Slow shutter night landscapes

Here is my method for daytime landscapes which is also suited to long exposures of at night of cars.

  1. Focus on something a third into the scene preferably a point that is well lit and has good contrast, like a point on the road. You could try aim at the grass, but if the grass is in the dark in your photos then you camera will probably struggle and decide to focus to infinity. (regarding contrast if you try to focus on a plain white ceiling and you’ll find the camera has nothing of contrast to focus on, so focus on a light on the ceiling in that situation)
  2. Do trial exposures. No tripod necessary yet. Leave ISO on Auto and max of 3200 or higher is fine. Set your camera on Aperture priority at the brightest (f/3.5). Hold still, lean against something maybe and take a photo.You might get something like 1/8s or 3seconds, but the you will get an indication of exposure. If the camera sees a mostly dark sky, it will compensate by burning out the ground to bright highlights. If you have a street lamp in the middle of the photo, the camera could underexpose. Make adjustments to EV starting on 0, use positive numbers to brighten the photo and negative numbers to darken. Use hole numbers like +1, +2 and then refine further (+0.7, or +1.3 etc.). This process is easier with high ISOs and short exposures since you don’t have to wait 30 seconds to find out that your photo was 2 stops two bright.
  3. Set up focus settings. Focus on the point you want, set the switch on the camera (or lens) to Manual, put the camera on the tripod, to Vibration Reduction off (since not handheld anymore),
  4. Set exposure settings. set ISO on the lowest setting (such as ISO-200, and not on Auto) use Aperture priority at f/11 for maximum depth of field and lens sharpness.
  5. Set timer settings. Set the timer on (among single, burst, remote, timer settings). Go into the menu and set Timer to 2, 5 or 10 seconds (depending on wind and how low stable tripod takes to stop shaking once you push the shutter button). Set mirror-up delay in the menu to On. (exposure starts a second after the mirror inside flips up, to reduce vibration)
  6. Take a photo. The exposure will probably be 5 to 30 seconds. If you are really working in the dark or you are trying to get the stars in. Zoom in on the screen afterwards to check the sharpness.

Other tips:
Use manual white balance or choose one of the presets such as Tungsten for artifical lighting.
For the most flexiblity with adjusting brightness and white balance afterwards, take photos in RAW rather than JPG.

The reason for the aperture of f/11 other than having a long exposure, is that lenses are not their sharpest when wide open (f/3.5, f/5.6 etc.) and sharpness increases towards f/8, f/9 until a peak at f/11 is reached for most lenses. Then lenses suffer the diffraction effect as the aperture becomes a narrower circle. Image quality decreases from f/13 onwards and gets blurry at f/32.

If the scene is really dark and you need longer than 30 seconds at f/11 but the camera doesn’t go longer than 30 seconds, then rather set the aperture wider to f/5.6 or something. SLR cameras have a bulb setting where you hold the shutter down for as long as you want such as 5 minutes, but you would shake the camera unless you use a remote.

When editing in RAW, use fill light and lower contrast to make the black shadows not so dominating. Just don’t overdo it. Shadows make an image look solid and balanced, also grain and colour noise get bad when you brighten shadows too much.


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