8 pro tips for painting landscapes with light

Discover how to capture spectacular nighttime landscapes with these advanced tips for painting with light.

1. Pack spare batteries

Before you leave home, make sure you’ve checked you have spare camera batteries, and that they’re charged. They don’t last as long when it’s cold, and taking long exposures on Bulb mode eats them up too. You can easily get through four fully-charged camera batteries in a shoot. Store them in an inside pocket to keep them warm.

2. Invest in a head torch

One thing many new nighttime landscape photographers haven’t taken on board before the shoot is how hard it is to see anything once it gets dark.

Even if your camera features an LCD light, a small torch – or better still, a head torch – is essential for checking settings and finding your equipment. Head torches are preferable, because they enable you to keep both hands free.

3. Plant your tripod firmly in soft ground

It goes without saying that a good tripod is vital when shooting long exposures, but you have to know how to use it: when you’re out on the moors, for instance, the ground is invariably uneven and waterlogged, so to eliminate camera shake in your shots you need to push your tripod legs firmly into the ground.

It’s also a good idea to set them wide apart, to give you as firm a platform as possible.

4. Use your lens’s distance dial to focus

You will soon discover that it is almost impossible to autofocus in the dark, even with the help of a torch, so the way to ensure sharp images is to focus manually.

We suggest focusing a third of the way into your scene to ensure optimum depth of field, so just guess roughly how far this is from your camera and set the focal point accordingly.

If you’re using a wide-angle lens you’ll get adequate depth of field, even at the wide apertures you needed to keep your exposure times below ten minutes.

5. A simple method for painting with light

Stand 40 to 50 feet away from your subject to avoid over-exposing.
Paint torchlight onto your scene using slow, sweeping movements. Ensure the end of each ‘stroke’ isn’t in shot to avoid hot spots.
Light both sides of your subject, but light one more than the other, to make it look more three-dimensional. When lighting up rocks, use a shallow angle to bring out texture.
Attach a lens hood to prevent torchlight from straying into your lens. Use a viewfinder cover to stop torchlight leaking into the camera

6. Don’t overcomplicate things

You’d be surprised how effective simple settings can be. By keeping your camera settings constant, all you need to worry about is shutter speed and how much light to paint onto your scene.

If you do make adjustments, you only have to change one thing, not three. You’ll be surprised how much detail you capture.

7. Keep settings the same

Again, try to keep things simple. We like to set our ISO to 100, aperture to f/5.6 and expose for as long as we need to for the sky. We use an aperture of f/5.6 because any longer means exposure times that are just too long – at very wide angles, f/5.6 provides the best compromise between depth of field and letting enough light onto the sensor.

If you’ve painted enough light into the foreground it should match the exposure of the sky, resulting in a well-exposed image. The whole thing is a balancing act between capturing the sky and foreground.

8. Processing your night landscapes
We also try to keep post-shoot processing to a minimum as a general rule, but nightscapes do need help to make colours pop. We usually process the raw file twice: once for the sky, with some noise reduction to ensure smooth tonal gradation in any clouds, and once for the foreground without noise reduction.

We combine the two versions using Layer Masks, and apply a slight curves tweak to boost colour and contrast – and a colour correction if there’s lots of light pollution. We also use Unsharp Mask to apply sharpening.