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Social Distancing: How to Photograph Landscapes at Night

by Alec Druggan on Apr 10, 2020

With the Coronavirus lockdown in full swing, chances are you’re not able to shoot photography in the way you’re used to. If you use models in your photography, or work as an events photographer, these nation-wide isolation measures likely mean you’re out of work. But, that doesn’t mean you have to stop taking photos!

Although this might be a great time to take a break from shooting to catch up on editing, we don’t know how long self-quarantine will last. Instead of pausing your photography altogether, consider learning a new style that doesn’t require you break social distancing measures, like how to photograph landscapes at night.

Nighttime landscape photography is the perfect genre to take up during quarantine because it gives you access to a variety of beautiful subjects without encountering a lot of people.

Social distancing and isolation are key right now to flattening the Coronavirus curve. Luckily, learning to take nighttime landscape photos keeps you and your neighbors safe while sharpening your photo skills! It’s a win for everyone.

Shooting low-light landscapes also provides a much-needed opportunity to get out of the house. If you’re already in the habit of taking a late evening or night walk around your neighborhood or city, bringing your camera along is a no-brainer.

Of course, make sure to stay safe while you’re out photographing at night! Getting out with your camera in the dark is a lot of fun, and it likely won’t jeopardize your health since most people aren’t out at night. Still, if you do see fellow night walkers, make sure to keep at least 6 feet from them at all times.

If you’ve never attempted night photography, this guide is for you. We’ll cover all the shooting and equipment basics. Speaking of equipment, don’t worry about having specialized cameras or expensive lenses. You can likely make great night photography with the equipment you already own!

how to photograph landscapes at night

In this guide, we’ll go through these topics:

  • How to focus in night photography
  • Best camera settings for night photography
  • Preferable conditions for night photography
  • Equipment needed to photograph landscapes at night

Although this tutorial will focus on landscape photography at night, it will also be a generally useful resource for photographing subjects in low light. The best way to improve at low light photography, however, is to try it yourself. Take the time in the next couple of days, weeks or months to attempt some low light photography!

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How to Focus in Night Photography

Focusing your lens at night can be a pain, especially if you aren’t sure how your camera’s focus works. Depending on the conditions in your shooting area, you may not be able to use your camera’s automatic focusing feature at all! That means, you have to know some alternatives to achieving crisp, clear shots in low light.

You can always try to use auto focus at first to test if your camera can see well enough to use it effectively. In fact, there are some ways you can make it easier for your camera to dial in precise focus on auto:

  • Find areas of high contrast — High contrast areas are a lot easier for your camera’s sensor to detect, which makes it easier for your camera to focus on.
  • Use your camera’s modeling light — Some cameras have a small, red modeling light that they can use to find perfect focus. If your camera has this feature, turn it on in your settings panel to see if it can assist you in focusing on auto.
  • Prefocus with an external light — If your camera doesn’t have a modeling light, you can use an external light to prefocus. Simply shine a flashlight onto your subject, focus your camera on that space, then turn the light off for the shot. Just make sure your camera doesn’t move between your prefocus and the time you take the shot!

Focusing Landscape Photos in Dark Conditions

In the darkest of conditions you’ll want to focus your images manually. Manual focus is harder to dial in perfectly, especially with the short throw of modern lenses, but it is more accurate than autofocus in super low light conditions.

cityscapes at night

Keep in mind that, when shooting with manual focus, your image may still look blurry. That’s likely because of your shutter speed settings.

It’s likely that you’ll need a slow shutter speed to shoot in low-light conditions. If that’s the case, your image may appear out of focus because it’s capturing motion blur. Use a tripod to eliminate motion blur from your manually focused shots, and they’ll look perfect. Or, accommodate those slow shutter speeds by increasing ISO or widening your aperture.

The other way to focus in these conditions is to stack focus. Focus stacking is a technique that requires multiple photos of the same shot, focused at different points. Then, in editing, you can stitch those images together to create a perfectly focused image. This technique yields great photos, but it does require some editing skill.

Choosing Between Manual and Automatic Focus

Choosing between manual and automatic focus will depend almost wholly on the lighting conditions in your landscape and the subject of the shot. Whether your subject moves in the shot — think tree branches in the wind — and your exact lighting conditions will determine which focusing mode you use. Photographing at night, or in low light situations, is about photographing however gets you the best shot.

In the case of landscapes, your subjects likely don’t move at all, or they move very slowly. In fact, you may experience the most movement in your light sources. This means that manual focus will generally be easier to use.

Here again, we’ll advocate that you use a tripod in your night landscape photography. With a stabilization system like a tripod in place, your camera and lenses won’t move as you frame or take the shot. This means you can use both a longer shutter speed and, potentially, a lower ISO. It also means you can shoot on manual focus without losing sharpness or adding motion blur to the photo.

how to photograph landscapes at night

Achieving Sharp Focus while Using an Open Aperture

Ensuring sharp focus requires the combination of several factors including focus mode, ISO and shutter speed. If you’re set on using a large aperture that allows the most light into the camera’s sensor, they you’ll need to meticulously set your focus so that the image stays sharp.

Since most landscape photos you want to shoot won’t including moving subjects, you can use a longer shutter speed without risking motion blur. This means that you can shoot using a bulb timer for a long exposure at night. Of course, this method only works if you stabilize your camera.

You should stabilize both your camera and set your shutter speed before you focus the camera. Then, you’ll want to set up a remote shutter, so that you don’t have to manually press your camera’s shutter button. Pressing the shutter button the camera introduces shakiness into the shot, which means a less sharp image.

Thankfully, most modern camera companies have applications that allow you to install remote shutters onto your smartphone. You can also buy relatively cheap shutter releases that work with your camera as an analog release. Either of these methods work basically the same, although I prefer a dedicated shutter release rather than a phone because it’s more reliable.

Now that you’ve got your basic camera setup configured, you can focus your camera through the lens. Depending on your lens, it may have a longer or shorter throw. If you are choosing a lens for night photography, look for cameras with a larger focus throw

A focus throw indicates how much you have to move the focus ring to change the focus on your camera. Older film cameras and film lenses had longer throws because you had to manually focus everything. This means the lens manual focus needed to be more exact. Manual focus lenses with longer throws still exist, but you can make do with most lenses and a little patience. 

After you focus your camera, take the photo using your shutter release. At this point, you might have to wait quite a while for your shot to come out sharp, depending on your shutter speed. Take your time!

You may end up having to adjust your shot, or wait for the wind to die down. You might even need to bump the ISO up and take a shorter exposure. Trial and error is your friend. 

Best Camera Settings for Night Photography

Camera settings differ with every machine, of course, and every environment. You can, however, estimate these settings to figure out how to make taking images in the dark easiest. There are many different things to consider when working on these settings. 

how to photograph astrophotography
  • Shutter Speed — Shutter speed is a measure of how fast your camera’s shutter remains open to capture an image. The slower the shutter speed, the longer the shutter stays open. A long shutter speed means more light reaches the camera’s sensor, which is essential for night photography.
  • ISO — ISO is a measure of how sensitive your camera’s film or sensor is to light. This term began with the invention of photo film, but is still relevant for digital cameras. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. The downfall? Higher ISO values mean more risk for digital noise!
  • Aperture — Measured in f-stops, aperture describes how wide your lens opens to let light into the camera’s sensor. The bigger the aperture, the more light your sensor receives. Thus, a wide aperture is great for night photography! However, wider apertures do affect how far your camera can focus, so test your settings first.

We have already discussed using manual vs. automatic focusing technology. But, you may also have to think about different exposure simulations and modes, depending on your images. 

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Best Lenses for Night Photography

The best lenses for night time photography differ, especially by subject matter. Generally though, for something like landscape photography, you’ll want a wide angle lens with a wide aperture. 

Wide angle lenses with wide apertures allow you to shoot at slower shutter speeds while maintaining sharpness, making them great for night photos. The wide aperture allows more light in. But, because of the low focal length, the lens won’t compress your image too much.

best lenses for night photography

Other great lenses for night time photography are prime lenses. Prime lenses, because they do not change focal lengths, are sharper and brighter than other lenses. Brighter just means they tend to have a bigger aperture!

Best ISO for Night Photography

ISO is tricky, because it depends so much on what your camera can do and how you use the digital grain. As someone that is fine with ISO noise, especially if I am converting to black and white, I shoot with higher ISO. I also use high end cameras that deal with noise well.

That being said, you will want to stick with the lowest ISO possible for your images. Lower ISOs make cleaner images and allow you to do more in post processing.

Speaking of post-processing, the most important thing here isn’t really the ISO. It’s making sure that you use Camera RAW, or a lossless image format. Camera RAW files are much bigger in size, so they contain more image data from which to edit.

 Most higher end cameras today produce ISO invariant Camera RAW files, which means that you can change the ISO in post-processing software a certain amount of stops without affecting the image quality. Luckily, that gives you some flexibility when shooting, provided your camera possesses this feature. 

Which are the Most Flexible Apertures for Low-Light Photographs?

The best apertures for low-light photographs depend, once again, on the subject matter, as well as what else inhabits your composition. Especially with night time landscape photography, you want to consider using a relatively closed aperture, like f/5.6 or f/8, especially if you are using a stabilized camera.

Shooting landscape means you want a typically more closed down aperture, and shooting at night on a tripod means you won’t have to worry about your shutter speed. So, you can generally feel comfortable shooting at night with a medium to narrow aperture.

Keep in mind, you can still use a big aperture if you choose. Even an f/1.4 or f/1.2 lens will allow so much light in that your will be able to focus and shoot at a decent shutter speed.

how to photography landscapes at night

Beware, though, that hitting focus perfectly will be hard with a narrow aperture. This is especially true if your subject is relatively close to the camera. To correct for this, try shooting your subject a bit further away, so that your plane of focus is thicker! This will make it harder to miss focus and challenge you to work on different compositional styles!

Preferable Conditions for Night Photography

You might think that a nice, clear night would be the perfect night for taking photos. And it might be, depending on what you are looking to take. I, however, much prefer taking photos at the night after it has rained.

The moonlight is one of the only realistic light sources at night, outside of cities. That, in combinations with reflected light off of water, makes it easy to get some shots with cool and dramatic lighting effects.

You want there to be moonlight, and a full moon provides the most light. Then, you want to make sure that you are somewhere where the lighting conditions will stay relatively stable. Don’t try to take long exposures of light-up billboards that change every few seconds, for instance.

When taking long exposures, the amount of light matters less than normal. You want to make sure that what you are photographing won’t be overshadowed by the sky. The sky might be brighter than your subject, so you’ll need to figure out how to make it less bright for your photos.

There are several different ways to do this, but stacking exposures might be the best way. You can stacking exposures of the sky and the foreground so that the sky isn’t overly bright. You might also embrace the sky and work from there, using them to enhance the landscape.

Lastly, consider mixing landscape and astrophotography. With astrophotography, you can capture photos of star trails, photos of the Milky Way and other things in the night sky. You can end up with awesome images that you might never be able to schedule in again.

Using Flash in Night Photography

One of the best things you can do to get rid of missing light is to add it in yourself, via flash. Flashes, or other artificial light sources, can create scenes of immense contrast. Rather than a flash, I recommend a purpose built flashlight or continuous light source, so you can move it to change the light during a long exposure.

Besides the typical “summer and sparklers” images, you can do a lot with these lights. Stacking exposures where you light different foreground and middleground elements of a landscape separately, akin to an architectural photographer, is a great idea. There are other different ways you might want to play with the light, too!

night photography

Lighting people for portraits at night, especially simply rim lighting or using a gelled or colored light, is a great deal of fun and can make some of the most fantastical and interesting images. 

How to Take Good Quality Low-Light Photographs

There is a simple recipe to how you take great quality images in less than ideal low light photographs. 

First, make sure that you are shooting at a slow shutter speed with a still subject that won’t produce motion blur. Then, select an aperture and manually focus so that your subject is in focus. Take the image, and make sure not to shake the camera when doing so.

Besides that, make sure you are applying the compositional and creative elements that you typically do in your images. This process will yield those great quality images, if you take your time and adapt to shooting with less ideal light than normal. 

Equipment Needed to Photograph Landscapes at Night

While there is a lot of equipment that certainly makes photographing at night easier, a lot of it isn’t necessary. Besides your camera and lens, there isn’t much else you will need.

The number one thing that I recommend is a tripod. A great tripod is one of the best investments in photographic equipment. Tripods will last you several cameras, and the technology doesn’t change nearly as fast as it does with digital cameras and lenses.

A shutter release, mentioned above, is both cheap and great to learn to use properly. They are often used in studios as well, especially when artificial lighting and film cameras meet.

equipment needed to photograph landscapes at night

Flashes, if you learn flash photography, or do it as well, are a great tool but are definitely not necessary, especially if you are photographing specifically landscapes at night. 

Lenses for Nighttime Landscape Photography

Lenses that are especially good for nighttime photography have several different elements. The first one is going to be the fact that they are sharp. Not just sharp at f/8, but sharp at their maximum aperture. 

These lenses will also have large maximum apertures. You don’t want a lens that starts at f/4 at night. You want something that will let in as much light as possible. 

Having a lens that is image stabilized is almost important. Image stabilization is basically anti-shake for your camera, and it means you can shoot at a slower shutter speed, even when you aren’t using a tripod!

If you are using a tripod and a large lens, make sure you use the tripod mount on the lens if it’s necessary. An unbalanced camera on a tripod can be a pain!

Film vs. DSLR Cameras for Capturing Night Photographs

Film cameras, specifically 35mm, are a lot harder to use for night photographs for several reasons. Firstly, it is going to be a lot harder to get a light reading in the dark. Secondly, film speed matters a lot, and selecting the right film speed and knowing how to use it at night takes practice.

There are many more reasons why it is going to be harder to use a film camera at night, but there are also some advantages. Film cameras typically have better dynamic range, meaning that when post processing in a dark room, you will have the ability to pull more data.

That being said, film cameras are better with highlights than digital cameras and worse with shadows. Since night time typically has a lot more shadows…

If you are already an analog photographer, though, you aren’t doing it because it is easier. I love taking film photos at night and recommend other analog photographers to try it. For analog night photography, however, I find a remote shutter and tripod essential. 

This is especially true when focusing on landscapes and rural or suburban photos. In urban landscape or just urban nighttime photography, you may not need those tools. In fact, they may just weigh you down!

Looking for even more info on shooting at night, photographing landscapes or low-light photography? Check out these other articles and guides:

If you like this article, and want to learn more about night time photography, photography related skills and have access to great photo editing tutorials, follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Don’t forget to sign up for our email newsletter so you don’t miss another article!

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