What You’ll need
Sunrise and sunset times – knowing these are crucial as the best photographic opportunities are ½ hour either side of the set or rise.
Tripod – Long exposure times means a tripod is a must. Manfrotto make good tripods for outdoor photography.
Camera – This type of photography is easier with a DSLR however some compact models have manual controls.
Torch – This will come in handy once the sun has set!
Skills you’ll learn
Composition – how to frame a landscape image.
Exposure – how to open your camera for long periods of time
Location – The best time and locations for lowlight photography.
Lowlight landscape photography can produce some of the most visually stunning images full of colour and atmosphere. This tutorial will be closely guiding you through the shapes and tones of the landscape and teaching you how to capture the best images using the dramatic and minimal light produced by mother nature.
Images can be taken any time of the year however the Autumn is one of the best seasons to be shooting as the colours in the land are spectacular and the time of sunrise is not at stupid o’clock as it is in the Summer months! The bad thing about Autumn is the weather can be unpredictable, so make sure you take sensible clothing on a shoot. Remember dramatic rain clouds can produce fantastic images so don’t be put off if it looks like it is going to rain. A large umbrella to protect your camera and gear may come in handy and a lens cloth is always a good accessory to have to hand. Also remember your tripod, as a long shutter speed will be needed to shoot in these conditions.
There are many locations that will work for this type of photography. For this tutorial we selected a forest and a seaside location however the same rules applies in other settings. For the beginner photographer there will always be a lot of trail and error in landscape photography so it is best to practice somewhere that is close to home and easily locatable to build skills.
Where to start
There are many ideal locations for lowlight photography and the forest is just one of these places to begin. Getting back to nature and looking at the land in its finest moments is one of the most satisfying times to be a photographer.
Key things to remember are to check the sunrise and sunset times, as this is when the light is at its best and will produce far superior results. Ideally you want to be shooting half an hour either side of the rise or set to produce the most dramatic results. Checking the online weather forecast is the best way to organise a shoot and it will tell you the times of the sunrise and sunset.
Other important things to remember on your camera is to keep you aperture narrow e.g between f11 and f22 so the detail is sharp and in focus. It can be difficult to focus in lowlight so if the camera is having problems manually set your focus. If your camera has a shake vibration setting it is best to use this to your advantage, as the shutter will be open for a long period of time. If the weather is windy try to find a sheltered spot for your tripod however if not possible try shielding your tripod with your body and weighing it down.
Before you start
You will need a tripod, torch, lens cloth, spare battery, memory card and camera. These are your main items to remember for a lowlight landscape photography shoot.
A wide angle lens of 18mm or below will produce better results in landscape photography and for those who want to be more experimental a fish eye lens can be a fun.
Times of day
Scouting a good location, knowing where the sun rises and sets and being there on time are good things to remember in lowlight landscape photography. Checking the weather forecast and times of the rise and sunset are crucial. Don’t be put off by bad weather as it can add to the impact of the image.
Use a narrow depth of field i.e f22 and focus at infinity. This will ensure everything remains in detail.
If the foreground has lost detail due to the lack of light then concentrate your focus point on the sky. This only works if the sky looks dramatic.
Metering. Take an average metering of the whole scene then over and under expose it by one stop. This will ensure all elements in the scene have been captured.
Colours are important and generally lowlight photography works best in the colour medium.
Filters – for those who are more advanced some a filter can help enhance colours and aid exposures.
If you don’t have a tripod find a rock or place where you can rest your camera to keep it sturdy.
If you don’t have a remote control set your camera on the self-timer so you do not knock the camera when opening the shutter.
The dos and don’ts of lowlight landscape photography
Keep it straight. Remember when composing your shots to keep your horizons straight. If you are on uneven ground then it is easier to compose the shot by eye however if you are on flat ground the sprit level on the tripod (if it has one) can be handy to use. Take your time at this point however if needed you can crop your horizons post shoot although you will loose some resolution and some of the detail on the sides of the image.
In landscape photography the rule of thirds is a good one to follow. Look for interesting elements in the landscape and be careful where you position your horizon and sky. Before you set up your tripod have a look around the scene and compose the image through your fingers to see how a shot will work. This will save a lot of time and unwanted images.
Wide angle lens
In landscape photography a wide-angle lens is preferable. This shot was taken with a 16mm angle and at full zoom the lens extends to 80mm as can be seen in the shot above. Although there is nothing technically wrong with the 80mm image generally a wide angle will look better as there is more to see.
Fish eye lens
A fish eye lens is an extremely wide lens that takes hemispherical images. For a full frame DSLR model an angle of 15-16mm is sufficient and will produce a hemispherical effect however for a DSLR with a crop factor a lens with a wider angle will work better. Fish eye lenses gives images a characteristic convex appearance and work well on the landscape subject matter.
Night time photography
Choosing a dark space with interesting features such as the trees and the ferns in this example makes an interesting image.
Using a variety of light sources can look more effective and try to cover as much ground although be careful that you don’t fall over!
What not to do
1. The lights are blurred, as the focus has not fixed at the correct point. Manually setting the focus will help.
2. The shutter has not been left open long enough so the lines and effect has not had long enough to work.
3. The composition does not work and there is too much open space left in the image.
No light? Try this effective light trail technique with our six step guide.
Scout for a position
You want to arrive when there is still a fair amount of light so you can scout for the best position. If there is a good sunset you can take advantage of this too and get some dramatic shots. In the daylight look for things that could be a hazard at night and work out your route and composition.
Select the appropriate camera settings
Set up your tripod and adjust the camera to shutter priority or the bulb setting. The bulb setting allows you to open your shutter for as long as you want however you will have to keep a note of the time so an illuminated stop watch will come in handy. In this example the shutter was set to 30 seconds and the ISO was increased to 800 to let more light through.
Set the focus
Switch the lens to a manual setting then set the focus to the symbol illustrated here. This is the infinity symbol and means if the camera is set to a narrow depth of field then all will be sharp from front to back. Make sure there are no objects in the direct foreground that are too close as these could become out of focus.
Use a light source
Using one, two or even three light sources walk around the scene with the light switched on. It can look effective if you use different coloured light sources, for example glow sticks or sparklers however these are not recommended in heavy wooded areas especially if the weather has been dry. Keep the white balance on Auto as you are using a variety of light sources.
Walk around the scene
If you are by yourself then you can do the walking however if you want to be near the camera to control the exposure then get somebody else to walk around for you. Picking up elements such as the foreground ferns and shinning the torches up and down the trees ensures these parts are illuminated. This method of shooting requires some trail and error.
Experiment with different effects
The light trail effect works best if there is little or no moon appearing however if the moon is full a twilight effect can look eerie and effective. Night time photography requires a lot of experimentation so do not feel despondent if you do not achieve the effects you are after straight away. If the sky is clear try capturing the stars by leaving the shutter on the camera open and you will record the trail across the sky.
Seaside lowlight landscapes
A strong composition that leads the eye through the image is important. The groin in this example is the ideal structure to do exactly this. Slowing down the shutter speed will give the waves and water a soft effect. To make the water sharper in texture quicken he shutter speed, for example to 1/60th sec.
Capture the movement of water and the magic of the seaside in three easy steps.
Locate a spot
It is best to locate a spot when the sun is still up so you can be there and set up for the optical moment. Look for interesting features in the scene, for example in this image the groin gives the image a pleasing composition. When shooting on the beach make sure you protect your equipment and if you need to change a lens do so in the protection of a bag or off the beach so sand does not damage the sensor.
Set the camera
Once you are settled you need to set your camera to the appropriate settings. Change the top dial so it reads A which is the aperture priority setting then manually set the ISO to 100 or 200 and aperture to a narrow DOF e.g. f.22. This means the shutter speed will be left open for a long period of time, which makes the soft sea effect.
Wait for the light
This sunset took place at 20.11 so in this example you would want to be present at the scene from 19.40 to 20.40. Make sure you take warm clothes, as it can get cold in the open spaces, especially by the sea. Don’t try to photograph too much and focus on a few strong compositions. There will always be another sunset so consider practising getting the composition right first instead of rapidly firing the shutter away.
Alex Saberi is a photographer from London and started taking photos around 6 years ago with the Canon 300D. It was in Richmond park that he found his passion for the subject and has never looked back since. “I used to get up at the crack of dawn and cycle into the park when it was empty. This is where I really improved my skills and found out the kind of photography I really enjoyed. I now shoot with the popular Canon 5D MK11.” To view Alex’s work go to www.alexsaberi.com
Alex Saberi reveals his top tips for taking lowlight landscape images.
If shooting a long exposure get the composition right first without wasting time. You can do this by setting your ISO high, hence the exposure time is shorter to view and review your final composition.
Always take a torch out with you when shooting in the dark. You don’t want to be fumbling around in the dark with settings and expensive equipment. If you are located away from your car or transport back home it is an essential accessory.
When shooting star trails, it is better to shoot several frames and then stitch them together using your selected software. This will reduce the noise massively in your final image keeping the overall quality high.
Take an off camera flash on you shoots and tweak the settings to illuminate the foreground. I tend to fire it several times on lower power settings to get the required effect. In the photo of the swan I was shooting the landscape and star trails, when a swan turned up. I got my flash out and set the beam on narrow from the side to illuminate it.
Now you’ve got the skills and the knowledge get shooting. Have fun and good luck.