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The Essential Guide to Low-Light Landscape Photography

A guide to low-light landscape photography

Low-light landscape photography offers a unique challenge for photographers. On the one hand, a landscape lit by softer, subtler light can result in the kind of magical shots that go beyond more conventional photos. On the other hand, capturing these scenes requires a careful approach and a keen understanding of camera settings.

But don’t fret! With the right guidance, even a beginner can create stunning images of dimly lit landscape scenes. And in this article, I’ll explain:

  • How to consistently nail low-light exposures
  • How to keep your camera steady for rock-solid images
  • How to work with the light to create beautiful long exposures
  • How to select the perfect low-light landscape settings
  • Much more!

So whether you’re planning to shoot during dusk, dawn, or in the middle of a dark forest, let’s dive right in.

The best settings for low-light landscape photography

Low-light landscape photography

Every image is unique, but certain settings are great starting points for shooting in low light. Over time, you’ll develop your own preferences, but here’s what I recommend when you’re first entering the field:

RAW file format

If you’ve been doing landscape photography for a while, you’re probably tired of hearing it, but RAW files will make such a difference to your shots. If you shoot in RAW, you can recover lost detail, and you can also make natural-looking adjustments to colors and tones.

Manual mode

I know it can seem daunting, but Manual mode really is ideal for landscape photography, especially low-light landscape photography. That’s why I strongly recommend shooting in Manual. It’ll allow you to tweak your settings constantly, and it’ll also let you pinpoint the effects that each adjustment has on your image so you can experiment until you get a good result.

Low-light landscape photography

A narrow aperture

In general, it’s a good idea to choose a narrow aperture like f/8 or f/16. This shouldn’t change much from your standard well-lit landscape aperture setting – it’ll keep the entire scene sharp, which is generally the goal. That said, if you’re doing astrophotography, you’ll want to choose an ultra-wide aperture such as f/2.8 so you can increase your shutter speed and prevent blur from the stars.

A low ISO

Set your ISO to its base value, usually ISO 100. This will minimize noise to ensure the highest-quality files for editing, sharing, and printing.

A long shutter speed

Low-light landscape photography

Since the aperture and the ISO will generally be relatively fixed, the shutter speed is the variable you can use to ensure an excellent overall exposure. Because you’ll be working with limited light, expect your shutter speed to sit between 1/30s and 60s. Sometimes, you’ll need to go even longer!

Essential low-light landscape imaging gear

Low-light landscape photography

While you don’t need to rush out and spend thousands of dollars on new gear for shooting low-light landscapes, I do encourage you to spend some time thinking about the equipment you own and whether a few upgrades might improve your images. Here’s what I recommend:

A full-frame camera

The best low-light landscape cameras contain a larger sensor. (Why? On average, larger sensors can take in more light per pixel, which results in cleaner images at higher ISOs as well as more expansive dynamic range capabilities.) Therefore, if you can, go full-frame.

That said, if you don’t have a full-frame model, don’t worry too much. Good shots are still possible with an APS-C or Four-Thirds camera; you just need to be more careful when raising your ISO or dealing with HDR scenes.

A fast wide-angle lens

Low-light landscape photography

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 approach. 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.

A sturdy tripod

Low-light landscape photography

Low-light photography offers (unsurprisingly!) very little light to work with, so shutter speeds are long. If you’re not careful, your images will end up ruined by camera shake. That’s why a tripod is absolutely, one-hundred percent essential.

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.

A remote release

Even when shooting long exposure landscape photos with a tripod, you can still cause camera shake 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!

Tips to improve your low-light landscape shots

Now let’s delve into some techniques to really level up your low-light images, starting with:

1. Spend some time scouting your location

Low-light landscape photography

Low-light landscape photography often requires shooting close to dawn or dusk. During these times, visibility can be quite limited, and the last thing you want is to be stumbling around in the dark. Therefore, it’s essential to do some scouting in advance.

Visit the location during daylight hours, and walk around to get a feel for the terrain. Look for interesting compositions and visualize how the light might affect the scene. Think about the sun’s position and how – if it’ll be above the horizon during your planned photoshoot – its rays will create shadows and highlights across the landscape.

Consider taking some test shots during the day to help you visualize the final result. Also, familiarize yourself with the paths and surroundings so you can navigate safely when it’s dark. If you plan to shoot around dusk, plot a clear and safe route back to your car or base location. You definitely don’t want to get stranded alone with a bunch of heavy (and expensive) equipment!

Remember to consider seasonal and weather changes that might affect the accessibility of your chosen spot. Safety is paramount, so always ensure you have a well-planned scouting trip before your actual shoot.

2. Shoot during the golden hour and the blue hour

Low-light landscape photography

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).

Note: One common mistake many photographers make is leaving too soon after the sun sets. Sure, the golden hour is magical, but the moments that follow can be equally enchanting.

The faint light of the blue hour, just after sunset or before sunrise, offers a unique opportunity for creativity. Colors shift, and the landscape takes on a new dimension.

So while it may be tempting to pack up as the light dims, resist the urge. Be patient, stay a while, and explore the changing light. The blue hour can provide a serene and mystical quality to your photographs, which can be rather unattainable during brighter parts of the day!

3. Manually set your white balance

Low-light landscape photography

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.

4. Use Live View (and your camera’s electronic shutter, if possible)

Low-light landscape photography

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.

5. Don’t be afraid to increase the ISO

Low-light landscape photography

As I emphasized above, a low ISO is generally best for low-light landscapes – but there are times when you’ll want to boost the ISO.

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 produce 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 full-frame cameras can handle a lot of noise, keep it low when possible.

6. Watch for unwanted motion blur

Low-light landscape photography

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to keep your camera steady to avoid blur due to camera shake. But there’s another type of blur that can creep into your images and detract from the final result.

I’m talking about the movement of elements within your frame, such as blowing grasses or trembling flowers. If your shutter speed is more than a fraction of a second, these elements will start to lose detail.

Now, motion blur isn’t always bad. Sometimes, it can lend an ethereal effect in your image. But intense blur from wildly moving vegetation can take away from the overall scene. Instead of a serene or dramatic landscape, you end up with a chaotic mishmash that loses its details.

So what do you do if you’re faced with moving elements that you’d prefer not to blur? Sometimes, it’s a matter of patiently waiting for the wind to calm down. Other times, it may be best to revisit the location on a more favorable day. You can also try boosting the ISO or widening the aperture to allow for a faster shutter speed, though each settings adjustment will also negatively affect your image in other ways.

7. Incorporate a foreground element for added scale

Low-light landscape photography

I’ve talked lots about settings and light in low-light landscape shooting, but composition matters, too. You can start with the basics: the rule of thirds, minimalism, negative space, and leading lines.

But 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 they’re 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.

8. Take plenty of test shots (and check your exposure with the histogram)

Low-light landscape photography

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.

9. Capture beautiful long-exposure images

Low-light landscape photography

I’ve touched on the importance of using long exposures in low-light situations throughout this article. But now let’s delve a little deeper into how you can use this technique to your advantage.

A long-exposure technique can truly elevate your images. Think of moving water turned silky or fast-moving clouds stretched across the sky like cotton candy. These effects are achieved by extending your shutter speed, and they can add a breathtaking quality to your shots.

The key is to experiment and find the perfect shutter speed. Different speeds can add or remove texture from moving elements. Perhaps a 2s exposure renders a river too smooth, while a 1/10s exposure gives it just the right amount of motion. Don’t be afraid to try different settings until you achieve the look you’re after.

Also, consider the specific elements that will be affected by the long exposure and adjust your composition accordingly. Incorporating elements like streaking clouds can add dynamism and visual interest.

Taking the time to master long exposures in low light can open up a world of creative possibilities. With patience, practice, and a willingness to experiment, you’ll find yourself capturing images that stand out from the crowd.

10. Bracket your exposures for maximum detail

Low-light landscape photography

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:

  1. Take a shot with a middle exposure value.
  2. Adjust your settings (generally the shutter speed) to slightly underexpose the scene, then take a shot.
  3. Adjust your settings (again, generally the shutter speed) to slightly overexpose the scene, then take a shot.

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 are pretty common (often with a margin of two stops), but you can also capture five, seven, nine, or more bracketed shots!

Low-light landscape photography tips: final words

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:

Do you have any low-light landscape tips of your own? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Natalie Denton (nee Johnson)
Natalie Denton (nee Johnson)

Natalie Denton (nee Johnson) is the former editor of Digital Photographer magazine, and is now a freelance journalist and photographer who has written for dozens of photography and technology magazines and websites over the last decade. Recent author and tutor too.

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