A Trick Of The Light: Using light to photograph landscapes at night
Posted: 15 Feb 2018
Tony Worobiec is a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society and one of our Fotospeed photographers. He has won awards for photography both in the UK and internationally, and has authored 16 books. In this blog, Tony gives you some tips for capturing landscapes at night. Tony uses Fotospeed’s Platinum Baryta and Platinum Matt.
Go back to the days when film was king, and on each box of Kodachrome there was a list of recommendations to help a novice photographer get the best from the product, including one that suggested we should always ensure that the main source of light was over our right shoulder. The implication was that if the sun was behind you, then you were more likely to be successful. Experienced photographers learn to deal with light, no matter what direction it comes from, but when photographing landscape at night, this simple guideline becomes far more relevant.
Newcomers to night photography are inclined to point the camera towards the part of the sky revealing the most light, which, given the beautiful display this part of the sky usually presents us with, is understandable. The problem is that, relative to the foreground, the contrast is too great. In these lighting conditions, the camera's metering system will usually expose for the sky, resulting in a severely silhouetted foreground. The only exception to this is when you're photographing at the water's edge, as the water is able to reflect the light off the sky and maintain a balance.
So, what if you want to photograph a landscape at night that has no reflective foreground? The answer is simple, even if it seems somewhat counterintuitive to beginners.
You turn your back on the lightest part of the sky. Somewhat ironically, as it is possibly something you may not have noticed, but the sky directly opposite where the sun has set or is about to rise is equally as beautiful. It’s just perhaps not quite as showy. This part of the sky is often characterised by a gentle magenta or cyan-blue blush that compliments almost any landscape. But this is not the only advantage. By looking away from the lightest part of the sky, your captured landscape is much more effectively illuminated. Without the sun present, that part of the sky becomes an enormous "light-box", which bathes the entire landscape in a soft but revealing light.
Consider these three images that were all photographed from precisely the same spot. The first was taken whilst the sun was still in the sky. It appears quite dramatic because the angle of the sun is low, but much of the mystique we are able to achieve when shooting at night is lacking.
The second is possibly the least successful and something that many photographers will have experienced. The moment the sun disappears below the horizon, the entire landscapes appears flat. Prominent features are poorly lit and the natural inclination is to pack up and return home. This is where a bit of faith is required!
It is important to remember that the lightest part of the sky is behind you, and whilst the sky directly in front is progressively getting darker, features in the foreground are not. This process may take up to 45 minutes, but eventually the exposure of the sky and the foreground become perfectly balanced as I hope this third image illustrates. More importantly however, this period after the sun has set creates an atmosphere that cannot be achieved when shooting in daylight.
If you are shooting predawn, precisely the same applies; providing the main light source is directly behind you, then the foreground will appear magnificently illuminated. Image 4 was taken about an hour before sunrise. This period prior to sunrise, or after sunset is often referred to as "the blue hour" because of the characteristic hue it creates.
If you wish to photograph the landscape beyond the "blue hour" when there is no residual sunlight in the sky, then the moon becomes your major source of light. If you have a clear sky and the moon is visible, you will be surprised by how much available light there still is. If you are in doubt and you are prepared to get up in the middle of the night you will notice quite a distinct shadow created by the illumination from the moon; obviously this is most evident when we have a full-moon. Once again however, if you want to get the best from the available light, ensure that the moon in behind you.
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