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One of the challenges of taking low light landscape photos during the golden hour or the blue hour is mastering the technical side of working during a period when the light is very beautiful but may also be very low. If your technique isn’t good you may encounter practical problems like focusing errors, lack of depth of field and high noise levels.
Working with low light in the landscape
While this article is predominantly about landscape photography the techniques also apply to cityscapes and architectural photos taken in low light.
What these subjects have in common is that you typically want to use an low ISO for good image quality and a narrow aperture for good depth of field. As a result you need to use a slow shutter speed and tripod to support the camera. Let’s take a look at this in more detail.
1. Buy a good tripod
A tripod comes in really handy for taking photos of landscapes and cityscapes in low light. The benefit of a tripod is that you can use your camera at its lowest ISO setting (giving good image quality), and a small aperture such as f8 or f11 (allowing for a greater depth of field).
Shutter speeds will slow right down at these settings. Use this to your advantage. Slow shutter speeds are great for landscape photography because moving parts of the landscape, like water, become a silky blur.
For example, I used an exposure of 30 seconds at f8 and ISO 100 to create this landscape photo. The long exposure blurred the water, adding mood and atmosphere.
With cityscapes, the light from passing traffic becomes long streaks of light. The ambient light from nearby buildings often means you can take photos well into the night.
A tripod also opens up techniques like long exposure photography (photos taken with shutter speeds between a minute and eight minutes long) and painting with light (using flash or torchlight to illuminate the scene during a long exposure).
The key is to buy a good quality aluminum or carbon fiber tripod with a ball and socket head. It needs to be light enough to carry around with you but stable enough to support your camera and lens for shutter speeds of up to six minutes if you work in the landscape during the blue hour, or ten minutes if you take photos on a moonless night. The heavier your camera and lens combination, the stronger your tripod needs to be.
My advice is to do some research and buy wisely, spending a bit more than you would perhaps like to get a good quality tripod that will last you many years. Good brands to look at are Manfrotto, MeFoto and (if you have deep pockets) Gitzo.
You’ll also need a way to fire the shutter without touching the camera. Smartphone apps and remote releases have their place, but for most photographers a simple cable release is an inexpensive alternative that does the job and doesn’t rely on battery power.
2. Take your camera off fully automatic
If you’re using your camera in a fully automatic exposure mode, such as landscape or night scene, it’s time to stop. You have little or no control over your camera’s settings in these modes.
The only exposure modes I recommend that you use for landscape or cityscape photography are Aperture Priority and Manual.
These modes give you complete control over your camera’s settings, which in fact are far more simple than you might realize. Providing you use the Raw format (see the next point), there are only five decisions you need to make:
• What focal length to use.
• Where to focus the lens.
• What ISO to use.
• What aperture and shutter speed you need to give you a good exposure.
In landscape and cityscape photography you generally set the lowest ISO setting on your camera (ISO 100 or ISO 200 in most cases), a narrow aperture to give good depth of field (f8 or f11) and let the shutter speed take care of itself, depending on the ambient light levels.
For example, I made the photo below by setting the ISO to 200 (the lowest on my camera) and the aperture to f11. This meant I needed a shutter speed of 1/4 second. In this situation (working in the golden hour in the evening) you can keep the same ISO and aperture settings, and adjust the shutter speed as the light levels drop, giving you a variety of effects with the water and light.
3. Use Raw
To make the simple approach work you have to use the Raw format. With JPEG you have to set White Balance and color profile in-camera and (crucially) you can’t change your mind afterwards.
With Raw you can change these settings in Lightroom, not to mention bring out much more detail in the shadows and highlights.
It’s a good idea to set White Balance to Daylight so you can see the true color of the light and see how well your photo is working on playback. Then forget about it for the rest of the shoot and concentrate on getting a good composition and great light.
This photo is a good example. This is more or less what I could see on the camera’s LCD screen with White Balance set to Daylight. It tells me the natural color of the light at that point was a kind of orange/pink, which helps inform the approach I take to developing it in Lightroom.
4. Use mirror lockup and Live View
If you have a digital SLR camera then you can use mirror lockup or Live View to reduce the risk of camera shake caused by the camera’s mirror flipping out of the way when you take a photo.
Live View is ideal to use for landscape photography. It’s easier to look at the live feed on the camera’s LCD screen than it is to look through the viewfinder. Plus, in Live View the mirror is already in the up position to allow light to pass through the lens and reach the camera’s sensor. Most cameras also let you see a live histogram in Live View so you can see whether your exposure settings are optimal.
5. Learn to use hyperfocal distance focusing
Hyperfocal distance focusing is one of those things that sounds more complex than it really is. Here’s a definition:
The hyperfocal distance is the closest point to the camera on which you can focus your lens and keep the horizon in sharp focus.
This point is determined by aperture, focal length and sensor size. There is also another variable involved called the circle of confusion, which is a way of definining numerically the degree of sharpness. Apps like PhotoPills (iOS and Android) calculate the hyperfocal distance for you so that you don’t have to worry about the numbers.
For example, if you use a focal length of 14mm, an aperture of f11, with an APS-C camera then PhotoPills tells you that the hyperfocal distance is 0.88 meters. As long as your lens has a distance scale on it (some cheaper zooms don’t) it’s a simple matter to focus close to this point and maximize the depth of field.
6. Avoid the camera’s smallest apertures
There are two reasons to avoid using the smallest aperture settings on your lens (usually f16 or f22) whenever you can.
- Small apertures make you lose image sharpness. This is caused by an optical effect called diffraction, which is caused by light the way light diffuses when it passes through a narrow aperture.
- Smaller apertures reveal more dust spots on the camera’s sensor. You can remove them in Lightroom, but you’ll be surprised by how much easier it is when you use f8 rather than f22.
Because of this it’s a good idea to use an aperture of f8 for as many landscape photos as you can, as this is where most lenses have the best image quality. Only drop down to f11 or f16 if you really need the extra depth of field.
Understanding how to use the hyperfocal distance (see previous point) has the added benefit of letting you use the optimal aperture setting of f8 more often.
I made this photo with an aperture of f8. There was no need to use a smaller aperture as f8 gave me all the depth of field required to obtain a sharp image.
7. Don’t underexpose
In landscape photography you have plenty of time to work out the optimum exposure. The basic idea is to avoid underexposure by exposing to the right. There are two reasons why we want to avoid underexposing photos.
- Underexposed photos have less shadow detail.
- If you underexpose a photo then brighten it in Lightroom you’ll add noise.
You can learn more about exposing to the right in Exposure Lesson #6: Exposing To The Right
8. Don’t be afraid of Bulb mode
Regardless of whether you use Manual mode or Aperture Priority, most cameras have a maximum built-in shutter speed of 30 seconds. To make photos with longer shutter speeds you’ll need to use Bulb mode.
Bulb is straightforward to use. Start by setting the ISO and aperture required. Then press the cable release once to open the shutter, and again to close it. Some cameras display the time elapsed on the LCD screen, others elsewhere on the body, or you may have to time it yourself using a watch or an app.
The benefit of using Bulb is that it lets you work deep into twilight and take advantage of the magical quality of light at this time while still using a low ISO and a small aperture. Water and clouds blur much more dramatically than they do at shorter shutter speeds, as you can see in this photo, made by using Bulb mode to open the camera's shutter for 240 seconds.
The key to getting consistent results in low light is in understanding the principles outlined above and knowing how to take control of your camera to make it do what you need. Follow these steps and you’ll discover how simple it is to create great landscape photos in low light.