15 Tips for Low Light Landscape Photography

15 Tips for Low Light Landscape Photography

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low-light-1.jpgCapturing scenes in low light remains one of the most challenging aspects of photography, yet the results when executed well can be truly captivating. Whether it’s an energetic cityscape or ethereal seascape the possibilities are endless. Here are a few essentials points to consider before you begin.

  1. It’s a good idea to formulate a plan of attack before the twilight hour so scout out a position while there is another available light and grab a few set up shots to make sure your scene works and will be free from distracting objects. Cityscapes are best viewed from a distance, whereas seascapes are more dramatic nearer to the shoreline. Consider compositional elements to add scale, interest and context. When twilight occurs you’ll only have around 20-30 minutes of optimum shooting time so be ready for all eventualities.
  2. The best time to shoot a low light scene starts just half an hour before the sunsets until an half an hour or so after wards as this will produce beautiful colouration in the sky; resonating in a display of pinks, purples, reds, oranges eventually fading into an enigmatic blue. This shade of sky is more useful than the night sky as exposure times can be reduced if and helps to define the subjects within the scene.
  3. The key to flawless low light shots is long exposure which means slow shutter speeds so a sturdy tripod is unquestionably your most vital accessory. Manfrotto and Gitzo produce solid but light products which are ideal for landscape shooters. However, the ever portable and incredibly flexible gorillapod can be a great boon when creative angles or positions are desired. By supporting your camera you will be able to lower the sensitivity and decrease noise but leave the shutter open for as long as necessary without the worry of blur.
  4. If you are without a tripod but can’t resist a capture then look around for some other form of support, be it the top of a wall, the top of a rubbish bin, a fence, the ground, your rucksack or even your shoe – there are many ways to get around this problem. If there are literally no objects to support your kit from underneath, try leaning against a building or strong structure instead and press the camera into it and support it as calmly as possible with your hand underneath.
  5. Image by V31S70

    Image by V31S70

  6. So start by setting your camera upon a solid tripod and switching the unit to manual or shutter priority if you are wish. Lower the ISO to 100 (for some DSLRs you may need to access a sub menu to find this value) and dial in a shutter speed of 15 to 20 seconds (this will take some trial and error to find the optimum value). In terms of aperture you are going to want capture a longer depth of field to ensure far off elements within your scene remain in focus so try varying from f9 to f14.
  7. In relation to lenses the faster the better and a healthy wide angle will draw the whole scene in, something like a 12-24mm or a 10.5 fisheye can produce exciting results. However a zoom lens can be of benefit when shooting a city scene to pull in sections of the skyline or play with perspective.
  8. Using an auto white balance may result in lack lustre colours so set your white balance manually or dial in 5500k, as this is the average colour of daylight. It is advisable to shoot in RAW however as you can always alter the WB in processing if needed.
  9. Image by kern.justin

    Image by kern.justin

  10. Another key piece of kit is a remote control shutter release like Nikon’s ML-L3 wireless control which works with Nikon’s enthusiast range of cameras; D40, D40x, D60, D80 and D90. There are many varieties of release out there for all makes and models; some wireless others tethered. The benefit of a remote shutter release is the photographer can ensure they do not accidental nudge the camera during it’s exposure as this would show on the capture as shake or blur, distorting the overall crispness and clarity. Another trick to employ if you are without a remote shutter is to use the self timer.
  11. If you do have a trigger release take this practice a step further by employing the camera’s bulb setting and mirror lock up functionality. First press the trigger to lock the mirror out of the way and wait for any residual vibrations to subside then press the trigger again to start the exposure but hold it down for as long as you want the capture to last.
  12. Camera manufacturers are stepping up their game all the time pushing DSLR technology to the limits, most recently and perhaps notably is Nikon’s D3S which is capable of shooting at ISO 200 to an impressive 12,800. Further still this ISO can be expanded to an unprecedented 102,400. By utilising higher ISOs such as this photographers can sample low light photography hand held as the shutter speeds can be sufficiently increased.
  13. Although powerhouses such as the D3S cope admirably with noise, the same cannot be said of all cameras. Therefore if you do opt for a High ISO instead or supporting the unit with a tripod noise is inevitably. However there are ways to reduce the effect. First your device may offer a Noise Reduction system, activate this and the camera will automatically search for the incorrect coloured pixels within your scene and map the correct the values instead. This isn’t the best idea by any means but is an option if handheld shooting is the only option available. There are many Noise reduction software products available on the market that can resolve this issue post capture as well and if processing in Photoshop opt to process as a 16-bit file rather than an 8-bit one as you’ll retain more image information which will extend the opportunity to recover shadows from burnt highlights and retrieve details from the shadows – both a hazard of low light shooting.
  14. Image by Paco CT

    Image by Paco CT

  15. Incorporate a foreground element to add interest, scale and to help contextualise the piece. For example the combination of natural and artificial light can be very dramatic in cityscapes, high levels of light pollution colour the night sky and the vast quantity of glowing orbs scatter light across the scene but including a bridge, highway or structure will help to lead the viewer into the frame. If it’s a twilight landscape you desire consider a diagonal row of trees, a fence, a hedge or farm house. Likewise with a sea scene incorporate a lighthouse, Cliffside or groyn.
  16. With so much or so little going on in your low light scene in can be a job to know where to meter from so set your camera to matrix or multi-segment metering and take several readings using the elements in your scene to judge the optimal value. Ideally it’s best to start with a midtone rather than highlights or shadows and if you are using a zoom lens, scroll in to meter from the detail of the subject or object and then zoom back out to compose the shot.
  17. Another handy trick some low light enthusiasts employ is exposure bracketing. Use Aperture priority and meter from one area of the scene (later repeat this for the various elements in turn). Dial in the exposure and use the histogram to ensure accurate results. Keep aperture and ISO consistent throughout but vary the length of the exposure in half a stop increments. Later you can package these into one shot in editing.
  18. The wonderful thing about digital is the instant feedback. A lot of your technique will be trial and error in the beginning but use the histogram to check exposure. It may indicate that part of the shot is overexposed but this may be the areas of bright lights in a city scene for example and is therefore perfectly fine. Ideally your frame will present a post sunset sky or veil of blue twilight but still offer detail in buildings on foreground instruments. The most important thing is to have fun and experiment!

Natalie Johnson is the former editor of Digital Photographer magazine and after seven years in the business has chosen to pursue her dream of becoming a freelance photographer and writer.

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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.

Some Older Comments

  • Dr.Pinaki Baidya November 28, 2012 10:11 pm

    Great article.Nice tips.

  • Janice April 26, 2012 04:08 am

    Thanks for the tips. Beautiful images too!

  • Robert March 17, 2012 11:23 am

    Nice article but it seems to be a plug for Nikon.

  • satyam March 5, 2012 02:40 pm


    invited !

  • JKSARMA March 4, 2012 03:46 am

    I think the most important point for low light photo is presence of mind and iso sensivity of the camera

  • Hemmers March 2, 2012 11:53 pm

    Thanks for the tips, every little helps. Perhaps a few words on the use of filters might have been useful, it can be good fun experimenting with them.

  • thygocanberra March 2, 2012 08:29 pm

    You mention the ML-L3 remote - great little device which I use with D60 & D90. But why did Nikon NOT make the D3100 compatible with this?

  • Linda Enian February 29, 2012 07:38 am


  • AustralianLight Landscape Photography February 28, 2012 02:13 pm

    Lots of very useful and valid points in this article - hits the nail on the head across the board with some great tips!

    I think the most important technical factors mentioned above, for me at least, are the importance of a steady tripod, a remote release cable, and mirror lockup. Anything you can do to keep the shot as sharp as possible is good! Get those techniques down pat first and foremost, and then work on compositions and artistic renditions of the scene :)

    Thanks for the great tips - these are sure to get people on the right track to better low light landscape photos!

  • Linda Enian February 28, 2012 11:20 am

    Low-light photography attempt - Sundial bridge at dawn


  • Linda Enian February 28, 2012 10:47 am

    Thank you for the useful tips. The following image (Sundial Bridge, Redding CA) is my attempt in low light photography.Please let me know your comments/tips.


  • Rob Bixby February 28, 2012 01:00 am

    All of these are great suggestions, but I really like #4. Last week, I got some amazing shots of a local river and downtown area, using the handrail along the riverwalk for support. Even if it isn't perfectly level, shortening the focal length a little more will allow you to straighten it later. And not lose any of your desired image.

  • Fuzzypig February 27, 2012 07:17 pm

    Early morning for me, you arrive before daybreak and you get time to watch the light build up and choose the optimum moment.

    The hardest parts for me are the dynamic range that occurs as the sun peeks just over the horizon or clouds, you can be dealing with ranges of up to 8-9 stops, which you have to take the hit on "blinkies" or start bracketing. Even when you have ND's up to 5-6 stops on the front you still blow certain areas.

    FInding focus points in the dark is hard and looking for foreground interest is harder still. To shoot good early morning shots means you usually have to visit a place several times in daylight to work out your best "attack" point to shoot from.

    Very challenging time to shoot pictures early morning, evening is much, much easier as the stops start closing together more easily but the downside is you have to work more quikly in the evening as the light fades.

  • Jeff E Jensen February 27, 2012 02:01 pm

    Excellent advice! Twilight is one of my favorite times to shoot. The lighting and results can be absolutely amazing.


  • Scottc February 26, 2012 01:46 am

    A higher ISO can help if you're in a pinch with no tripod or other way to brace the camera.


  • jim February 26, 2012 01:38 am

    When I shoot abandoned buildings we often find that there is hardly any light to work with. HDR is the best way to go but I never try to over do hdr so end up with something like this...


    A tripod is a must and I dont use a remote or cable release, I do have them, I just use the timer and move swiftly.

  • Steve February 26, 2012 01:37 am

    I was not allowed to use flash in this cathedral so this one was taken on a tripod with a slow shutter speed.
    HDR helps to pull out details from the shadows.


  • Maitresse Obinah December 1, 2011 08:02 am

    Very interesting....i have taken a picture of Waikiki two years ago. and i think it was a beautiful photo....i would love to share it as soon as i find it in my collection.

  • Paul November 29, 2011 03:53 am

    This topic really interests me so I enjoyed it and the images are good too. Thanks.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck February 11, 2011 02:47 am


    This is a well written article with many useful tips and advice - love it! Low light photography doesnt always have to be about landscapes.

    This shot was of a stack of wine glasses at a corporate event. I adjusted white balance to Incandescent, firmly anchored the camera to the bar and got up close and personal with a 10-20mm lens. I shot through the glasses to catch the subtle colors on Bokeh in the background!

    Glass Menagerie: http://t.co/Gdbh1lp

    Regards, Erik
    Kerstenbeck Photographic Art

  • Myra December 20, 2010 03:53 am

    Very nice picture!! Thank you for sharing.

  • safwen May 18, 2010 06:54 am

    see more


  • Sarah May 7, 2010 02:13 am

    Thanks for sharing this tips! I have recently begun taking landscape after visiting Peter Lik's gallery in Maui. If you haven't seen his work check him out: http://blog.peterlik.com/

  • Chester Tugwell March 25, 2010 06:40 am

    I've only just started to explore this area of photography, I love the affect of a longer exposure especially on water and sky.

  • Stuart Meyer- Indianapolis Wedding Photographer March 2, 2010 08:18 am

    I love the one with the light coming through the clouds. Any chance you used some HDR techniques? I only ask because HDR seems to be the rage and I have yet to delve into it.

  • Sarah February 12, 2010 09:23 am

    Thank you for posting this! I am trying to get into photography and want to learn as much as possible! I have become very interested in it after seeing some of Peter Lik's work. If you have not seen his work before he is worth checking out! His work really will inspire you! http://www.peterlik.com/

  • jmleclercq February 1, 2010 02:19 am

    great article..some good tips i will going to test..

  • nick m January 31, 2010 01:29 am

    low light and long exposure is one of my faves. Thanks for this interesting and informative blog.
    well done!

  • panoramic photo stitching January 30, 2010 03:06 pm

    Good and informative article. I love low light landscape shots. This article contains many good tips. Keep blogging and thanks.

  • Bull Rhino January 30, 2010 12:38 pm

    Thanks for this great article. I love low light photographs but don't get nearly enough of them. Your article has inspired me to get out and get some more. I like to keep my ISO the same as I usually shoot in @ 160 and use a quality tripod and wired shutter release. Really love the bridge shot and the light filtering through the clouds.

  • Nat January 30, 2010 08:30 am

    Two things that many people leave out of this discussion:

    1) In addition to #8 (remote shutter release) is to use mirror lock-up if your camera has it, even with a good tripod. Even if you're releasing the shutter remotely, any slow exposure (slower than about 1/15) can show vibration from the mirror snapping up right before the exposure.

    Most Canons have mirror lock-up as a feature - first press of the shutter (or remote) brings up the mirror, second press starts the exposure. Despite what people assume, Nikons can do this as well, but the feature is implemented a little differently. If you turn on the option for Exposure Delay (advanced menus), this causes the shutter not to open for approximately 1 sec after you press the button. What they don't specifically document is that the camera implements this by snapping the mirror up as soon as you press the shutter, then opening the shutter curtains approximately 1 sec later. What this amounts to is automated mirror lock-up. I shoot with a D90 - your mileage may, of course, vary by model. :)

    Whichever camera you use, the critical part of mirror lock-up or exposure delay is remembering to turn it off when you're done for the night. The feature is decidedly less helpful when shooting small, scampering children the next day!

    2) If you're shooting long exposures on a tripod, I suggest turning off the vibration reduction feature (either a switch on the lens or a camera menu option). Not only does this save you some battery, some people say it actually helps produce sharper images.

    Shot on a very cold night last January:

    [eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/ncarling/3271410164/' title='Neuqua Valley HS' url='http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3310/3271410164_541e67d202.jpg']

  • Bandu January 29, 2010 05:36 pm

    Tripod is a must for low light landscape photography, of course. However in modern digital photography, usage of higher ISO value is really an advantage. If you use a top level digital SLR no question about 'noice' when using high ISO values.
    I shot this image in South Africa while travelling from Krugar Nature Park to Bloemfontein under a dark rain cloud. Hand held Canon 5D using EF24~105 f/4 IS lens but supported to a lamp post to make the camera sturdy. Photographed in tele end.

  • fotoblogger.dk January 29, 2010 06:36 am

    I'd save the money on the shutter release, and just use the built-in timer (or for Nikon: Exposure Delay mode) - the motive is not running anywhere, so a 1 - 5 seconds delay from pressing the shutter to taking the photo won't matter much :-)

  • John Wells January 29, 2010 04:18 am

    Nice article--many good tips. One thing though: before anyone goes out trying to duplicate Kern Justin's spectacular shot Light Years, they should probably check out his web site for the particulars. The image posted is a mosaic of some 14 individual frames stitched together--not an impossible task to be sure, but certainly more work than might be expected in order to get that kind of magnificent clarity and resolution.


  • mary carroll January 29, 2010 03:52 am

    thanks for all the great information, well-presented!

  • SerinaDruid January 28, 2010 02:15 pm

    Great tips, these made for fantastic low light photographs!

  • Zack Jones January 27, 2010 10:28 pm

    @James W - Thanks for the link for the term (along with the proper spelling) :)

    @Fernando - Good points. I agree that longer shutter times would be required for shots after the sun goes down. I guess since the article seemed, to me, to focus on shots taken around sunset that 15 - 30 second exposures seemed longer than expected during this time period. The shot shown at the bottom of this reply is a 30 second @ f/22 shot.

    Regarding #6 - When I think of landscape photography I typically don't think of things moving quickly so fast focusing speed isn't a concern :). Generally speaking though I'll take a f/2.8 lens over a f/4 lens any day. I have the Canon 200 2/8L and 70-200 f/4L lenses. I'll have to test them both at f/4 @ 200 mm to see the difference in DOF @ f/4 between the two.

    [eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/zackojones/3804355216/' title='Waterfront Park at Night' url='http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3551/3804355216_8dec849105.jpg']

  • Jake January 27, 2010 10:50 am


  • Kyriaco January 27, 2010 08:46 am

    Great tips. Must say that a shutter release & tripod is a must for low light photography - anything to get the ISO lower!

  • Erin Wilson January 27, 2010 08:36 am

    @Sparda79 + @bas wientjes

    Thanks!! I really appreciate your help.

  • Bas Wientjes January 27, 2010 07:35 am

    @ Erin Wilson (2)

    Oh, before I forget: a third way would be to first focus using the flash light, then switching your lens to manual focus, ans then do the metering and make the exposure. I'm not a big fan of this method though, because some lenses (especially the ones with mediocre build quality) will slowly have their focus ring "drift" from what you set it to. I remember my Canon 50mm f1.8 II doing this until it drove me nuts! A bit of cellar tape did the trick at the time, but this turned out not to be very handy at all once I discovered Exposure Locking on my 350D (play a bit with the custom functions).

  • Bas Wientjes January 27, 2010 07:25 am

    @ Erin Wilson

    I usually carry around a small flashlight to light the object I want to focus on, in case of insufficient light. Keep in mind though that you just use it for focusing, not metering your exposure!
    You can do this by first metering, then setting the values in Manual mode, and then focus using the flash light (stretch your arm sideways so that the object is lit a bit from the side, this will create small shadows in the texture that helps your camera focus).
    Another way would be to use Exposure Lock, if your camera has such an option.

  • Roman January 27, 2010 05:41 am

    Good post. I just got an old minolta 50mm f1.4 lens for my sony, and I love it for low light shots it is my first lens apart from the two I purchased with my sony (18-70mm and 75-300mm)...thanks for the post.

  • Robin Ryan January 27, 2010 04:27 am

    A few that I've made through the years:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/robinryan/1282984956/in/set-72157603000254329/ (Cates Park, North Vancouver)
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/robinryan/2632594417/in/set-72157603000254329/ (Vancouver)
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/robinryan/3720869670/in/set-72157603000254329/ (NYC)

  • Jeff Colburn January 26, 2010 03:21 pm

    Great article. I will be testing it out tomorrow shooting the lights of a small town on a hill, with the sky lit by the afterglow of the sunset.

    Have Fun,

  • Sparda79 January 26, 2010 02:58 pm

    I would normally use my LCD screen (digital zoom 5x or 10x), boost my ISO to max & maybe 30 sec exposure (so I can see where to focus) and do it manually. Once I get the focus I want, then I'd adjust the to proper setting.

    Here's one of my low light landscape:-
    [eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/37683651@N03/4252156299/' title='Putrajaya Water Sport Complex' url='http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2772/4252156299_967c6aeb5e.jpg']
    More here:-


  • Mei Teng January 26, 2010 10:31 am

    I have not attempted low light landscape photography. Something I hope try out soon. I bought a remote control shutter release but have yet to purchase a tripod.

  • Erin Wilson January 26, 2010 10:25 am

    Any tips for focusing in low light situations? I've tried many times (using a very good tripod), but my focus is never sharp. Advice?

  • Funkmon January 26, 2010 06:57 am

    Eh, I didn't like the post. It all seemed like pretty useless information to me, with pictures thrown in willy nilly for the sake of having pictures. Why not explain things with pictures? 5 seconds versus 20 and so on.

  • Kimberly January 26, 2010 06:49 am

    As always, great post! Looking forward to putting this to practice this week.

  • Fernando January 26, 2010 06:31 am

    @ Zack Jones

    your #5 question

    15-30 sec shots are fairly normal, depending how much light there is. This would definately be normal after sunset when shooting with ISO 100, and say f9.0. There really is not that much light out there around 30min to 1hour after the sun goes down.

    your #6 question

    The purpose of having a fast lens (say f2.8 as you mentioned) in this context is that a f2.8 lens will focus better in low light then a f4.0 lens. Sure once stoped down to f8 or so both will be the same, but when you are focusing before you take the shot you are wide open, therefore the f2.8 will let in more light for your Autofocus to work while at f4, there may not be enough light for it to work properly. Your lens only stops down during the actual shot, or if you press the DOF button.
    Take a f2.8 lens and stop it down to f4.0, press the DOF button.... you will notice it is slightly darker thru the viewfinder. May not be much, but that little difference can make all the difference in the world to your focusing sensor in low light!

  • Beth Partin January 26, 2010 05:05 am

    I wouldn't have thought to set the camera to ISO 100. Thanks for these tips. The photos above are beautiful.

  • Lorenzo January 26, 2010 04:35 am

    Nice article, thank you for sharing the tips.
    One comment I have: in my humble opinion for long exposures (several seconds), the mirror lock up is not necessary. On a multiple seconds exposure (say 2 seconds and up) the fraction of the second vibration caused by the mirror will not have any effect on the sharpness of the result. The vibration caused by the wind rushing through the camera, tripod or dangling strap, or any shaky/vibrating ground is going to be a much more serious problem.

  • James W. January 26, 2010 04:35 am

    Definition of a groyne: http://definr.com/groyne

  • Tim January 26, 2010 03:14 am

    It's worth bearing in mind also that if the sun, or its shadows, are going to be an important part of your shot, that in the early morning the sun will be in a completely different place. Something that doesn't 'work' at sunset might be amazing at sunrise.

  • Tim January 26, 2010 02:58 am

    Great article. Might have been a good idea to proof read the text before putting it out though ;)

  • Zack Jones January 26, 2010 02:50 am

    Interesting stuff. I guess the author isn't a morning person since this discussion focused on late afternoon/evening shooting :).

    Couple of questions/comments:

    #5 - 15 - 20 second exposure is a long time, it seems. I'll have to try this technique as my normal low light exposures a under 2 seconds.

    #6 - Can you explain more about lens speed here? I don't see where it's a factor. Using a 70 - 200 f/4 should yield the same result as a 70-200 f/2.8 when you're talking about shooting in the f/8 - f/22 range.

    #12 - what is "groyn"? dictionary.com couldn't find an entry for that term. Typo perhaps?

  • Christopher Romano January 26, 2010 02:25 am


    On certain cameras (I'm speaking for Nikon cameras, as I am not particular sure about Canon or other brands), the ISO modes are often branded as having a "standard range" (as mentioned in the article, the D3S is 200-12,800) and "expanded range".

    Expanded range essentially means settings that are beyond what the camera's sensor was designed for. Now, you may initially think, "well, great! I'll just use those settings!", but of course, there is a trade off.

    Lo-1, the lowest setting possible, is equivalent to that of ISO 100. Except, since the camera's sensor was not designed with ISO 100 in mind, certain weird things may happen in a picture. While there may be less noise than at the standard ISO 200, there may also be pixels that are blotchy, or not as sharp, among other odd effects. The trade off of course is if you want to use a certain aperture/shutter speed, and the light source is just overpowering enough that you need that little extra bit of "film" underexposure to make the correct exposure come together.

    Hi-3 is the highest setting possible, and on the D3S, is the equivalent of ISO 102,400. That's pretty much night vision, which is pretty crazy. However, of course, because you're pushing the sensor to its limits, there is going to be a TON color and luminance noise. There are a whole bunch of examples of pictures taken with the D3S at different ISO here.

    As for your Rebel XTi, looking online (but having never actually used the camera myself), it looks that it comes only with ISO 100-1600 as the standard modes, with no expanded modes available. Thus, you're safe using ISO 100 whenever you have the option of light/stability, without getting any weird effects in your pictures.

  • Reznor January 26, 2010 12:58 am


    Where can I find information about what ISO is native to my camera (Canon Digital Rebel XTi)? I was already wondering if ISO 100 is really the best setting for my equipment.

  • OsmosisStudios January 26, 2010 12:50 am

    While much of this is true, some of the technical issues are not.
    ISO100: For cameras in which this is NOT native ISO (Ie its a pulled 200), use 200. You'll get better dynamic range, which is more important.
    Aperture: f/8-f/16 is the generally accepted rule.
    I'd also be tempted to use Aperture Priority, not Shutter Priority if need be. Manual is preferred.

  • James K January 26, 2010 12:42 am

    great article. some good solid tips in there.

    if you are investing in a tripod I advise you to not skimp on it. cheap tripods lack so much stability in my opinion. you'll regret it in the long run.

  • Will January 26, 2010 12:34 am

    Great post. I love low light landscape shots. Here's one of my favourites from last year... a 30 second exposure of a steaming volcano :)