Low light photography

A talk about photography techniques between sunset and sunrise

My February online photography talk covered techniques needed for low light photography. These mainly focussed on the photographic skills needed between sunset and sunrise: in other words the time when the sun is on or below the horizon.

Watch the talk here

To watch the talk click on the link below. I hope you’ll enjoy it!

The low light photography talk’s takeaway tips: 1

The principle points while there is still light are:

  • Low light photography usually encompasses the period from sunset to sunrise; in other words when the sun is close to or below the horizon. It can, however, also include photography on dark stormy days;
  • Dawn and sunrise are not the same event, but are two separate events; similarly for sunset and dusk. While dawn and sunrise/sunset and dusk may be separated by only 15 minutes in the tropics, in temperate zones (such as the UK) they are usually separated by at least 30 minutes, and often as much as an hour;
  • When shooting in the evening, don’t put the camera away the moment the sun has set; the best is yet to come with the lovely sky colours often seen in the following dusk. Similarly at dawn – you’ll need to be ‘on location’ nearly an hour before sunrise, in order to be sure of catching the best light;
  • Predicting when there will be a good dawn/sunrise or sunset/dusk is really quite tricky, but can depend on how much dust or water vapour is in the air, as well as how much cloud, of course. Be prepared for disappointments on many occasions;
  • Atmospheric ground mist is mainly a feature of dawn, though it does occasionally appear at dusk. Predicting when there will be a photogenic dawn ground mist is difficult, but chances are good if the ground is very wet, the air above it is much colder than the ground, and the air is completely still;
  • The colours of the ambient light change radically from being warm reddish/orange in the final thirty minutes before sunset, to rather flat and increasingly blue or violet as you progress through the dusk from post-sunset to full darkness;
  • If photographing urban skylines at dusk, try to balance the levels of ambient light (and their degree of blueness) against the intensity and warmth of the yellow manmade lights of the town;
  • Always shoot such an urban skyline while there is still light in the sky – don’t continue once it is completely dark.
Shanghai skyline at dusk: low light photography.

The low light photography talk’s takeaway tips: 2

Once darkness has fallen, consider these points:

  • Once complete darkness has fallen think about photographing streetlife details, such as festivals and/or moving traffic;
  • In rural areas, away from light pollution, move to photograph night skies. To photograph a full (or near-full) moon shoot before it is completely dark and while the moon is low in the sky. Doing this reduces the contrast between the bright moon and the dark sky, making it easier to grab a shot that captures all the moon’s details;
  • To photograph the stars you have a choice of two techniques: a) short exposures that capture the stars as pinpricks of light, and b) long exposures that capture long star trails drawn by the stars as the rotate around the Pole Star;
  • For the former, use a high ISO (say, about 4000), a lens aperture that is wide open, and an exposure of up to about 15 seconds;
  • For the latter, use a low ISO (100), a wide open lens aperture, and an exposure of 20 mins to one hour;
  • For both methods shoot when there is little or no moon;
  • For both methods always have your camera’s high ISO and long exposure noise reduction functions switched on. These will greatly improve image quality, though they will also increase exposure times;
  • It may also be possible to improve image quality by shooting multiple images of the same sky and then merging them together in a star-tracking software, such as Deep Sky Stacker;
  • If shooting the Northern Lights, again use a wide open lens aperture, exposure times of up to 15 seconds, and an ISO of about 800 to 2000, depending on the brightness of the lights. Very often post-photography processing in the computer reveals much more detail and colour than is visible to the eye.
Moonrise; low light photography.

A final word

As a final word about low light photography, bear in mind that although there is a lot to remember by way of techniques and tricks, this time of day frequently yields the most creative and most beautiful images of all. Tak the time to learn and practise these skills. And have fund doing it!

The next photography talk

My next online photography talk will be on 24th March, and will cover Wild Photography: the Mammals and Birds. So a talk about photography of some of the larger animals with which we share this planet.

As usual, the talk is free (though there is the option to give a small donation towards costs). You just need to sign up to receive the talk’s link. Just follow the link below – the donation button will be on that page too.

I’ll look forward to seeing you online on 24th March!

Dawn over the Somerset Levels: low light photography.

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Author: Nigel Hicks

Nigel Hicks is a highly experienced professional photographer and writer, based in Devon, southwest England, but frequently working around the world. He shoots for a range of clients and is a member of the National Geographic Image Collection. He has written over 20 books, covering travel, wildlife and photography subjects.