Have you been enraptured by landscape photography in low light conditions?
Landscape photography can be absolutely breathtaking, and more so in certain types of low lighting conditions. It gives the entire composition an ethereal effect, and can truly help to highlight your skill with the camera.
From seascapes to cityscapes the possible compositions are endless. Capturing beautiful outdoor sceneries in low light is as challenging as fun and encompasses a wide range of techniques that require a bit of preparation.
In this article, I’ll walk you through the basics of landscape photography in low light conditions and we’ll delve into some of the most important aspects that will help you take your photos to the next level.
Intro to Low Light Landscape Photography
Mastering low light photography is one of the goals of any good photographer. If captured correctly, low light photos can look awe-inspiring. If done wrong, as intuition suggests, they look flat and nothing can be deciphered in the image.
Light is used in photography to give shape and depth to the scene. In the absence of light or in limited quantity of it, you’ll have to rely on other elements. Composition, for example is going to be key in low light landscape photography.
With the right technique and equipment, shooting low light photography can be a rewarding and fulfilling experience. Delivering great quality images in this context requires good knowledge of your camera and the proper manipulation of the exposure triangle.
Let’s start by examining what gear you need.
Gear for Landscape Photography in Low Light Conditions
Low light landscape photography can be quite expensive if you aren’t careful. Quality always matters especially when it comes to lenses, but you don’t necessarily need to break the bank to take photos in low light.
Even a basic kit can be good if you can make the best use of it.
Camera Body: for most basic purposes, all you require is a camera where you can control shutter speed, ISO, and aperture. Any mirrorless or DSLR camera with manual mode will suffice.
Related article: Best Cheap Camera for Landscape Photography
Lens: Wider lenses are better. However, as long as your lens can get the entire scene into view, it should be fine. If you have some money to spend, getting a lens in the 16 to 35mm range is ideal. I suggest a zoom lens to have more flexibility. Related article: Best lenses for landscape photography
Stabilization: A heavy and big tripod is ideal for landscape photography. A tripod will help you use your camera at the lowest ISO, and avoid camera shakes for higher image quality. Finally, you can also benefit from using a smaller aperture for a deeper depth of field.
Remote Shutter: Use a remote shutter to eliminate even slight unwanted blurs and camera shakes. An alternative to a remote shutter is using the self-timer on your camera to avoid disrupting the shot during a long exposure.
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Best Tips for Landscape Photography in Low Light Conditions
1. Preparation is Key
Preparation is crucial when taking night time or golden hour landscape shots. You must scout for potential locations much before it gets dark.
Once you have zeroed in on a place, do some research to understand the moon phase and weather report there. This will give you an idea of the ideal time to shoot at night. In some instances, a full moon may serve better to illuminate the landscape. In certain cases, a full moon will drown out the stars.
If you shoot during the golden hour make sure you know the direction of the sun, to understand what part of the scene is illuminated and how the light will affect your composition. You can use The Photographer’s Ephemeris for free on their website.
It may not be always possible for you to scout the location in advance and that’s fine, don’t take it as an excuse for not taking a photo. The point is that building the habit of planning a shoot, especially when you are a new starter, will make your low light photography a little easier!
2. Camera Settings for Low Light Landscape Photos (Exposure)
Shooting in aperture priority mode or full manual mode is necessary for low light landscape photography. Understanding how each of the camera settings affects the exposure is critical in capturing great photos.
ISO: Higher ISOs increase the camera sensor’s sensitivity to light, and are more suited for low light situations when you can’t benefit from the use of a tripod. However, using too high an ISO also adds digital noise to the image. Start off with an ISO as low as 100 or 200.
Aperture: The lower the aperture you are shooting with, the more the light that is allowed into the camera. This enables you to use lower ISOs and faster shutter speeds. Do note that lower apertures reduce the depth of field which is an important factor for landscape photography.
Shutter Speed: A slow shutter speed will allow more light to reach the sensor. This is one of the reasons why a tripod is so important. If you find that slow shutter speed will affect the overall composition of the image owing to moving entities, you can compensate by adjusting your ISO and aperture appropriately. Alternatively, opt for a long exposure to create an artistic effect.
3. Exit Auto Mode
In auto mode, you have zero or very little control over settings such as ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. If you don’t learn how to manually tweak these as desired, you won’t obtain the effect you want in your low light photographs.
Mastering manual or semi-manual shooting modes such as aperture or shutter priority is an incredibly useful skill that will give you great control over your photos and that can be used across all photography genres.
4. Shoot RAW
The great thing about working with RAW is that you can make easier edits while post-processing, without losing quality. Additionally, with JPEG, you will have to set the color profile and white balance in-camera, and will not be able to change your mind later.
With RAW, you can use tools such as Adobe Lightroom to change these settings and brings out the details in the shadows. RAW is an uncompressed file format that stores maximum light and color information, unlike JPEG which is a compressed file format. To deliver a JPEG and give you a smaller file, your camera internally applies a compression algorithm to the image resulting in a lower quality photo. Always shoot RAW if you are serious about landscape photography in low light.
5. Nail the Exposure
Since you’ve practiced enough with the camera settings, it’s now time to get the exposure right. Two are the common mistakes when it comes to the exposure: underexposed or overexposed photos.
You are a good photographer and you shoot in RAW so you might be able to recover too dark or too bright areas of the image in Lightroom. But don’t make it a habit to rely on editing software to correct mistakes you shouldn’t make on the field. Getting the exposure right, in-camera, is fundamental if you want to produce stunning photos.
Before You Go
Now that you have a much understanding of landscape photography in low light conditions, it is time for you to give it a try!
To deliver consistent results, what technique will you apply? Will you use a tripod and try a long exposure or rely on higher ISO?
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Stefano Caioni is a photographer from Sydney, Australia. Founder and editor of Pixinfocus, his passion for photography helps him explore new places and live new adventures. Thanks to photography he reconnected with the outdoors and was able to travel the world and take photos of some of the most beautiful places on Earth.