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6 Tips for Better Low-Light Landscape Photography

A glorious sunset will always attract a crowd of photographers. Yet the moment the sun dips behind the horizon, it seems everyone departs in a hurry. What they don’t realize is how exceptional the scene can become at dusk and into the early evening. The hours following sunset are actually ideal for landscape photos. Of course, working in low light isn’t without its fair share of challenges.

With these six tips though, it’s possible to extend the magic hour and continue creating stunning images long into the night.

1) Compose Thoughtfully

It’s easy to be mesmerized by the bold colors of dusk. Yet, the photographer who works to add more visual interest will ultimately create a better image. About a half hour before the sun sets, I start the search for a foreground element that will anchor my composition. This can be a field of flowers, a boulder, a tree, or even a man-made object. The idea is to add visual interest all the way through the frame. As you explore various options, be sure to try different perspectives including the view from the ground. By having this location worked out in advance, you’ll be ready to capture the peak moment of brilliance.

2) Switch to Live View

When autofocus struggles, Live View becomes an extremely helpful focusing aid. By switching to manual focus and magnifying the scene on the LCD, you have the ability to carefully micro-focus on whatever is important in your scene. At 5x and 10x magnification, you don’t have to solely rely on your eyesight, making focus easy to achieve. Remember, the enlarged view on your LCD is not representative of the actual focal length, or view the camera sees. Upon pressing the shutter, the entire scene will be captured in sharp detail. With this level of precision, I find this feature ideal for low-light photography.

3) No Tripod? No Problem

It’s true, a tripod is a landscape photographer’s best friend, especially in near darkness. Yet, there are definitely occasions where carrying one is just not possible. With a bit of ingenuity, you can still create a sharp photographs. The key is to set your camera to the two second timer. Compose your shot with the camera resting on a rock or bag and press the shutter release. The timer will count down for two seconds. This is enough time to eliminate any camera shake before firing. Using this technique, you can still use very long shutter speeds even without a tripod.

4) Safety First

In extremely low-light, small camera buttons and dials become difficult to see. A small flashlight, or even your smartphone can provide the proper amount of illumination. This also comes in handy for navigating dark trails and rocks. To keep it from getting lost, I prefer the key ring type that can be attached to a camera bag. While this seems like a common sense item, don’t underestimate its usefulness. Hiking back to your car after dusk can be dangerous without artificial light to lead the way.

5) Cool Down the White Balance

During the day, I often enjoy the warmer White Balance presets like Cloudy or Shade. Similar to a painter adding more yellow to their brush, these settings introduce a golden quality of light to a landscape. At dusk however, this can look artificial and overprocessed. To better match the cooler color temperature of low light situations, Auto White Balance is actually quite accurate. While I do work in RAW, I enjoy shooting in a white balance that best represents the scene. This provides a more complete understanding of how the image will look and allows me to make adjustments accordingly.

6) Stay Just a Little Bit Longer

Night photography can offer some spectacular opportunities, especially when the moon is full. You can check this beforehand using apps like the Photographer’s Ephemeris. In these low-light conditions, you will need to take some special steps to get the shot. First, a solid tripod is essential to prevent camera shake. In the mountains, winds can be strong, so opt for a sturdy set of legs. Even with the light of the moon, it was necessary to use a 15″ (fifteen second) exposure. Camera settings: ISO 400, F/4, 15 seconds at 17mm. This same location midday, was a completely different scene with idling buses, flocks of tourists, and harsh contrasty light.

So how can you use these tips in your photography? Do you have any others to add? Please do so in the comments below.

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Chris Corradino
Chris Corradino

is the CEO and Head Instructor at Photo Mentor NYC, a personal mentoring service for photographers of all skill levels. For more info, visit christography.com.

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