Guide to Night and Low Light Landscape Photography

This is a guest post by Nature Photographer and Cinematographer, Jeremy Evans,
Night and Low Light Photography can open doors to lots of exciting photographic opportunities. I always say, “why put the camera away after dark”. Night photography can add a new dimension to your landscape. It can also add a “new look” to popular locations and landscapes.


The three things you need to take quality photos at night are a sturdy tripod, a camera with manual control, and above all patience. You don’t need a top of the line SLR or even a digital camera. I still get as good if not better results using film. If you don’t have a digital camera with manual functions and you want to experiment with night photography there’re many good manual film SLRs you can get used for very cheap. I recommend a Canon A-1 or F-1. They are both fully manual. These can be found used on eBay for under $500.00 The F-1 is better because it does not require a battery to keep the shutter open. The A-1 or any digital camera will eventually lose battery power if you are doing extremely long exposures. There are also many good Point and Shoot (POS) cameras on the market with manual control but most don’t have a “B’ or “Bulb” option thus limiting you to 30 seconds exposures. I recommend the Canon G series POS cameras if you don’t want to use a DSLR.

These techniques apply both to film and digital. The benefits of film over digital are longer exposures and no rendering time. The disadvantage is processing cost and no immediate results to looks at in the field.

Most digital camera sensors produce noise after about 5-10 seconds. Film does not have this problem. With a manual film camera you can leave the shutter open all night and the only problem you have is slight color shifting. When using digital I recommend turning on your “long exposure noise reduction” setting if you have one. This is what your rendering time is. If you don’t have this feature on your DSLR or POS camera then you can remove some of the noise later in Photoshop. Digital cameras will also produce red and blue pixels on long exposures. Some camera’s noise reduction feature will remove this as well. The problem is the rendering time on the newest most advanced camera is still 5-10 minute per image and even longer depending on how long your exposure is. For example I use a Canon 5D Mark II and I have to wait as least 2-5 minutes for it to render a single image. One important note when your camera is rendering is not to power off or change batteries if you fear it will run out. If your camera looses power your image will be lost.

If your camera has a “mirror lock up” feature turn that on too. This will reduce camera vibration when the shutter opens but keep in mind you will have to press the shutter button twice on some cameras, once to lock up the mirror and again to open the shutter.

Techniques in the field:

Now that you know all the technical mumbo jumbo lets go try it! To start off I recommend photographing on a full moon night or at least 3 days before or after a full moon. This will help you see the landscape and get used to the process. By using a red flashlight or headlamp over a traditional light will allow your eyes to fully adjust to the darkness and you will be able to see what you are photographing beforehand. You can also use a flashlight to illuminate objects in the foreground.

The moon is just like the sun. It’s reflected sunlight and it works the same way, you just need more exposure time. The moon’s color temperature is a little warmer than direct sunlight. Daylight is 5600 degrees Kelvin. (56K) I still recommend using daylight balanced film. With digital you can play around with your color temp a little. I like to set mine to 4700K at night. Lower Isis will give you an orange image and higher ones will make the image too blue or green. With film I used Fuji Velvia 100 speed daylight slide film. Set your camera to 100 ISO and shutter to B or Bulb. It helps to have a stopwatch or a remote control with a timer you can set. The remote control or basic cable release will also prevent any camera shaking and blurry images.

The faster the lens you have will shorten your exposure times and in turn reducing your noise with digital. I recommend a lens in the f1.4-f2.8 area. However these lenses are more money. Turn OFF the auto focus on the lens and if it has an image stabilizer feature turn that OFF as well. Otherwise the moving sky will confuse your lens and give you a “ghosting” effect.

I base my exposure times on a table I used in my head that I memorized when I was using only film. Under a bright moon I do 4 min at f4. You can bracket in either direction to adjust your exposure times and maintain the same image quality. For example if you want brighter stars or trails then go to 8 min at f8 or for less trails 2 min at f2.8 or 1 min at f1.4.

If you prefer deeper richer stars in the sky then I suggest photographing on a moonless night. You will even see the Milky Way but your foreground landscape will be dark. When doing this you need to set your ISO around 1600-3200. 800 will work if you have an f1.4-f1.8 lens. On a bright moon night the landscape will be fully exposed just like in the day but give you stars in the sky.

For these deeper moonless night landscapes set your camera to 30-90 seconds and set your lens to the widest aperture you have. Usually 60 seconds at f4 or 2.8 will give you a great night sky. This is where you get the noise and red/blue pixels. If you don’t want star trails then I suggest keeping your exposure under 90 seconds. After that you will start to see star trails. If you want a good star trail photo then drop your ISO down to 100, and expose for at least 2 hours. This is where some digital camera batteries will die. If they don’t die during the exposure time then it might during rendering time. It’s good to have a least 4 camera batteries and use a fresh one for each long exposure. I’ve often used up to 6 batteries in one night. That’s when my Canon F-1 comes in handy, no battery so the shutter will stay open as long as you like.

If you are photographing near a major city or in line of a major flight path I recommend starting after midnight when aviation travel is much less. I can’t tell you how many images were ruined by a passing plane or jet.

Above all have fun and dress warm on those colder nights. It gets pretty cold standing around in the dark for hours and hours.

Many more examples can be seen on my website at

Nature Photography Tip: Moving Water

(Sometimes There is a Place, photo by Lance McCoy)
I planned to do one post on nature photography, which listed tips from multiple photographers, but some of the tips I have been given deserve their own post. I've decided to make this a new series on the blog. From time to time, I'll post new tips from photographers who specialize in nature and wildlife. I may throw in my own two cents every now and then, but I'm still a student myself, so I'll defer to more experienced photographers whenever possible.

The first tip comes from a photographer whose photos I've enjoyed since I purchased my first SLR camera in 2009, Lance McCoy. And I have to say, his photos just keep getting better and better. Some of my favorites of his are his photographs of moving water. Lance has been gracious enough to give us his tips for taking these serenely beautiful photos.

(A Forest Retreat, photo by Lance McCoy)
First things first, get out and explore the forest to find the perfect setting. With the right light and a slow shutter speed, rivers, creeks, and waterfalls blur into tranquil images that seem to give motion to a motionless photograph.
  • "Cloudy, drizzle, showers, and rain make up the best shooting conditions for any kind of moving water compositions," says Lance. "Have terry cloth wipes and an umbrella available."

    What a great reason to head out on a less than ideal hiking day! With the long shutter speed necessary for these shots, you don't want the scene to be too bright. If it is going to be a cloudless bright day, the next best option is to head out at sunrise or sunset, when the light is less bright.
  • "Use a wide-angle lens," Lance says. "I use a Tamron 17-50 f/2.8 on a crop sensor camera, the Canon T2i. There are times when I wish I could shoot wider, but not many."
  • "A tripod is a must," he says. This is due to the longer exposure time necessary.
  • "Use a polarizer filter, without fail," he says. "It's a must!" A polarizer filter looks like a sunglasses lens for your camera. It will neutralize bright spots in a long exposure photo and reduce reflections from the water.
  • "Set your camera and lens to manual mode," he says. If you're a beginner who is intimidated by full manual mode, you can start by shooting in Shutter Priority Mode (i.e. Tv), so the aperture setting will still be automatic. Although, as Lance says, eventually get used to shooting in manual mode for full control of your photos.
  • "Use f/9 to f/20 for your long exposures," he says. The higher the number, the smaller the aperture where light enters the camera. When you're shooting long exposure pictures like these, you want to allow less light into the camera.
  • "Your shutter speed will vary depending on the light available. Generally speaking, one second or slower is good," he says. Due to the slow shutter speed, use a remote shutter release or set your camera's timer so you don't touch the camera until the picture is complete.
  • Use a low ISO setting. The lower the number, the less sensitive your camera's sensor will be to light. This will allow you to use longer shutter speeds and avoid noisy or grainy photos.
  • "Use Raw image format," he says, but adds that he still uses JPEG to keep space on his computer. Raw image format will not compress the image in anyway, so you get the maximum quality possible. Also, you'll have more information in the file to work with if you need to correct exposure, white balance, or color temperature in post-production software, such as Photoshop, without a significant reduction in quality.
  • "Compose and re-compose on every photograph and really look at a complete scene from all perspectives," he says. "High, low, in the water, side view, etc. Different views and patience will be of great benefit in getting the kind of photographs that will be wall ready!"
Point and Shoot Cameras

I wanted to make one final note. Many of my readers are backpackers who only carry a point-and-shoot camera. It will be very difficult to get amazing shots like Lance's with a point-and-shoot, but you can still get a similar effect. 

Point-and-shoot cameras do not have aperture sizes between f/9 and f/20, so use the smallest setting possible, usually f/8 on point-and-shoots. The higher the number, the smaller the aperture size. This will reduce the amount of light entering your lens as much as possible.

Since polarizing filters are generally not available for point-and-shoot cameras, simple hold an SLR polarizer in front of your lens, or try using a sunglasses lens. Depending on the sunglasses this could distort the image, but it's worth a try, because as Lance says, a polarizing filter is a must.

Lance, thanks you so much for your expert advice!
The water photographs in Lance's book, "The Olympics, A Place Like No Other" demonstrate the methods he describes above. You can find his book by following this link

Now if you didn't have enough reasons to go explore your local forests, here is one more excuse. Get outdoors and take some photos! If you have put Lance's tips to good use and would like to have a photo featured on this blog post, please send them to!

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