Some techniques for capturing nighttime landscapes

Landscape photography at night is a terrific method to broaden your skill set and generate unique photographs. Night photography has unique obstacles, yet it can be a highly rewarding approach to capture the scenery. This essay is meant to provide some pointers to help you get started with midnight landscape photography.

Denali and the Northern Lights.
8 minutes @ f/4.0, ISO 1250, Canon 5d Mark III 24-105mm lens

Shooting at night was incredibly difficult in the days of film. Long exposures of star trails or the use of pricey astronomical equipment to enable your camera to move and follow stars were your only alternatives. The newest digital SLR cameras make shooting night settings simpler than ever. Keep these concerns in mind before venturing out to photograph.

Snowmass Lake is bathed in a soft moonlight.
15 sec @ f/4.0 ISO 1600 Canon 5d Mark II 17-40mm lens

The importance of light in every shot is undeniable, and shooting at night is no different. Using a natural light source, such as the moon, is the simplest approach to illuminate a nighttime scene. Any landscape photographer will tell you that the greatest times to shoot are early in the morning and late in the evening, when the sun is closest to the horizon and the light is the most vibrant.

There is no daylight at night, yet the basics remain the same. Shooting a full moon while it is high in the sky will illuminate the area similarly to shooting during the day in the middle of the afternoon. Using planning tools (The Photographers Ephemeris, PhotoPills, and so on), you may capture images as the moon rises or sets, bathing the countryside in warm moonlight. When the moon is partly full, it is the perfect moment to utilize it. Then it will be bright enough to illuminate the countryside but still dim enough to view many stars.

The Milky Way as seen from the Cirque of the Towers.
Canon 5d Mark III 17-40mm lens, ISO 2000, 20 sec @ f/4.0
Artificial light is the next option for illuminating a scene. A strobe or headlight may be used to bring light to certain objects. When utilizing artificial light, avoid lighting the subject directly behind the camera. This results in bland, uninspiring light that does not compliment the subject. Instead, try illuminating the scene from a different perspective. This generates shadows and adds depth to the environment.

The last method for lighting up a nighttime environment is to combine numerous exposures of varying durations. For the stars in the sky, you should typically use a 15-25 second exposure. This will not be enough to reveal detail in the landscape unless the moon (or a headlamp) is shining. You may get the best of both worlds by shooting one exposure for the sky and another for the ground. They should mix together for a natural-looking image as long as nothing in the scene moves and you don’t move the tripod.

Star Points vs. Star Trails
The Milky Way above Half Dome.
Canon 5d Mark IV 15-30mm lens, 15 second exposure at f/2.8, ISO 4000
There are two types of star photography: points and trails. Star points are light spots that we can see with our eyes, while star trails are long exposures that display a track of light as the Earth spins. Points and star trails may both add a lot of visual appeal to a shot.

Shoot the longest (brightest) exposure possible for star points before the Earth’s rotation converts the points into small streaks. Increase your ISO (how high depends on the capabilities of your camera) and open your aperture to allow in as much light as possible. The precise time of the exposure depends on the focal length of your lens and the ISO setting. Stars typically begin to blur after around 20-25 seconds, but if you use a telephoto lens, they may begin to streak much sooner.

Death Valley’s star trails.
Canon 5d Mark II 17-40mm lens, ISO 500, 6 hours
A lengthy exposure is required for star trails to exhibit longer streaks. Depending on your focal length, available light, and desired length of star trail, exposure periods might range from a few minutes to many hours. To photograph star trails, set your camera to Bulb mode and just open the shutter for many minutes. You can accomplish it in one shot if your exposure is shorter than 10 minutes. Because the purpose is to lengthen the exposure, you may use a lower ISO to get a cleaner overall picture.

If your exposure time exceeds ten minutes, it is advisable to divide it into many shorter images and mix them afterwards in Photoshop. Long durations of opening the shutter might add unwanted noise and cause the sensor to heat up, perhaps causing irreparable damage. Use an intervalometer cable release (some cameras have this function built in) to capture back-to-back-to-back exposures to generate a single star trail picture utilizing several exposures. Every exposure should last between one and seven minutes. I usually photograph them for a bit longer so that I have less files to go through afterwards.

For example, if I want to make a one-hour star trail, I’ll configure the intervalometer to take twelve five-minute exposures with 2-4 seconds between them. You want the shutter to close for a few seconds between exposures, but not so much that there are gaps in the trails. Avoid moving the camera since even the tiniest movement will cause the photographs to be skewed. When you’ve completed all of the images, put them into a Photoshop stack and blend them together to form a single continuous star trail throughout the duration of the exposures.

Aurora Borealis composition in Yukon Territory.
Canon 5d Mark III 15-30mm lens, ISO 1250, 20 sec @ f/3.2
While photographing the night sky is wonderful, a shot of only stars is seldom compelling. Find a fascinating thing on Earth to contrast with the starry sky. I often attempt to construct things (mountains, buildings, trees, etc.) that stretch over the horizon to depict the relationship of Earth and sky. Remember that you will be shooting with a wide open aperture the most of the time, thus your depth of field will be narrow.

Other Issues to Consider
Focusing properly is usually one of the most difficult aspects of capturing nighttime landscapes. The majority of the time, you’ll want your lens focused at infinity. Infinity focus on most lenses is at 30m or more. There are numerous methods for focusing your lens in the dark, such as trial and error or creating a trustworthy mark at infinity on your lens during the day.

My favourite strategy is to locate a light source that I can safely estimate is more than 30m distant. Then, using autofocus, I bring my lens into focus. The moon, passing automobiles, distant city lights, or a companion with a headlight are all bright enough to trigger autofocus. I know my lens will be focused at infinity as long as the light sources are more than 30m away.

Turn off autofocus while being cautious not to touch the focusing ring and recompose the photo, certain that it will be tack sharp.

Also, switch off your lens’s IS/VR functions. These stabilization capabilities might create movement on your tripod, resulting in blurred photographs.

Consider the issue of light pollution. If you attempt to photograph nighttime landscapes near a major city, you will notice that light pollution causes odd color casts and reduces the amount of stars visible. It is preferable to film in distant regions away from city lights.

Long Exposure Noise Reduction is a feature found on the majority of cameras. This is quite useful if you are shooting star points. It basically takes another exposure for the same time period in camera and removes excess noise from the previous exposure. However, if you are taking many shots to make a lengthy star trail image, you must disable this option. The noise-removal tool will throw off the order of your photographs, and the stars will not line correctly.

Above all, remember to go out there and try with evening photography. It is a procedure that takes some time to adjust to. Sleep deprivation is a tiny price to pay for the satisfaction of successfully capturing a nocturnal panorama!