Shooting the breeze – Night photography

David LinternI’m very lucky to have a wide and varied brief here at Walkhighlands, but I try to thread my ramblings together with reasonable photos. I hope to develop the photographic thread a little more over the coming months, and I thought I’d start with one of my great personal pleasures of camping out – taking photos at night.

Taking photos at night is a real performance, in more ways than one. Setting up and operating the camera is more difficult in low light. Tripping over and breaking said machine or indeed the operator is not conducive to good results. Because there’s less light, the amount of shooting time is longer, so keeping warm whilst relatively still can be an issue in the dead of winter.

Trottenish Ridge, Skye – ISO80, f2, 15 secs

Trottenish Ridge, Skye – ISO80, f2, 15 secs

It’s also almost like a live performance, reacting and responding to changing conditions, altering settings and camera position to get the desired result. This is true of all photography, but as day shifts to night or vice versa there’s only a small window to get the shot you’re after. It’s exciting!

Night photography is nearly always a study of a place, and for me, usually experimental – it takes time, trial and error. Take the shot above, for example. What you can’t see is that this is the 6th attempt – the others are badly composed, out of focus or too dark. This flags one of the main advantages of digital when taking night photos – you can check to see what you have, and make corrections on the next shot. All within that limited timeframe of course, before the person in the shot gets tired or bored or the Moon and Venus shift from their pole position above the shelter apex! I told you it was exciting.

North Berwick – ISO50, f8, 224secs

North Berwick – ISO50, f8, 224secs

You can see already that the exposure times are lengthy for night photos. Why was this North Berwick shot so much longer than the Trotternish one? 3 reasons. First, the sensitivity of the Berwick camera – the ISO – is set lower because I wanted high quality (the Trotternish one is fairly low too, though, right?) Low ISO generally equals better signal to noise ratio, or less grain. Secondly, the f-number, or aperture is set higher on the second shot. The lens is letting less light in, so the camera needs more time to get the shot. Generally speaking, the higher the f-number, the sharper the photo is from near to far. There’s a third reason, and I’ll return to this at the end.

Strath Nethy Walk Highlands igloo epic, IS0640, f5, 13secs

Strath Nethy Walkhighlands igloo epic, IS0640, f5, 13secs

This igloo shot was one of over 1000 shots for a time-lapse of the build. I wanted to capture some movement of people in each photo, with a reasonable shot rate (for time-lapse you need a lot of photos!) and the ability of the camera sensor to record anything at all – so the sensitivity is turned up and the time is reduced to a slightly more manageable 13secs. That’s still way too long to hold the camera manually without blur, plus life is too short and I need to help the others! I’ll need something to stand it on, and something to automate the button press. For the igloo that meant a tripod and a timer, but the Trottenish shot was taken with the camera resting on a cooking pot and the cameras internal timer. Tripods are great but they can be bulky and heavy to carry, and they can also shift around on soft ground or in wind – for the igloo shot I had the tripod stabilised with a bag hanging underneath to prevent camera blur from occasional gusty spindrift. Rocks or cooking pots move a lot less but positioning the camera above foot height may be tricky!

These long exposure times have another interesting side effect – the camera ‘averages’ time and blurs the movement of water and clouds, and with lighting you can create some fairly odd special effects – hence the trails above. Head torches are also useful for lighting the foreground for a proportion of total exposure time, or putting inside tents for ‘classic’ mountain shots, a bit like the one below.

Loch Avon, ISO50, f4.5, 30secs

Loch Avon, Cairngorms, ISO50, f4.5, 30secs

All this talk of balancing settings betrays the fact you are going to need a camera with manual controls to do most of this. I started out on fully manual film cameras and don’t really understand auto settings, but for those newer to photography ‘going manual’ can be daunting. Many modern digital cameras have fair auto night modes but I’d say it’s good to get to grips with the ‘holy trinity’ of sensitivity (aka ‘ISO’), aperture (aka ‘f number’) and exposure time (aka ‘shutter speed’). Just experiment – getting it wrong is a great teacher.

Just to confuse matters further, I’ve left out possibly the most important control – focus. Digital cameras without the ability to manually override auto focus are not the best buy for the budding night photographer. The camera will ‘hunt’ for focus and usually fail to find it… it is quite dark out there, after all. Every lens (or camera) I use includes the ability to set focus manually, either in the menu settings or better still on the lens itself. Manual focus rings save me the hassle of looking through a fizzy Electronic viewfinder (EVF), which will usually have auto gain and be grainy as hell in the dark, but I can also temporarily light my main focal object with a head torch to help focus if I’m struggling to get the preview sharp. A few test shots later…

Coire mhic fhearchair, ISO160, f4, 442secs

Coire Mhic Fhearchair, Torridon, ISO160, f4, 442secs

I’m going to finish with a shot I wasn’t entirely happy with. It was my fourth try on a very cold night, and I was very grateful not to be where those other climbers are. You can see that ‘trail’ effect caused by movement in the picture as the camera ‘averages’ time over a few minutes.The aperture is as low as this lens will go (the lens is letting in as much light as it can) and the ISO sensitivity is a bit higher than I’d like. Why is the result still dark and flat, despite the exposure lasting over 7 minutes? It’s to do with the ‘inverse square’ law. Light intensity falls off rapidly at distance – twice the distance is 1/4 as bright, 4 times the distance is 1/16 as bright. We know this intuitively if we return to head torches, as an example – really bright on the path immediately in front of you, much more diffuse when peering far ahead. Ultimately, I think that’s partly why this photo doesn’t convey the scale and exposure those climbers might have been feeling – I’m too far away from the light source. Without doing the maths everytime, I can use this knowledge to create more successful night photos. For example, a lit tent, rock or other object in the foreground would add light, and possibly interest to the shot. A clear starry sky would help too… but I don’t use photoshop!

Most of all, taking photos at night is a great excuse to spend high quality time in places that many hill goers never witness at night – it can be serene, magical, harsh or testing, but without fail it’s a unique experience. Long exposures take time, and after I’ve set the camera up and pressed the shutter, I spend that time silently appreciating how lucky I am to be in these incredible places.

Good things to look for on a camera for night photos:
Manual focus (on lens, if not then in menu)
Manual override for all other settings
Low ISO – ability to go low if needed.
Self timer – look to see how long this is – if it’s under 1minute, can the camera support an external timer switch?
For SLRs – ability for mirror lock up (reduces vibration)

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