreground. Since you’re probably shooting with a very long exposure, this is the perfect chance to experiment with a tactic known as ‘light painting’.
Grab a trusty flashlight (the brighter the better), and shine the beam over elements of the scene you want to highlight while the shutter is open. The longer you shine the flashlight, the more noticeable the elements you’ve painted will be. You’ll have to play around with it a bit to find the right balance of painting time for your particular situation, but it’s great fun!
One last point: be conscious of the colour of the light source in your flashlight. Incandescent bulbs will give off a warmer light, while a newer LED flashlight will probably be much brighter but give off a very cool blue light. This can all be adjusted later in Photoshop, of course, but the less post processing you have to do, the better. Have fun!