Being a talented photographer means having a discerning eye. You need to be able to see the potential photo in the scene before you. No picture is going to capture as much as the human eye does, but a good photographer sees what can be caught on camera. Ansel Adams called it pre-visualization.
The following tips will help you to improve your landscape photography in low-light conditions and create some amazing effects.
The beauty of low-light photography
Photographing in minimal light can be quite challenging, but when done right, the results can be really impressive. Whether it’s an exciting cityscape or a surreal view of the ocean, the potential is amazing.
Many people assume that low-light photography is simply night photography. In fact, low light entails different amounts of light coming from various sources that are less bright than daylight. For example, the time right after sunset when you can still see clearly around you, but you know it’s getting darker and the city lights begin to pop on is perfect for low-light photography.
From my own experience, cityscapes and urban scenery appear most exciting from afar, while seascapes are best viewed close to the beach.
Without further ado, here are my top 11 tips to shooting landscapes in low light conditions:
1. Read the scene
Before you start shooting, take a look at the scenery. Make sure you’re standing in the best spot to take advantage of the available light. Also search for a hook — a focal point that pulls the eye into the frame (e.g. a farmhouse, a line of trees, a haycock, etc.)
2. Don’t be lazy
When shooting landscapes, most people just pull into a parking lot, take a few handheld shots and drive off again. To get really amazing results, you need to get your feet dirty. Go down to the lakeside or down in the valley, get really close to the mountain, or climb up to a better viewpoint. Become part of the scenery rather than just observing it passively. This will really spice up your compositions.
3. Pick the perfect timing
The best time to capture a low-light scene is anywhere between 30 minutes before and after sunrise or sunset. This is when you’ll get the most amazing colors in the sky, ranging from pink, purple, red, orange and all fading into a dark blue.
In the early morning and at dusk when the sun has gone down, the light in the sky softens and the colors are warmer. During clear nights with a full moon, the soft blue sky light can have a beautiful effect on a landscape.
4. Take long exposures
The secret to perfect low-light compositions is long exposures, which means shooting at the slowest shutter speeds. Start by mounting the camera on a sturdy tripod and selecting Manual or Shutter Priority mode.
Turn off the flash and lower the shutter speed to 10-20 seconds. The longer the shutter speed, the brighter your shots will be. If you want them even brighter, increase the ISO number. Take a shot and see how it looks. Keep testing with different exposures until you create the desired effects.
Set the ISO to 100 and select a shutter speed of 15-20 seconds (you will need to take some test shots until you find what works best for you). Next, try using f-stops from f/9 to f/14, to create a larger depth of field and keep elements in the background in sharp focus.
My suggestions to creating beautiful effects with long exposures:
- At the ocean
Early in the morning or at sunset, when there is only a little light in the sky, put your camera and tripod where you can see some waves crashing on the rocks. Point the camera at the waves, but also add some sand and sky in the frame. Try setting the shutter speed to 15-20 seconds and take the shot. See how the ocean suddenly appears mystical and the sky rich with varying hues.
- Star trails
Choose a clear night when the sky is very dark, and there is no moonlight. Point your camera towards the sky and use a cable release to take the shot. Leave the shutter open for at least 30 minutes and you’ll be amazed by the result: amazing stripes of light and color spread all over the frame.
- Urban scenery
A landscape can also mean city lights and traffic jams. Try photographing a busy street at dusk with a shutter speed of 5-10 seconds. The car lights will create amazing long trails of light and color. The same technique can be used for capturing fireworks. The results can be truly impressive.
5. Choose fast lenses
The smaller the f-stop number, the faster the lens. This is because the smaller the number, the wider the aperture, which means the lens lets more light into the camera. A typical camera kit zoom lens may have a maximum aperture of f/3.5, whereas a fixed focal length 50mm lens might have a maximum aperture of f/1.8 or more
6. Maximize the depth of field
For successful, sharp landscape photos, you’ll want your entire scene to be in focus from front to back. To achieve this, select a narrow aperture of around f/16 or f/22 to get maximum depth of field, then focus one-third into the scene to ensure your photos are acceptably sharp from the foreground to the horizon.
7. Set the white balance manually
8. Increase your ISO
What if you don’t have a tripod or don’t want to use slow shutter speeds? The solution is to boost the ISO and make the sensor gather light faster. For example, if you are shooting at ISO 100 and the shutter speed is set to 1/25 sec, you should increase your ISO to 400 to get a shutter speed of 1/100 sec.
You might get some grain, but it’s better to have a sharp image with more noise instead of no useable image at all. Experiment with ISO values until the noise level becomes acceptable. Later, you can use a noise-removal tool such as Noise Ninja to clean up your image.
9. Shoot in raw and underexpose
White balance can be difficult in low light with the variety of artificial light sources dripping all over your image. Shooting in RAW gives you the freedom to correct this later, plus it will capture more details, which can often be an issue in very dark areas.
Try shooting with 1-1.5 stops of negative exposure compensation.
10. Photograph people
It’s often assumed that trying to photograph people in low light is doomed to fail, but there are in fact ways to leverage this scenario. Try adding motion creatively, especially when you want to capture a crowd of people.
Test different shutter speeds until you find a setting that is long enough to blur movement, but short enough to capture people standing still. Also, consider photographing people working in low light, like a welder or night street workers.
11. Experiment with HDR
Another exciting way to make the most of low light is to shoot in HDR mode. This is particularly useful when shooting high-contrast scenes with dark areas in the frame, rather than a totally dark scene.
Set the camera to Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) mode and use a tripod. Later merge the multiple shots in Photoshop’s “Merge to HDR” feature.
People often assume that they can’t take good photos in low light, especially after the sun has gone down. But this is not true; with the right equipment and some practice, shooting landscapes in low light at dusk or at dawn can be extremely rewarding.