Night Landscapes can broadly be classified into two types.
- The first would be wherein we intend to make Star trails or shoot the Milky way, which would be best done on a Moonless night, or when the Moon has set or not risen.
- The second would be when we intend to capture landscapes lit by Moon.
This blog describes the techniques, I use to shoot the second category of night Landscapes. The techniques described are purely based on my personal experiences and does not necessarily mean they are complete and perfect in themselves. If you have any ideas that will help improve this blog, please do mention so in the comments below.
The first consideration for shooting Moonlit Landscapes would be that the area should have as minimal light pollution as possible. Landscapes lit by moon are seen beautifully well in the areas tucked far away from any Human Inhabitation. Any form of light pollution, whether it be Street lights, City Lights, Light from Cars would adversely affect our Images.
Shot with a Canon 18-55mm lens at f/5.6, ISO 200 and exposed for 241 Seconds at 4:30 AM, a light wind was blowing making the clouds here look smooth and milky. The rock in the foreground was light painted with Fluorescent light. Post processed in Adobe Photoshop
Our visibility is adversely affected due to the Haze in earth’s atmosphere. (Cameras are really bad in capturing details in Hazy conditions).The atmosphere warmed by the sun’s heat takes some time to cool down and as it cools the visibility increases. The best time to shoot Moonlitscapes from my experience is 3 to 4 hours after sunset during summers in Himalayas and a bit early during winters (This may vary depending on where you are). Evaporation rate is pretty fast on the High Himalayan ranges and depending on winters or summers, chances are there will almost always be a cloud cover on the peaks until sun goes down. As the sun sets, cloud cover over the Himalayas starts clearing and as the night progresses the haze in the atmosphere too. I normally sleep early and wake up around 2AM in the morning. The visibility is at its best during the early hours of the night (Very freezing too!!!!).
Since we will mostly be shooting on nights which will either have a full moon or close to a full moon for obvious reasons, it’s critical that one knows the Moon Phase, Moon rise and set time for the region he intends to shoot. I heavily depends on a very good software Stellarium, available for free on the internet for both Mac and Windows. It has loads of Information about Stars, constellations, Planets, deep sky objects and will even show you when a particular satellite will pass by in your area. I just put in the Latitude and Longitude for the region I Intend to shoot and it gives me the Moon rise and set time for that region (Psst!!! Can’t find the Latitude for a region which is quite remote!! Just punch it in for the nearest town or city, it’s almost always accurate).
While shooting landscapes during day, we normally prefer large depth of field and for that reason we normally select a very narrow aperture, at night however choosing a narrow aperture will mean that a small amount of light will reach our camera sensor. Moon light is very dim compared to sunlight and hence I prefer to keep my aperture as wide as possible and shoot at my lowest ISO possible (I shoot from f/3.5 to f/5.6 on my 18—55 kit lens when the moon is not full, but on occasion may shoot at f/8 or so if it’s a full moon, here I bump up my ISO to 200). If one exposes a Landscape lit by moon for long enough time, it begins looking like a day scene. I prefer my nightscapes to look like night shots and hence always keep an eye on the histogram to make sure it’s not exposed to look like a day shot. The principle of Expose to the Right (ETTR) works very well for normal landscapes, for nightscapes, however ETTR makes the scene looks like a day shot and hence I always underexpose it a bit. Including star trails can help the viewer get an idea of when the shot was taken.
Light Painting can be used for adding further oomph to Night Landscapes, below are two images of the same location, with and without light painting and it can be seen that the one with light painting looks far more pleasing. There’s no specific rule for painting with light, the amount of time for which you light paint any given area changes with the f-stop selected, the intensity of light used, the distance of the subject being painted from the camera, the ISO selected and the ambient light.
Finally I can’t stress enough the importance of using a sturdy tripod when shooting long exposures. Getting one shot right at night, takes a series of failed shots and considering that each shot is around 5 to 15 minutes each, we probably will get 1 shot or 2( If Lucky) per hour. You don’t want your perfect shot to be ruined just because the wind picked up and your Tripod moved for a fraction of a Second. Time is very precious when shooting at night and I am very concerned about my shots being shaky (consequently wasting 15 min or so for a shot that was shaky and realizing it later), so I always use a cable release to fire my shots, plus I use a 2 second timer just to be double sure that there’s no camera shake.
I shoot mostly high in the Himalayas, and dew is a very strong factor which decides the duration of my shots. At some times dew creeps in as early as 5 minutes and other times it may take 15 minutes or so for the dew to be noticeable. I always carry a soft cloth to wipe the dew of my lens and a cloth to cover my camera when shooting.
To summarize the recommended settings:
f-Stop: Depending on your frame use as wide as you can
ISO: The lowest your camera offers
Shutter speed: 5 to 20 Minutes
Tripod: A very sturdy one
Soft cloth to wipe dew of your camera
Hope this helps!!!!