How to Get Started Shooting Nighttime Landscapes

Most people only think of a nighttime landscape as one that is indistinct or includes only the silhouettes of the mountains against the starry skies. The fact is that the settings and timing used for a nighttime or extremely low-light photograph can often catch shades of color and effects that are completely indiscernible to the naked eye. This means nighttime landscapes are worth some experimentation.

It all begins, as every other photograph does, with the composition. While looking for daytime subjects, it is also important to note any areas where a nice twilight, sunset, or after dark photograph could be made too. Remember that you while you might be heading to the spot in daylight, you will probably be exiting it in the dark. This means you should select spots that offer safe and easy access both in and out, and that are not far from the car or base camp. Also aim to identify areas where man-made light will not flood the horizon for any length of time. This includes city lights or even the crest of a hill where a car’s headlights can quickly destroy the shot.


Shooting Nighttime Landscapes
Photo by Paulo Brandão

The next thing to do is make sure the area you select has a few elements that can create a strong composition. If you intend to record cloud or star movements it is best to have a measurable amount of “ground” in the picture to give it balance and perspective. It is also significant to apply the old-fashioned rule of thirds to your evening landscapes just as much as the daytime ones to ensure they are of the same quality.

Once you have your spot and composition pulled together you are going to have to focus the scene with the remaining light and take a few test shots. Some photographers use the bulb setting for these in order to get a clear understanding of the amount of time the shot is going to require, but others use the timer on their camera shutters to indicate the length of the exposure. A good starting point is a thirty second exposure with an aperture of f/3.5.

Where exposures are concerned, it is a good idea to use the lowest ISO your camera offers because prolonged exposures add “noise” and graininess to an image. This means if you crank up the ISO and use a long exposure you are likely to get inferior and noisy images.


Shooting Nighttime Landscapes
Photo by Ian David Blüm

To focus the scene, it is important to consider the focal point of the image and then use this to the best extent possible. For example, a flat and expansive landscape with only a ridge of hills in the distance is going to use those hills as the focus, while the landscape with a building as the focal point will target that instead.

It is important to note that some images require significant amounts of time – up to ten or fifteen minutes, but can yield some amazing results.

Top image by Marcos Fernández