Low-light landscape photography may seem hard – but it doesn’t have to be.
With a few tips, tricks, and simple techniques, you can easily:
And in this article, I’ll share it all with you! So if you’re ready to become a low-light master, then let’s get started.
If you’re shooting low-light landscape images, you’ll likely be out in the early morning, late evening, or even during the night. Unfortunately, it’s tough to compose beautiful shots during these low-visibility periods, which is why I highly recommend you figure out your image composition before the twilight hour; that way, you know what to photograph, and how, without needing to fumble around in the dark.
I’d suggest heading to your location at least an hour or two before the low-light photography begins in earnest. Check different compositions, and even grab a few shots to make sure the image works and is free of distracting objects.
Consider elements that will add scale, interest, and context to your photos. Also think about the sun, and how it will change position as your photo shoot approaches.
And remember: When twilight occurs, you’ll only have around 20 to 30 minutes of optimal light, so be ready with your gear set up, your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO dialed in, and a few stunning compositions in mind.
While low-light landscape photography offers plenty of fun, not all times of the day are equal – especially when it comes to the quality of the light.
The best time to shoot a low-light scene begins half an hour before sunset (golden hour), up to around a half hour or so after the sun has fallen below the horizon (blue hour).
These times will offer the best colors, and if you stick around for blue hour light, you won’t be disappointed; it’s ethereal and stunning and cool all at the same time.
Also, the blue hour is perfect for long exposure landscapes, as the light is low enough to allow for lengthy shutter speeds, but not so low that you’ll be forced to crank the ISO way up.
Do you own a sturdy tripod? If not, then you absolutely, one-hundred percent need to buy one.
Low-light photography offers (unsurprisingly!) very little light to work with, so shutter speeds are long – and if you’re not careful, your images will end up ruined by camera shake or high-ISO noise.
I’d recommend a relatively lightweight carbon fiber tripod if you can afford it, though make sure not to skimp on quality. There’s nothing worse than buying a wobbly tripod, capturing hundreds of soft images, and only then realizing that you should’ve grabbed a good product all along.
Bottom line: Get a nice tripod, one that’s solid and easy to work with. If you pick correctly, then it’ll become your new best friend.
Every image is different, but here are a few landscape camera settings to get you started:
I’d really recommend shooting in Manual mode; that way, you can tweak your settings constantly, and you can clearly see the effects that each setting has on an image.
Naturally, most landscape photographers shoot with wide-angle lenses; that way, they can incorporate the whole gorgeous scene into the shot.
And for low-light photography, I recommend you embrace that thought process. A wide-angle prime will offer great image quality, will come cheap, and can offer exciting results. A wide-angle zoom, such as a 24-70mm, a 17-40mm, or a 16-35mm is also helpful, though more expensive, so think carefully before you buy.
Also make sure to check the lens’s maximum aperture. For standard low-light landscape photography, an f/4 or even f/5.6 maximum aperture should be absolutely fine – but if you want to shoot stars at night, f/2.8 is a must-have.
Some photographers like to leave their white balance on Auto and make tweaks in post-processing, and that’s a perfectly valid method of shooting – assuming you’re working in RAW.
Personally, however, I like getting my white balance right from the beginning. It means less time sitting in front of the computer, too.
I’d recommend setting your white balance manually (using your camera’s custom white balance option, where you photograph off a gray card or neutral surface). You might also try dialing in different values, then capturing test shots until you get a result you like.
When shooting long exposure landscape photos with a tripod, you can still cause camera shake – simply by hitting the shutter button.
That’s where remote shutter releases come in handy; they let you trigger the shutter without ever touching the actual button. They’re also pretty cheap, especially if you’re willing to settle on a simple release.
You also have the option to use your camera’s self-timer, but if you’re capturing time-sensitive long exposures (such as a wave lapping at the shore), the self-timer becomes a major hindrance. Plus, using a remote release is far more convenient!
Every time you take a photo with a DSLR, the mirror slaps up and the shutter moves – both of which can cause blur. (On a mirrorless camera, there is no mirror, of course, but the shutter is still a problem.)
To prevent blur, I recommend shooting with Live View. This flips the mirror up automatically so that it’s out of the way when it comes time to take an image.
I also recommend shooting with an electronic shutter if your camera has one. Some cameras feature an electronic front-curtain shutter, whereas others offer truly electronic shutters; either type works. The point is to eliminate blur due to the shutter, known as shutter shock.
Generally speaking, a low ISO is best – but there are times when you’ll want to boost the ISO, and that’s okay.
Specifically, a high ISO is useful when you’re shooting in near darkness and you want to keep your shutter speed below 30 seconds or so. That way, you can prevent the stars from blurring across the sky, and you can capture a pin-sharp Milky Way image.
A high ISO is also helpful if you need to nail a certain shutter speed – for a creative blur effect, for instance – and you’re struggling to get the right exposure.
Never go higher than necessary, though. The higher the ISO, the noisier the image will get. And while modern cameras can handle a lot of noise, keep it low, when possible.
I’ve talked lots about settings and light for low-light landscape shooting, but composition matters, too.
My best advice is to include some sort of foreground interest, like a rock, a log, or a river. Then let it catch the viewer’s eye and lead them into the frame.
In fact, landscape photographers love foreground elements, especially when combined with wide-angle lenses. But make sure you have an interesting background element, too; the foreground technique is great, but only if the background element can offer a place for the viewer’s eye to rest.
Low-light landscape photography can be unpredictable, so I highly recommend you capture as many test shots as possible, carefully review the images you do take, and do quick but frequent checks of the histogram while shooting.
(In fact, if you shoot mirrorless, you might even be able to see a histogram in real-time; that way, you don’t even need to fiddle around with exposure test shots!)
Remember, however: the histogram is a guide, not the king. You might notice the occasional tones pressing up against the bottom end of the graph, and that’s okay. After all, low-light scenes are supposed to look dark sometimes. And you might notice the occasional tones pressing up against the top end of the graph, which is also okay; city lights will blow out, for instance, which often looks very cool, especially when featuring a starburst effect.
So pay careful attention to your histogram, and use it to ensure you’ve nailed your low-light shots. But don’t obsess if the histogram doesn’t show you a “perfect” curve.
Landscape photographers, including low-light landscape photographers, are faced with a unique problem:
Capturing tonal detail throughout a scene, even when the scene features a bright sky and a dark foreground, or bright city lights and dark buildings.
In other words, landscape photographers must learn to balance exposures so as to retain maximum detail. A histogram is ultra-helpful, as I mentioned in the last section – but what if you’re not sure whether you got the result you wanted, even with the histogram? And even more concerning: What if a good result is impossible, simply because the difference because the brightest brights and the darkest darks in your photos are too significant?
That’s where exposure bracketing comes in. It’s a simple technique, but it’s a huge deal for the committed landscape photographer. Here’s how it works:
To some extent, you’re creating backups, so that if you get the exposure slightly wrong, you still have a well-exposed image to fall back on. However, exposure bracketing can do more than that; you can actually blend several bracketed images together in Lightroom or Photoshop, taking the most detail from different parts of the images, so that the underexposed image contributes a beautiful sky, while the overexposed image contributes rich shadows. That way, you get the best of both worlds (and a stunning final result). Make sense?
And by the way: You can bracket as broadly as you like. Three bracketed images is pretty common (often with a margin of two stops), but you can also capture five, seven, nine, or more bracketed shots!
Hopefully, you now feel much more confident – and you know exactly how to capture low-light landscape shots like a pro.
So head out into the field and practice (though make sure you bring a trusty tripod and a remote release along!).
Now over to you:
Which of these tips is your favorite? And do you have any low-light landscape tips of your own? Share your thoughts in the comments below!