Night landscape photography can be difficult to get right straight away. Most photographers find the difference in available natural light difficult.
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Astrophotography vs. Night Landscape Photography: The Key Technical Difference
When I talk about ‘night landscape photography’, I mean photographing the starry sky with nighttime scenery.
I do not mean astrophotography. Astrophotography has its own set of challenges.
But I still consider it much easier than night landscape photography for one simple reason. Exposure time is not an issue.
What makes night landscape photography so challenging is the nighttime landscape. Following the stars blurs the landscapes. Following the nighttime landscapes will blur the stars.
To record stars as fixed points rather than trails, you are forced to use a short exposure time.
What About Light Pollution
It’s becoming more and more difficult to find a really dark sky. In Europe, at least.
This is due to increased light pollution. It comes from street lamps almost everywhere across the continent.
The best thing you can do is to travel as far as possible from large cities and towns.
Look for the dark countryside. To get an idea of the light pollution in the world, visit the Light Pollution Map website. There you can also see how light pollution has changed over the last 5 years.
I live in Belgium, under one of the most polluted skies in Europe (do I dare to say in the world?).
Even when I travel far away from the major cities, the darkest sky I can achieve will score a 5 or 9 in the Bortle scale.
Still, as we will see, there is hope. You can capture satisfying night landscapes, even in light polluted locations.
What’s the Best Location for Nighttime Landscape Photos
Unfortunately, the Universe is quite indifferent to your photography needs. Which stars and how much of the Milky Way you can see depends on the period of the year. And on your coordinates on Earth.
In the Northern hemisphere, the galaxy core is visible in the night sky from April until late September.
How much of it you can see, as well as its height above the horizon, will depend on your latitude. The closer you are to the Equator, the better.
Moving north, the core becomes lower and lower in the sky. Until it reaches a point just above the horizon where the orange glow from light pollution is at its max.
During winter, the nights are longer. The core appears below the horizon, visible from the Southern hemisphere only.
Anyway, there are plenty of websites and mobile apps that calculate the location of the core. They will let you know in advance if, when and how much of the core you will see from a given location.
You should also focus some of your attention on the nighttime landscapes. Having a good location isn’t only about the stars, but also the nighttime scenery you will include.
Gear and Camera Settings for Shooting a Night Landscape
Ideally, you’re growing your own money tree in your garden. And then you could buy the latest medium format digital camera with a giga-pixel sensor.
No visible digital noise. Even when using ISO one-gazillion. And some ultrafast and amazing lenses.
Alright, enough dreaming. If you are on a budget like most of us, fear not.
You will still get plenty of amazing shots of that majestic starry night. You just have to follow some simple rules and use prosumer gear.
Gear does contribute to amazing shots. It’s not all about it, but it has a role to play. Night landscape image is 50% planning/composition, 20% gear and 30% editing skills.
Here are the things you need to be able to wet your feet in night photography.
Full frame cameras are the best here. This is because of the low noise at high ISO.
But modern APS-C, four thirds or micro four-thirds cameras work too.
Let’s be honest here: you can take amazing shots even with one of the latest high-end compact cameras. Make sure it’s sporting a wide, fast lens and 1” sensor.
Examples include the Sony CyberShot RX100 I, II, III or IV, and Canon PowerShot G7X. Or larger, such as the Panasonic LX 100.
There is much more than “pixel” quality when it comes to making a photo a good photo.
More important than the sensor size are:
- the possibility to shoot in RAW;
- an in-camera long exposure noise reduction and good performances at moderate ISO;
- remote trigger for the shutter and an intervallometer;
- bulb function;
- and a decent battery life (or allow for the use of a battery grip).
For compact cameras, you need a wide and fast lens as well as manual focus it. Some form of focus peeking or Live View magnification is a nice feature. It will help you to focus properly on the stars.
The most important feature for a good lens is speed. This means an aperture in the f/1.4 to f/3.5 range.
It should allow you to focus in manual mode. And it should have good optical performances such as sharpness, vignetting, chroma and astigmatism when used wide open.
As for the choice of the focal length, for night landscapes the wider the better. I would not go higher than 50mm on a full frame camera. The possibility to mount filters is a plus.
As far as I know, you can’t use any fisheye lenses with a filter. But some wide angles for micro 4/3 cameras have threads to screw one on.
Let’s be clear here. You cannot shoot a night landscape without a tripod. You will need a sturdy one to avoid camera movement/shake.
A good choice is one that allows you to shoot from down low to up above your head. This will give you max flexibility when composing your shot.
A loop or hook from which to attach a weight can be beneficial. This will help to further stabilise the tripod in windy conditions. These are common in coastal and mountainous locations.
- spare batteries;
- spare memory cards;
- remote triggers;
- headlamps (with red light to keep your eyes in “dark mode”).
Yes, filters. This is an important lesson on how to shoot at night, getting the image you want.
These are by no means a substitute for a dark sky. But filters can help to fight back the evil orange glow present due to light pollution.
Here is the transmission spectrum for my Skywatcher LPR (Light Pollution Reduction) filter. See where the line drops?
The filter will absorb light with that wavelength and it will not reach the sensor.
In short, the filter will reduce/remove lights of specific wavelengths from the light hitting the sensor. You can’t create this in editing software. These filters are worth investing in if you live in a light polluted area.
All filters will reduce your exposure by 1 stop. A good LPR filter will reduce the pollution from Sodium lamps of about 4EV and Mercury lamps 2EV.
This allows for longer exposures (or increased ISO). But you won’t burn the highlights or the sky above the horizon in your night landscape.
The images below show two examples. The images are straight-out-of-camera with and without the Skywatcher LPR filters.
LPR filters, being broadband filters, are not able to reduce moonlight. To achieve this, a better choice would be an H-alpha filter or other narrowband filter.
These are interference filters, like the polariser. This is one negative aspect.
They will produce nasty colour banding in the photo when mounted on ultra wide angles. This is because of the way in which they affect light entering from different angles.
One way to avoid this is, if you have a Canon DSLR, is to use the clip-in CLS filter from Astronomik. The filter will sit between the mirror and the back of the lens so the light hits it at the same angle.
Also, you can’t use this filter with EF-S lenses.
To give you an idea of my equipment at the moment, I am using the following gear:
- Olympus OM-D EM-10
- Samyang 7.5 f/3.5 UMC fisheye (Micro Four Thirds) – 15mm on full frame
- Samyang 12 f/2.0 NCS CS
- Sony DSC-RX100 Mk2 (compact camera with 1” sensor size) – 28-100mm f/1.8-f/4.9 on full frame
- Manfrotto 055XPROB + ball head
- MeFoto + ball head with decoupled movement for panoramas
- Spare SD memory cards and batteries
- Remote shutters with intervalometer
- Astronomik CLS ans Skywatcher LPR filters
A Few Simple Rules to Remember
There are a few simple empirical rules to learn so you can handle the night sky. As I mentioned above, stars move across the sky at about 15 degrees/hour.
If you are not interested in recording star trails, your exposure time should be quite short. But how short should it be exactly?
A simple way to estimate what the exposure time (ET) should be is to solve the following equation:
ET = N / ( CF * FL )
N (the detail in which your image will be displayed) can be 400, 500 or 600. CF is the crop factor for your camera. And FL the focal length of your lens.
The choice of N depends on what you want to do with your photo:
For a website go with N=600. You will get short trails with the stars appearing as dots in a small image with a low resolution.
You want to print your photo in large format? Go with N=400 and you will have pretty much no trails at all.
I tend to use N=500 as I find it to be a good compromise. For example, for my Olympus EM-10, CF=2, I have the following max ETs for the following lenses:
1) Samyang 7.5 f/3.5, ET = 500 / ( 2 * 7.5 ) ~ 33 sec.
2) Samyang 12 f/2, ET= 500 / ( 2 * 12 ) ~ 21 sec.
If I were to use my old Zuiko 50mm f/1.4, my ET time would be just 5 seconds. This is why telephoto lenses are less useful than wider ones.
Once you know your ET (exposure time), work with the ISO to expose your photo. Keep an eye on the histogram.
A good starting point is given by using an ISO value calculated with the following equation:
ISO = (6000 * f ^2) / ET
Here, f^2 is the f-number (aperture value) elevated to the power of two.
Let’s take my Samyang 12mm f/2.0 on my Olympus OM-D (CF=2). With an ET of 21 seconds, a good value for the ISO should be ISO = 6000 * (2^2) / 21 = 1142, rounded up to ISO 1150.
If, say, the aperture was set to f/4.0 instead of f/2.0, the ISO would need to be: ( 6000 * (4.0 ^ 2) / 21, OR ( 6000 * 16 ) / 21 = 4571.
With digital sensors it is better to expose to the right (ETTR) of an image. Overexpose it a bit to register the max amount of data possible in the camera. Then correct the exposure in post.
This way you don’t lose out on detail.
Another welcome effect of the ETTR method is that there will be less digital noise due to the high ISO settings. Underexposing an overexposed photo results in considerably less noise in the final image. Don’t increase the exposure of an underexposed one.
Don’t be afraid to use high ISO settings (3200 and above) if that’s what you need to bring the shot back home. There are methods for dramatically reducing digital noise in post.
How to Get That Shot
What to Do Before Heading Out
1. Make a check list: you don’t want to arrive at the location and discover you are without batteries or memory cards.
2. Find the location: if you have no idea where to go, start looking at one of the light pollution maps available online. Find a dark enough region. Use social networks such as G+ or photo sharing websites like Flickr and 500px. You can see if there are any worthy night landscapes within your chosen dark region.
Use Google Maps. Move around and zoom in/out to see if anything catches your attention.
Once you have a location, get informed about it:
Is the sky dark enough? Are there major cities visible or nearby?
Will the Milky Way and the galaxy core be visible from that location and at what time?
In which phase will the Moon be? Will the Moon be high up in the sky and, horror, in front the Milky Way? What will the weather be like?
You can answer all these questions from the comfort of your couch. Long before you head out.
Use apps and software such as Dark Sky, Stellarium, Skywalk, PhotoPills, PlanIt! for photographers and TPE (The Photographer’s Ephemeris).
Look up the latest weather report, the forecast and a moon calendar on the internet.
Most software and apps cannot show you the real horizon. Be careful when determining whether the galaxy core will be visible.
3. Know your lens’ field of view: this is important if you plan to shoot for a panorama stitching. It enables you to rotate the camera at night, relying on the graduated scale on the head of your tripod.
4. Know where the infinite for your lens is: in broad daylight, manually focus your lenses to the infinite. Mark the position on the lens barrel. More often than not, the factory mark for the infinity is off. Doing this during the day avoids wasting time struggling to do so in your dark location.
5. Clean your lenses: another job that is better to get done in daylight and at home.
6. Arrive early at your destination: so to be able to explore the location in daylight. Look for possible compositions to create great daytime landscapes. Use the night augmented reality in apps like PhotoPills. You can preview how the sky will appear for the chosen night landscape composition.
Composing the Shot
It’s just like daylight landscapes. You can follow or break the same composition rules.
The only challenge you have here is lighting the landscape in front of you with limited focal lengths. Long telephotos will reduce your exposure time, as discussed above.
Framing an interesting composition with the Milky Way (or the Polar Star) is not hard. It’s like including the Sun at a particular point in the sky in a daylight landscape.
All you have to do is wait for the right period of the year and the right time of day.
If you are composing your image with star trails in mind, here’s a good rule of thumb. Try to have Polaris (northern hemisphere) or Sigma Octantis (southern hemisphere) in the frame.
Trails will appear as concentric circles, centred on these stars. Star trails will look different depending on what direction you’re pointing your camera in.
You may want to experiment a bit to work out which kind of trails will best suit your composition. Another thing to consider when composing your shot is the following
A magnificent sky with a pitch black landscape as a foreground tends not to work. Unless you are aiming for a silhouette against the sky.
You’ll want to avoid a pitch black or dark and very noisy foreground. Try to shoot when you have a low to moderately bright moon above the horizon. It should be low in the sky and behind you.
This lights the foreground and the scene in front of you.
Or you may want to consider bringing some lamps or flashguns with you. This allows for light painting, making the foreground and/or interesting objects visible.
One way to frame more interesting landscapes is to exploit objects in the foreground. Those can fill the frame, adding interest.
Try using isolated trees, mountain peaks, vehicles, buildings, roads or rocky formations.
Or introduce some objects in the frame. This will stage a more eye-catching landscape at night. Consider placing tents lit from the inside, or include a person in the frame.
Either as a silhouette or them holding lights/lasers pointed at the sky. You can also light a camp fire or create light trails by driving a car into the scene.
How to Shoot Different Types of Nighttime Landscapes
Before you begin, lower the LCD brightness to the minimum. This gives you a better idea of the brightness of your image and stops you being blinded five minutes every time you look at the screen!
Take a test shot to verify that you are using the correct settings, that the focus is on the stars and that the composition works. Next, decide whether you want to obtain star trails or star dots (and the Milky Way).
If you are looking to shoot star trails, take a new test shot, this time several minutes long. Your image will be horribly noisy and probably overexposed.
But this gives you an indication of what the trails will look like in your final image. It also shows you whether the Polaris (the South Star) is in the frame or not.
Next, make sure that you have turned off any long exposure noise reduction. Your battery must be fully charged and your memory card empty with enough space to record plenty of images.
If only it were true that you could record star trails by shooting a single photo with a night-long exposure time. Only using film can do this in reality.
In practice, leaving your digital sensor on record for a very long period of time results in it heating up. This causes purple hot pixels and luminance noise which cripple your image quality.
You are better off using an intervalometer, and taking a huge number of relatively short exposures, say 30 seconds to 1 minute.
And then you can stack them together in post-production to give you your trails. You may want to allow a few seconds between each shot to give the sensor time to cool down.
At the end of the sequence, put your lens cap on and take a photo. This is called a “dark frame”, which you can subtract from your stacking to help suppress hot pixels in your final image.
For decent trails, you will need to record the sky for at least 30 minutes. The longer you record for, the longer and more defined your trails will be. So you may wish to increase this time.
To avoid draining your battery too quickly, if you do not have a DSLR with optical viewfinder, turn off the LCD screen in favour of the smaller electronic viewfinder if possible.
The beauty of star trails is that you can almost always record them, even in less than ideal conditions. So long as you can see some stars up there, you’ll get stars trails, even above a luminous cityscape.
A word of caution. The bright cityscape, if not darkened by the use of neutral density graduated filters, will force you to use an exposures time of just a few seconds at best.
You will have to record (and then process) hundreds of images before you get some good trails.
Finally, I may be wrong but, as far as I know, this is the only kind of night landscape you can get when shooting film.
Point Stars and the Milky Way
If your aim is to avoid star trails, you need to determine your maximum exposure time. Use the 600, 500 or 400 rule I introduced above. Adjust your ISO to expose to the right of your image.
Be careful to avoid blowing out the highlights and the horizon (usually the brighter part of the sky on a moonless night).
This may result in having to increase your ISO above a value you are comfortable with. If you’re concerned that, in doing this, you are going to ruin the image, think again.
You will more likely ruin it by keeping your ISO too low. This will underexpose your image.
Here are a few techniques you can use to deal with digital noise:
1. Turn on the in-camera long exposure noise reduction.
2. Use denoise algorithms available in all the major editing software and third-party plugins for Photoshop and Lightroom such as Noise Ninja or Topaz Denoise.
3. Shoot more photos and apply a Multi-Frame Noise Reduction (MFNR) technique.
Number 3 is my personal favourite of the three. In a minute, I will explain how MFNR works and why you should give it a try.
Shooting Night Landscape Panoramas
There are many reasons why you may want to shoot a panorama. The most obvious being to capture a scene that you cannot fit into a single shot.
You may want to take the kind of “panorama” that you could get with a wider lens because your wider lens doesn’t allow you to mount an LPR filter.
Finally, you may intend to print the image in a very large format; panoramas can have a resolution of many tens to a few hundred megapixels.
I mainly use panorama because, until now, I could only use my small 48mm LPR filter on the Sony RX100 Mk2.
To shoot panoramas, it is best to allow a superposition of 30-40% between shots. You’ll do best to know the angular field of view of your lens and rotate the camera by half of this value.
Here is the link to a handy online Angle of View calculator http://www.radical.org/aov/.
Since one tends to shoot panoramas with the camera mounted in portrait orientation, you will have to take the vertical angle of view into consideration.
For example, for my Samyang 12mm on the Olympus EM-10, the vertical angle of view is 58.72 degrees. This means I can rotate the camera by 30 degrees at a time.
I can do this quickly and easily using the graduated scales on the tripod head (if you have them).
One of the best tips on how to shoot night landscape photography is as follows. Whether you are shooting star trails, the Milky Way or a night landscape panorama, you want to shoot multiple sets of images.
One with the correct exposure for the sky and one to properly expose the foreground, for example. This allows you to get the best exposure across your final image through bracketing.
A Few Tips for Editing Your Night Landscape
After having photographed your night landscape in RAW format, you need to edit it.
I usually choose the white balance that best suits the image first. Then I fix the image exposure by adjusting the black and white point.
And then I alter the highlights and shadows. Following this I will make other minor adjustments such as amending the contrast and so on.
Don’t be afraid to sharpen and micro-contrast (clarity) your sky. This makes the milky way and stars pop out BUT … be careful not to overcook it.
If the Milky Way you have captured isn’t as detailed and saturated as the one you saw online, deal with it, suck it up and keep it real.
Sometimes you just have to accept that your location on the good Earth has not allowed you to get those incredible images of the colourful core of the Milky Way.
And, no, the Universe is not conspiring against you… it is simply indifferent to your needs and wishes.
A big “don’t” is to assess the quality of your photos solely on the basis of pixel peeping. You already know that the sky will be super noisy when you blow your image up to full size.
Do it to look at the improvements gained by applying the Multi Frame Noise Reduction technique to reduce digital noise in your shots.
Multi Frame Noise Reduction
MFNR is a great technique to both clean photos of random digital noise and increase the details.
The technique consists of taking multiple shots of the same scene. Then you average them to smooth out the random digital noise, whilst enhancing details.
In practice, MFNR will improve the signal-to-noise ratio. If nothing moves, MFNR is straightforward.
Simply stack the images as individual layers in Photoshop and blend them using either the “mean” or “median” mode.
Median mode is a bit better at reducing ghost. The improvement in photo quality is dramatic, as you can see in the comparison below.
Here, I took 8 shots indoors on my Sony RX100 Mk2, f/2.0 1/30 ISO 12800.
The photo in a 100%crop. The top half shows the image without any noise reduction, while the bottom half shows the final result after using all 8 shots to do perform MFNR. I guess results speak for themselves.
Things get a bit more complicated when dealing with objects that move in or out of the frame between the shots e.g. stars. Recently, I shot a star field with my Olympus using the old legacy lens Zuiko 50mm f/1.4 (100mm equivalent on a full frame).
I took 32 photos (exposure time 5 seconds, f/2, ISO 12800) with the camera mounted on a fixed tripod, aimed roughly in the direction of the Milky Way above my head.
Obviously, in the almost 3 minutes I needed to record the 32 images, the stars had moved quite a lot; simply stacking and averaging these shots will result in a blurred image, as demonstrated below.
The trick is to align the stars between shots before stacking and averaging them. This can be a tedious task to perform by hand, in particular with many frames.
Fortunately, if you have Photoshop CC, you can use the auto-align function to align all frames by their content.
If your image contains enough contrast and useful details, the auto-align works beautifully. You can get a very clean image out of many high ISO shots.
See the image below for comparison between 100% crops of a single shot, left, versus the final image after MNFR, right.
When the landscape, which does not move across the frame, is visible, you have an extra step in the process.
Under these circumstances, you will have to do two stacks: one for the sky, one for the foreground. Blend the two stacked and averaged images together.
There are great in-depth tutorials online for this.
Edit your photos with an open mind.
Sometimes you’ll find that during editing, you come across something fantastic that you can do with your image that you never considered whilst on location.
Don’t dismiss this just because it’s not what you were originally going for.
I recently went to Cap-Gris-Nez in France. I planned on capturing the lighthouse with the Milky Way next to it.
Because the lighthouse was on with the lamp revolving, I wanted to capture the light beams passing out of the lighthouse.
I snapped some images of the sky, some of the foreground (for HDR) and of the lighthouse.
Then I followed with a series of photos with very short exposure times to freeze the light in distinct beams coming out the lighthouse.
Once at home, I started processing this huge volume of photos. And then an extremely underexposed image I took for the HDR of the landscape at night came to my attention.
I could have easily turned it into a very moody, low key portrait of the lighthouse. As I edited it with this new idea in mind, it became clear that this was how I wanted to portray the location.
Sometimes, you can improve an image by intentionally allowing some movement in the sky against a fixed landmark.
I was in Cap-Blanc-Nez (France) at a time when the Milky Way was behind the obelisk. I shot ten photos of the same scene in order to do some MFNR for my final image.
As I said, since I had a fixed landscape, MFNR required me to create two stacks and process them individually. This was to account for both the landscape at night and the sky.
I always start by applying MFNR to the landscape. Obviously the Milky Way and the stars showed some degree of motion blur.
In the end, I decided that the image with the blurred, yet recognisable Milky Way was a lot more powerful than the image without a blurred sky.
I hope you enjoyed this article. You no longer have an excuse not to step out at night. Go capture the beauty of that starry night above your head.
And check out this cool video on night landscape photography before you leave.