A nightscape is a representation of any place or scene at night. If you are venturing into this area of photography, you will quickly realize that there are some other things to consider along with getting your exposure right. Here are a few tips to help you.
1. Settings and Gear
Shooting nightscapes is a very cool way to teach yourself shooting in low-light conditions. The location and conditions will vary your settings, but there are a few things you can keep in mind. For example, digital noise is detected easily in darker areas. So, while newer cameras are handling noise better, it is a good practice to keep your ISO setting as low as possible.
Since light is at a premium at night, it is a good time as any to work with more open apertures (smaller f-number), to let in more light. At night, sometimes your background details are lost anyway, so there are few added benefits of having a large depth of field. Star effects are a nice exception to this (created when shooting point light sources with a smaller aperture like f/11).
It’s also a great time to experiment with longer shutter speeds. During the day, keeping your shutter open means you need to add filters to cut the light. At night you need to add light and can use shutter speed to be more creative.
Before you frown on High Dynamic Range (HDR) images, consider what value it adds. Bracketing is a good way to deal with the very contrasty reality of night photography.
Note: Long exposures also add noise as your sensor heats up (known as thermal noise). This makes it a good time to check that Long Exposure Noise Reduction box on your camera menu.
2. Location Scouting
As with other genres of photography, your location is important. Start with a plan of what you want to capture. Maybe it’s the city at night, that elusive Milky Way; exciting light trails left by cars or some sort of nightlife action. While some of these coexist, most times they are independent of each other and require their own unique conditions.
Since photography means thinking about your light source(s) at all time, night photography needs added consideration for obvious reasons. What are the light sources in your location? Is it a street lamp, the moon, building lights, traffic or do you have to walk into the scene with your own light (light painting)?
When shooting landscape images at night, you could get there before nightfall and observe how the light changes. If you do not have the luxury of time, there are phone apps that help you figure out the light direction of your location. Scouting for a location can be as simple as a google search, someone’s recommendation or making an actual trip to understand the environment. Familiarizing yourself with your destination in advance gives you a photographic advantage and even keeps you safer.
Bonus Tip: Water can be an asset to night photography especially where there are light reflections.
The moon is a fascinating subject. Since it is a light source, you need to take it into consideration when scouting and planning your nightscape shots.
If it is your subject, then you may want it at its peak for drama (full moon, supermoon, or harvest moon) and shoot on a clear night to capture as much detail as possible. After you have worked out the correct exposure for shooting the moon, try composing it into a scene.
On the other hand, if you are shooting other celestial objects (e.g. the Milky Way, meteors, or star trails), it might be preferable if the moon is barely there or not so dominant (new moon to the first quarter). Like sunrise and tides, there are many apps that can help you figure out moon phases and direction in relation to your location.
4. Other Environmental Notes
Condition your gear!
Since temperatures usually drop at night, you need to be aware of moving your camera from warmer to colder conditions (the reverse is also true). Any seasoned night photographer can attest that “lens fog” is a nuisance as it blocks/cuts the light passing through your lens. Lens hoods help a little with reducing moisture build-up on your glass.
So another bonus of arriving at your location a little earlier is giving your gear time to acclimate to your shooting conditions.
Walk with a flashlight
A flashlight is an asset for several reasons. You can use it to ensure proper footing for yourself or your tripod. It also helps when you need to make changes to your camera settings (knowing your controls off-hand is very useful in the dark).
Night photography provides a great learning environment and gives you the opportunity to play around with your settings. Depends on what you are shooting, your available light is not changing quickly (if at all) and this gives you more time to experiment and get it right. You can take advantage of less traffic around or use it to your advantage (shooting nightlife).
Be safe while you’re out there and scout beforehand if possible. If you are an avid night photographer, share with us some of your night photography tips in the comments below.