Inspiring ideas for night time photography
How to take more unusual night time photos working with the available light. Creative tips for night time photography of landscapes and urban subjects.
Don’t pack up your kit at sunset. Read how expert Brian Leary uses a ZEISS Loxia 2.8/21 and a ZEISS Tele-Tessar 4/85 for his impressive night time photography, playing with the available light to get creative and surprising results. Brian specializes in shots that create an other-worldly mood or reveal details invisible to the naked eye. Find out how you can take pictures that stand out from most other people’s whether your subject is an unusual view of the city or a wilderness landscape.
Master the art of night time photography for more unusual images
I love shooting at night. Just because the sun has gone down doesn’t mean it’s time to put the camera away. Whether I’m out in nature or wandering a city, I am just as likely to be spotted with my camera and tripod close by at night as I am by day. Not only do you tend to have places that by day might have hundreds if not thousands of people roaming around and taking similar photographs to yours, you also have an opportunity to see and capture light differently from most other people. Long exposures mean you can capture movement and details that are invisible to the human eye by letting light onto your sensor that builds up the picture over several seconds.
Using moonlight to illuminate a landscape in night time photography
At night subtleties of light and color are much more pronounced. The dynamic range of your scene (the difference from bright to dark areas) can be closer than daytime creating a surreal look that leaves your viewer captivated and often a little confused by the image they are presented with. Both of the images above were made with a wide-angle ZEISS Loxia 2.8/21 mounted on a Sony α7s II. They were taken at the same location a couple days apart, and there is a dramatically different look to the same subject matter.
Is it the moon or is it the sun?
In both, the moon assumes a role like the sun would in a daytime landscape. In Picture 1, clouds create a sunset-like effect and soften the light falling on the foreground. Only when the eye travels towards the stars in the upper portion of the image does it become clear that this photograph was taken at night. In Picture 2, a mid to high aperture setting (in this case f/8) creates the starburst exploding from the moon giving it a sun-like appearance. With no real cloud cover to speak of, the harsher less diffused light on the foreground create much more contrast with the shadows giving a pronounced separation to the canyons and valleys drawing you into the image.
Night time photography in the city – balancing the variety of light sources
In an urban environment, you have more types of light to play with at night. In the city, the moon won’t have as much of an impact as the differing colors and sources of artificial light. If you take a close look at the streetlights, you will see ranges of yellows, oranges, blues, whites and even greenish lights. Sometimes you have cloud cover to reflect the city’s ambient light as an orange glow. If you take pictures on a cloudless night when there is nothing to bounce light back towards your lens, you will have a deep black curtain behind your subject. All these elements give you creative choices for your final picture.
Colored lights at night add detail and interest
In Picture 3, a ZEISS Tele-Tessar 4/85 ZM was used on a Leica M-P 240. This lens enables immense detail to be captured and the mid-telephoto range gives a slight compression to the scene. The surrounding lights are casting a blue hue on some of the steel supports for the highway above while the left side is bathed in a warm yellow that contrasts against the blue. The red and green lights on the bridge and tower still have fine starburst points despite the lens being shot wide open at f/4. Had I used a higher aperture, they would be even more defined. Those same red and green lights add all sorts of colored accents to shadows under the bridge. The high-tension wire’s frame is illuminated by the orange sodium vapor lights on the highway along with the white headlights of the oncoming cars traveling above across the bridge. This creates a brighter spot that draws the eye and balances the busy subject matter of the bridge.
Take pictures beyond the everyday
During the day, this bridge and these power lines look just like that, a bridge and power lines. After the sun has set, this bridge scene explodes with color and subtleties that can only be captured at night.
Detail or drama? Try shooting with or into the moon light
Like daytime, the direction of light at night plays into the mood you are trying to create for the viewer. In Picture 4 an aperture of f7.1 was used to turn the moon into a sun-like burst between the Moai of Easter Island. Over the 20 seconds this image took to expose, quick moving clouds pass to create a streaky look. By exposing for more of the clouds than anything else in the image, the ancient statues take on a mysterious silhouette in front of the wispy clouds. At the top of the image the pinpoints of stars bring a motionless balance to the Moai. By opening my aperture to f4, raising the ISO a bit and placing my light source (the moon) at my back, the same subject takes on a very different feel in Picture 5. Now the details of the statues become visible along with the foreground and stars. With the same shutter speed of 20 seconds, the clouds keep their wispy character. The ZEISS Loxia 2.8/21 was used on a Sony α7s II for both shots. The ability of the T*-coatings to resist flair when challenged by direct light within the image combined with the fine detail rendered in the shadows make it a great lens for using at night.
Summary: My tips for extraordinary night time photography
- Choose how to use the moon. Especially for landscapes, consider whether to use direct or indirect moonlight for dramatic or more subtle effect.
- In the city, experiment with the range of colors of artificial lights.
- Smaller apertures will produce starburst effects and can make the moon appear sun-like.
- Longer exposures produce more detail and show movement in the clouds, softening the background.
- Don’t forget your tripod!
If you have found this article interesting, I can recommend these blogs on similar topics.
Light artist of the night – JanLeonardo Woellert adds colored LED lights to his night time photos to create theatrical pictures of unusual buildings or natural subjects.
Luminous landscapes – Paul James specializes in photographing vivid natural spectacles at sunrise and sunset.
Available Light Photography – Detailed technical tips from Mike Reid to make the most of the available light whatever time of day you shoot.