November is not the most inspiring of months for the photographer. The days shorten appreciably as winter approaches and the last autumn leaves are blown free by the season’s high winds and frequent rain. Nature seems dormant as many birds have long since flown to warmer climates, fungi break through the earth where flowers once bloomed, and many animal species slumber until spring’s warm awakening.
It would seem a good time also to put the camera to bed and forget about photography until the first snowfall. Well, not quite. Because the days are shorter and daylight more muted, November is an excellent time to think about what can be found in the long darkness from dusk to dawn. In the nocturnal hours a myriad of life forms still thrive and the sky’s celestial light provides a completely different set of subjects to what the daylight hours present.
Photographically speaking, there is a lot to be seen after dusk, providing you can shoot from an advantageous position and the weather conditions are in your favour. Furthermore, the picture potential increases the longer the evening lasts, so a successful nocturnal outing will also be determined by how late you are prepared to stay up with your camera and tripod in hand.
Most of the time, we look to the weather forecast to find out what the daylight hours will bring from dawn to dusk, but the forecast is just as important for determining what type of pictures can be attempted at night. The sunrise and sunset times may not have quite the same significance, but at night the moonrise and the phase of its 27-day journey around the Earth becomes a major consideration. As the most noticeable object in the night sky, the Moon is an obvious first-time subject when making your initial attempts at night photography.
The timing of an evening moonrise is important to know because not only does it vary according to the time of year, but the Moon always appears largest at this point, when it is closest to the horizon. To compose the Moon at its brilliant best you need a bit of luck too: a time when its fullest phase – a full Moon – coincides with the ideal weather forecast of a clear, cloudless night sky. The Moon is not a direct light source such as the sun or the stars, instead it is reflecting the light of the sun hitting its surface, to the Earth.
On a clear night a full moon will reflect only about ten per cent of the sunlight, but that is still enough to illuminate buildings, trees, bridges and other features in the landscape. However, even at high ISO settings, photography under moonlight is best attempted with the camera mounted on a tripod and exposure settings set manually. This is because the camera’s automatic exposure modes are calibrated to render subject tones (even a jet-black sky) as varying shades of grey.
It isn’t just your exposure values that should be set manually: whether shooting the Moon or the stars in the night-sky, there is no point using autofocus (AF) either, as these subjects are at an infinity distance from the camera. So, switch off the AF and focus manually to the infinity setting on the focus ring. The much-improved sensors and image resolution at high ISO settings on today’s DSLR and mirrorless cameras means far greater detail can be rendered. Whole constellations with thousands of points of starlight filling the frame and even galaxies such as our own Milky Way can be captured.
This is a type of night photography that wasn’t possible to most of us a decade ago, but now it has become accessible to all photographers, thanks to the much improved resolution levels and capabilities of higher ISO settings.
Whether using a wide-angle lens to photograph a star-filled sky or a moonlit landscape, or a telephoto lens to focus on the Moon itself, the required techniques are the same: the camera and lens are mounted on a tripod, exposure mode is on Manual, the shutter speed set to Bulb or ‘B’ mode, and a remote release used to keep the shutter open for as long as you choose. For the night sky, a shooting position elevated above the surroundings and clear of any intrusive structures is also desirable.
Assuming you have a clear night ahead of you, then even long exposures of up to several hours may be attempted using this technique. This is the ideal approach for recording star trails. A wide-angle lens is usually preferred as it includes more of the night sky within the frame and therefore more stars. An exposure time of a several minutes will record small dash-like trails against an almost black sky. Keeping the shutter open for a few hours will produce longer, more spectacular circular trails, but more ambient light will be recorded, thereby reducing overall contrast. This is another reason for choosing a location with as little light pollution as possible from nearby towns and cities.
However, photographers choosing to shoot the Moon may be less concerned by this as they tend to prefer to use telephoto lenses to magnify the size of the Moon, particularly when it is close to the horizon and can be shown in relation to a landmark or recognisable structure within the frame.
Closer to ground
Of course, the nocturnal world offers other subjects closer to ground, some that are even familiar to us by day. As cities and towns spread further into our green spaces, some wild animals move further afield to escape our intrusions, while others adapt to their new urbanised surroundings.
In European cities, sightings of foxes at night are increasingly common, as they use the cover of darkness and a ready supply of residents’ waste bins as feeding stations to thrive. Deer and wild boar are larger mammals that have also adapted to the urban fringes in recent years, emerging from the cover of parks and nearby forests to forage in city and residential gardens by night.
Such is the proliferation of urban wildlife that some photographers now specialise in documenting the nocturnal animals that have developed a taste for city nightlife. The improvement in camera sensor technology and image resolution at high ISO settings that has made night sky images more accessible, has also extended the creative repertoire of the wildlife photographer. It is now possible to photograph some wild species at night, or soon after dusk, without having to always resort to the use of camera traps, infra-red triggers and strobe lights.
More exciting still is how the techniques of astrophotography and the wildlife camera-trap have combined in recent years, to produce images of nocturnal animals against a background of a star-studded night sky. This marriage of two photographic genres has created a new style of night photography, one that utilises the specific techniques of both: camera on tripod, high ISO settings, wide-angle lenses, long exposure times and a burst of foreground flash triggered by an animal’s movement.
Silhouettes and dusk
If that all sounds a bit too complex and time consuming with too many variables to thwart the hoped-for result, then consider using the fading light of the night sky in the brief time after dusk in a more opportunistic manner.
Dusk is a brief part of the nocturnal phase when the light of the sun is still visible, even though it has disappeared completely beneath the horizon. During the earliest phase of dusk there is enough ambient light remaining to enable features in the landscape to be seen without the aid of artificial light sources such as floodlights or street lamps.
Naturally, as the sun dips further below the horizon the level of illumination in the sky decreases until a point is reached when the sky becomes completely dark except for the light of the Moon and stars. At that point, the period of dusk is over.
While many of us shoot sunsets, the period of dusk also provides an opportunity to use the ambient light on the horizon as a backdrop to photographing foreground subjects in varying stages of illumination, or even as shadowy silhouettes against the fading sky.
The variety of possible subjects includes outlines of ships at sea, flocks of low flying birds, trees, windmills, skyscrapers and high bridges. These are all subjects well-known by day, but against a night sky at dusk their nocturnal guise is shed of any colour, so any compositional strength is determined by the graphic appeal of their distinct and recognisable shapes.
Choose a location away from the lights of a built-up, urban area when photographing the night sky. Listen to the weather forecast: a clear, still and relatively cloud-free night are the ideal conditions for capturing the stars.
Fix the camera securely to a tripod and ensure the standing surface is as stable as possible. If your lens has an image stabilisation setting, switch it off, to ensure there are no internal vibrations during long exposures.
Check the date, time and direction of the next full Moon. During the winter months, a full Moon rises soon after sunset and will have a higher trajectory across the night sky. With a clear, dry night you’ll have perfect conditions to photograph not only the Moon, but also other subjects in the landscape that are visible under moonlight.
Ignore the foreground. When using a wide-angle lens, any ground water or wet surface can produce striking foreground reflections of the night sky. You can also illuminate closer foreground subjects, including nocturnal wildlife, with a burst of flash while keeping the shutter open during long exposures.
Press the shutter button with your finger for long exposures. Instead, use a dedicated remote release or even the camera’s self-timer to fire the shutter.
Use automatic exposure settings, particularly for long exposures. Switch to Manual mode, choose a wide aperture and set the shutter speed to Bulb or ‘B’ mode. This way you can keep the shutter open for as long as you press the release.
ACCESSORY OPTION: Head Torch
For the colder nights of late autumn, what could be better than a hat with its own head torch? The Unilite Rechargeable LED Beanie Hat (£25) is an acrylic and polyester blend weave to keep your head warm while the LED light provides an output of 150 lumens to a range of ten metres. Battery life is up to four hours. There are three light intensity modes and the torch can be detached for recharging. The beanie is available in yellow, orange and black. One size fits all.
CLOTHING OPTION: Insulating Jacket
Going nocturnal means going out with the right clothing. Traditional down jackets are hard to beat for their insulating qualities and one of the best value for money down jackets is the new Alpkit Filoment Hoody (£130). It’s filled with European duck down and has a Lycra bound hood and cuffs with adjustable hem draw cord. The sleeves are articulated for freer movement and the whole jacket packs down into a lightweight bundle.
CAMERA OPTION: Full-frame, high ISO DSLR
The Nikon D850 (£3,400, body only) has managed to raise eyebrows. The impressive specs include a massive 45.7 megapixel full-frame image sensor and an ISO range of 64-25,600, expandable to 102,400! With a tilting, touchscreen LCD monitor, it’s especially convenient when used in a fixed position on a tripod for long exposures.
Night & Low Light Photography Photo Workshop by Alan Hess; John Wiley & sons; £23.99
Night Sky: A Field Guide for Shooting after Dark by Jennifer Wu and James Martin; Mountaineers Books; £14.99
Night Photography: Finding your Way in the Dark by Lance Keirnig; Focal Press; £21.99
This was published in the November 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.