Landscape photography is a genre which takes time and patience, and nightscape photography takes even more time and patience! But with the right settings and a keen eye for composition, shooting nightscapes can actually be a fun and rewarding way to spend a couple of hours.
With her camera in hand, Click Love Grow Instructor Emma Davis has recently been exploring the night sights of her adopted home town of Sydney, Australia. She’s put together her top tips for capturing stunning nightscape images into one easy-to-follow guide.
The number one thing to consider when photographing nightscapes is choosing the optimal settings for the conditions you are shooting in. If you start at dusk, you will find the light changes quickly, and as such, you will need to keep checking and adjusting your settings frequently.
I always set my aperture first. In order to capture all the detail and layers in the nightscape, I usually choose a fairly narrow aperture, around f11. I then set my ISO at 100, to keep noise to a minimum.
Then, it’s just a case of setting my shutter speed to balance my exposure. Early in the evening, before it gets dark, I usually start somewhere between 1-2 seconds. Then as darkness falls gradually slowing my shutter to let in more light.
Because we are shooting with such slow shutter speeds, a tripod is essential. Even with the steadiest hands, once you get slower than around 1/100, you risk camera shake. And when we start getting into longer exposures, even the tiny movement of pressing the shutter button can create unwanted motion blur in our images.
For this reason, it can be helpful to use a remote to activate your shutter, eliminating the need to actually press the shutter button. Some cameras are wifi/bluetooth enabled and have an accompanying App which allows you to use your smartphone as a trigger. Alternatively, you can buy remote triggers which connect to your phone with a cable, these are relatively inexpensive and available from most camera retailers. Lastly, you could simply use the inbuilt self timer.
Some cameras, like my Canon EOS R, have a touch screen shutter option which allows you to just tap the screen on the back of your camera to engage the shutter. This is my preferred way to activate the shutter when I’m shooting long exposures.
Perhaps moreso than any other genre of photography, composition is critical in landscape and nightscape photography – strong composition is what differentiates between a snapshot, and a postcard-worthy piece of art.
The rule of thirds is a great starting point. Ideally, you want to have your horizon line along one of the horizontal thirds lines, usually the bottom one, with the remaining thirds filled with sky.
Look for elements you can layer in your image to create depth, and elements you can use as framing. For example, in the below shot, I have the horizon line around the bottom thirds line, with the row of lights and fencing adding additional layers and the branches of the fig tree framing the scene nicely.
Reflections are also a great compositional tool to leverage when shooting nightscapes, particularly where you have an expanse of water in your shot. In the below image, the reflections of the lights from the high rise buildings on the smooth water creates a sense of balance and adds depth, interest and texture. And again, if we were to divide the frame into thirds horizontally, we can see that the bottom thirds line runs right through the middle of our horizon line, making for a strong composition.
One of the cool effects of shooting with slow shutter speeds is that it renders fast motion as smooth blur. Juxtaposed against the smooth, silky effect that the slow shutter creates with clouds and water, these pops of motion blur create a sense of movement in the frame, adding to the storytelling. For example, in this image, you can see the lights and water trail from the ferry as it moves towards the terminal, while the rest of the frame is frozen in time.
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In this next image, as well as the movement of the ferry, you can also see a smooth stream of rain coming down behind the opera house to the right of the frame.
No matter what I’m shooting or what the lighting conditions, I almost always have my white balance set to Auto. This allows my camera to select the best white balance settings for the situation. If I need to make any tweaks later in post processing, shooting in RAW gives me the flexibility to do so without too many issues.
When I’m shooting long exposure nightscapes, however, I like to get a little bit creative. The purple and magenta tones in the below images are the result of a technique called ‘white balance bracketing’.
This involves going into my camera settings (on both my Canon EOS R and my Canon 6Dmkii, this is under Menu>Shoot>Tab 4) and choosing the White Balance bracketing tab. This will display a four point graph. You can then manipulate the tones in your image by plotting points on this graph to adjust the white balance.
I love using white balance bracketing to add a little extra pop to my images, especially when I’m working with moody, dramatic skies filled with layers of clouds. And by shooting in RAW, if I get home and decide I hate the tones afterwards, I can always revert back to the ‘correct’ white balance in post processing.
These two images are both taken from the same perspective, but I adjusted the white balance bracketing in between.
As you can see, nightscape photography is definitely a labour of love! But for someone like me, who primarily shoots fast-moving children, it’s almost therapeutic to slow the pace and lean into the process of creating. And the bonus is that I come home with frame-worthy images for my wall!
Emma Davis is a CLG Instructor with a background in journalism and photography, a Kiwi expat based in Sydney, and mum to six gorgeous muses who indulge her love of hunting and capturing light.