31.07.2015

NIGHT-TIME PHOTOGRAPHY: NOCTURNAL LANDSCAPES

31.07.2015

NIGHT-TIME PHOTOGRAPHY: NOCTURNAL LANDSCAPES

COVER PHOTO

Here I am with my final post devoted to night-time, or at the least low-light, photography.

During this series of posts, I have discussed the “artistic” aspect of night-time photography, with the aim of allowing you to seize the many opportunities this photographic technique can offer. With its limitless sources of artificial light, the city is definitely the environment that best enables you to obtain interesting and satisfying results; but there is another world beyond out there too, a world of suburbs and isolated places.

Thus, as part of this series, I cannot fail to mention nocturnal landscape photography, which is probably the most challenging technique with which to deal for any photographer.

LIGHT POLLUTION

You are used to associating the idea of “pollution” with cars releasing smog into the atmosphere, or the concept of people dropping litter that accumulates and ends up making the environment unpleasant and uninhabitable.

Light pollution is the same thing really, that is to say an excess and exaggerated amount of artificial light sources that irradiate light in the atmosphere.

This excess light shining out into the sky, together with the presence of smog and fine dust suspended over the city, creates a negative effect that makes it practically impossible to see the stars. If you look carefully, especially during the summer, you will notice that the sky above your head in the city seems totally flat, devoid of stars and even amber-yellow in colour.

For this reason, if you want to capture nocturnal landscapes, you will have to move out of the town or city and find somewhere isolated, such as on a large plain or in the mountains.

WHAT CAN YOU PHOTOGRAPH?

If you want to take nocturnal landscape photos, you have three challenging opportunities or choices:

  1. find contrasts
  2. capture the celestial sphere
  3. create star trails

CREATING CONTRASTS

PHOTO 1

Even though a moonless evening can seem extremely dark, the earth’s atmosphere always reflects a bit of sunlight anyway.

Therefore, you can use this characteristic to your advantage by creating contrasts, such as in the example above.

In this case, the key thing is to find a natural or artificial element that can be your skyline (profile, outline) and create a contrast with the slightly brighter sky.

For this type of photography, you can also take advantage of the light pollution; indeed, by using a long exposure time (or increasing the ISO values), the artificial light that reflects onto the atmosphere will create the desired contrast completely automatically.

Here below is an example of how you can use light pollution to create a strong contrast with the outline of the hill:

PHOTO 2

CAPTURING THE CELESTIAL SPHERE

Capturing the celestial sphere is an unusual technique that gives you very interesting image results. Basically, you make use of the digital camera’s greater light sensitivity to capture images of the star-filled sky that we would otherwise be unable to see.

To obtain photos like the ones you see here,all you need to do is use MANUAL mode,set high ISO values on your camera (you could start with ISO 1600 and then try out some shots with ISO 3200 or even 6400), use a very narrow aperture (f/2.8 – f/4) and set a suitable shutter speed (that can go from 15 seconds to 20 or 30 maximum).

PHOTO 3

It is impossible to provide you with fixed, objective parameters, as many of them depend on the amount of light pollution found in the area you are photographing, or on your camera’s resistance to high ISO values. However, you will find the right balance by testing out your camera using the values I have provided above.

CREATING STAR TRAILS

PHOTO 4

In my previous post, I explained how to create light trails using the movement of cars with their headlights on. The principle of the technique is, in itself, very simple: the car with its headlights on moves during the time it takes for the shutter to open and close (exposure), thus creating a light trail across your image.

Star trails are the same thing but the technique is applied to the stars, which are the light source. Of course, at school you were taught that it’s not the stars that move but the earth; the principle remains the same, and for this same reason, it is possible to capture the light trails created by the stars in a photograph.

PHOTO 5

In order to obtain the effects that you see in these images here, you have to work a bit harder, follow the correct order and practise a great deal:

  1. Find a barely-lit place (I recommend doing it on a moonless night);
  2. Mount your camera on a stable tripod;
  3. Shoot in MANUAL mode;
  4. Set high ISO values (start from ISO 1600 but I suggest even 3200);
  5. Set a very wide aperture (f/2.8 works well);
  6. Choose a slow shutter speed of 20 to 30 seconds.

Now you can start taking pictures. You will see that light trails created by the stars with the earth’s movement will be visible in every photo. But how do you get photos like this one?

PHOTO 6

In order to obtain photos like the one above, the principle is that of producing a sequence of many photos using the parameters I suggested before (remember, they are only suggestions; you can adjust them more precisely based on your personal situation), so that you get many photos in which the stars leave a short light trail.

Once you have taken 20 or 30 photos, you have to use an editing software (e.g. photoshop) to put them all together and make one, long, continuous trail or, much more simply, make use of the free program StarStaX for MAC or Startrails for Windows (you can find them easily using Google).

CONCLUSION

This photography technique is truly fascinating, especially the star trails part, however, it requires a lot of care and a good dose of perseverance and patience, if you want to obtain good results.

Undoubtedly the greatest difficulties you will encounter will be dealing with light pollution (Italy is one of the most densely populated, and consequently brightly-lit, countries and the digital noise created by the use of an extended shutter speed with high ISO values.

One final piece of advice is to devote yourselves to this type of photography during the winter months, when the atmosphere tends to be more clean and clear, due to the climate. Definitely one of the best moments could be a break in the sky after a good downpour!

I wish you the best of fun and, remember: Perseverance!

Alessio Furlan

Freelance photographer, photography teacher, author and blogger.

website: www.alessiofurlan.com
blog: www.tecnicafotografica.net
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