NOTE: I posted this article originally in 2008, but recently added to my new site. The camera is an old model from then, but this is still relevant regardless of camera…
Believe it or not, you don’t need a fancy digital camera to shoot night landscape photographs. Although you would have more camera control, here are a few tips that will help you take great nighttime landscapes with most point and shoot digital cameras (that allow you to change certain settings below). For my discussion, I will be using my fiancée’s wife’s (updated for 2015!) old Canon Powershot Digital Elph SD110. I link to some technical definitions, such as aperture, if you are unfamiliar with the terms, and I suggest you follow the links to learn a little more about them. Know that this is how you will take better photos every time.
1) Hands Off!
No matter how steady you think your hands are, there will always be movement. Although some cameras and lenses include some form of ‘image stabilization,’ if you want to take photos like the professionals, you cannot handhold your camera for night landscapes.
A tripod is your best bet, and I do recommend you invest in one if you plan to take night photography more seriously. No, they’re not all heavy beasts that are a burden to carry around. You can find some great low-cost, lightweight tripods at one of my favorite stores, B&H Photo, as well as your local camera stores.
When I say hands off, I really mean it. Don’t even press that shutter button, as that movement can also be enough to move or rock your camera and ruin a potentially great photo. Your best bet: use that self-timer! It’s not just for taking photos alone or needing everyone in the photo. It’s the perfect tool to help you with these vibration free night shots. Not sure how to set it? Check out the next tip.
2) Read the Manual for “Manual”
I ask friends about their cameras when they get them, to see what kind of features it has, and what some of the extras are. Not shockingly, they, like a most people don’t know much about their camera besides turning it on, and taking a picture or video. Well, if you’re looking to take better photos, you’re going to have to read the manual. I really recommend reading through it when you get it, and keeping it on you when you go out and take some photos. Or at least make a cheat sheet of how to find certain settings. If you’ve lost your manual, you can typically find a PDF version on the manufacturer’s websites.
To get the most control of your photos, set it to ‘manual mode.’ Depending on your camera, it could be set by flipping the button to ‘M’, or using the menu system to switch to it. This is where reading your manual comes in. On my camera, I switched it to M, and from there, made adjustments as recommended in my next few tips.
You can get a good breakdown of what your camera used if you shoot JPG. If you’re shooting RAW (most beginners aren’t), you’ll need a real image program.
Many cameras come with a ‘scene mode’ for the kinds of scenarios you may encounter along the way, such as portrait, fireworks, and sports to name a few. When I started out, I did find these helpful at times, as it’s a good way to find out what settings you should try in manual mode. For Windows users, you can right-click on your JPG files you’ve taken, select Properties, select Details, and, depending on your version of Windows, under an Advanced View, you can see the EXIF information (definition here). Here you may see the camera model, the time the photo was taken, but more importantly, the shutter speed and the aperture (F-stop).
3) Long Shutter Speeds
Night exposures have long shutter speeds, and hopefully by this point, you’ve figured out how to set it on your camera. My camera, unfortunately, doesn’t allow me to control the exact amount of time I can use, but it does have a ‘long shutter mode’ I’m able to use. The longer the shutter, the more light you’re allowing to reach the sensor. If you weren’t able to use a ‘scene mode’ to find out settings to try, now’s the time to experiment. I would say to try a couple seconds, check out the results and adjust from there. The LCD screens tend to be brighter than the actual image you’ll get, so you may need more time than you think.
If you’re also able to control your aperture (definition here) settings, it’s best to close your lens (higher F-stop number) as much as you can. A lower F-stop number, like f/2.8 is good for portraits and keeping only 1 subject in your photo in focus, while blurring the rest (this is your depth of field), while a higher number keeps a greater distance range in focus. Since this writeup is more for a beginning photographer, I won’t go into more theory yet.
When you zoom in, you should be able to see how grainy things are, as well as lack of real contrast and detail.
4) Bring Down The ISO
ISO , or Film Speed (definition here), if you’re familiar with film, is how sensitive the film is to light. Digital cameras replicate this sensitivity, and is typically found in your settings (so read that manual!). The lower numbers you see, such as 50, 100, 200 mean it’s less sensitive to light, while the reverse is true for the higher end numbers. Though you may think it’s better to have a more sensitive setting (such as 800 or 1600+), the downside is that these higher ISO settings typically mean more ‘film grain.’ If you’ve taken a photo at night without a flash before, and you zoom into the photos, you’ll notice they look very grainy and distorted. That’s the downside to the sensitivity.
Why do we use high ISO numbers? By changing an ISO setting from 100 to 1600 for example, you’ve increased the sensitivity by 4 times (100->200, 200->400,400->800, 800->1600).
This means you can increase the shutter speed by 4 times, which is very helpful to handhold in low-light scenarios such as sports in the gym, or at parties. But here, we don’t need that luxury, and we’d prefer not to have the grain if we don’t need it. Turn that ISO setting down as low as it can go. Since I don’t have the shutter speed control I really want, I can only go so far, and I need to make up the difference with ISO.
5) Turn Off That Flash
This is more of a general tip, as flash can be used creatively in certain situations. For the most part though, I would keep it off as a beginner in this context. Have you ever taken a photo in a dark room with a flash, and you had your thumb or some obstructing object lit up completely, and your real subject was left in the dark? Your camera was set to react to the closest object to reflect the flash back to itself, and didn’t need to expose for anything else, even if you were aiming at something farther away. Handy for portraits and party photos, we’re going to keep the flash off and allow only the light from the scene itself to slowly expose over time. This will also prevent any nearby object to be more prominent than the overall scene you’re capturing.
So there you go, photographers with any experience know that there is much more to what I’m describing, but I would like to average person with little-to-no understanding to at least improve a little bit. If you found this useful, please let me know in the comments. If you think someone else would find it useful, please share away using the share tools. Thanks.