Landscapes After Dark

Night-owl photographer Jim Brandenburg shows you how to make gorgeous landscapes after dark.

Landscapes-After-Dark
Landscapes-After-Dark

We've all read dozens of articles on how to make your landscapes stand out. Acclaimed nature photographer Jim Brandenburg has a can't-miss method of doing exactly that: Shoot after dark. "You can take a fairly ordinary subject and transform it into something totally different," he says. "Long exposures can see things the eye can never see."

Want to give it a try? Brandenburg shared with us his pointers for nocturnal picture-taking:

Get the gear. You need very little --a tripod and a camera whose shutter can be held open on B (the Bulb setting). You should have a cable switch or remote release to trip the shutter without jarring the camera. If you're using timed shutter speeds, you can also use the self-timer to fire the shutter. (Note that with shorter exposures -- a few seconds -- the picture is more likely to be blurred from a momentary nudge than with a longer exposure.)

If you really get into nighttime shooting, he recommends an interval timer (such as the Canon Timer Remote Controller TC-80N3, $135, street, or the Nikon MC-36 Multi-Function Remote, $130, street).

And, he adds, "You can never get enough battery." At the very least, buy additional batteries for your camera and keep them charged. Most DSLRs can take an accessory battery grip and external battery packs. Buy a cigarette-lighter adapter to charge batteries in your car.

Look for the light. While the silhouette of a dramatic landform may add drama, it isn't necessary. Concentrate instead on light -- the afterglow on the horizon, moonlight on a meadow, sky color, stars.

Expose and focus correctly. "Digital cameras make it infinitely easier. They give you built-in proofing, right on the spot, and it's rare that you can't retake a shot," Brandenburg says.

|| |---| | | Standing stones at Carnac, Brittany, France: Brandenburg set up a tripod on a ladder atop a camper van to shoot over a fence and used a searchlight to paint the stones with light. Canon EOS 5D with 24-70mm f/2.8L Canon EF lens. Exposure, 200 sec at f/6.3, ISO 100.| He usually shoots with the lens wide open or stopped down a little. The shortest exposures will last a few seconds at ISO 400; longer ones may last several minutes. His star trails take hours (see How I Shot This, April 2007). Remember that clear moonlight is surprisingly bright, and cloud cover surprisingly dark. Focus manually and tape the focus ring in place to keep it from shifting.

Add light. You can use an accessory flash (on manual) or a flashlight to paint light onto a feature during a long exposure. "I've used a tiny Maglite to add just a little glow around the edge," says Brandenburg. The best time for adding light is the period after dusk but before the sky is pitch dark. "The French call it the between-the-wolf-and-the-dog time."

Be careful out there. You can get injured just stumbling around in a dark meadow. On the lip of the Grand Canyon, one wrong step could be your last. Brandenburg recommends wearing a headlamp, one bright enough to see by but not bright enough to dazzle your vision. And take along a companion.

If you see it, take it. Great shots can happen through serendipity. Brandenburg got the idea for his Badlands shot on the previous page when he drove around a turn in the road and saw the rockface lit up by his car's headlights.

When he saw the picture that opens this article on his camera's LCD monitor, it disappointed him, and he left the scene after taking five frames. "On a scale of 1 to 10, I gave it a 2 or 3," he recalls. "Later when I saw the frame it really came to life. It's one of those time when the camera did magic the eye didn't see."

Noise Ordinances

Long exposures increase digital noise. Jim Brandenburg suggests these ways to combat it:
• Keep ISOs low. Hold sensitivity to ISO 400 or lower if possible.
• Use the camera's long-exposure noise reduction. This can add considerable delay, though, to the processing time for long exposures. Tip: Turn off noise reduction while doing test shots, then turn it back on to shoot the keepers.
• Fix it later. Adobe Photoshop has a variety of noise-reduction tools, and plug-ins such as Nik Dfine ($80, street) offer "smart" noise reduction.

Minnesotan Jim Brandenburg has worked for National Geographic for more than a quarter of a century, and his pictures have appeared in numerous magazines and books. See more of his outstanding images at www.jimbrandenburg.com.

Landscapes-After-Dark-Aurora-borealis-northern-M
Landscapes-After-Dark-Aurora-borealis-northern-M
Aurora borealis, northern MN: Taken near Brandenburg's home in Ely, MN. Tripod-mounted Nikon F3, 15mm f/3.5 AI-S Nikkor. Exposure, about 40 to 45 sec, wide open, on Fujichrome P1600 D.Photo By Jim Brandenburg
Landscapes-After-Dark-Moose-Lake-Boundary-Water
Landscapes-After-Dark-Moose-Lake-Boundary-Water
Moose Lake (Boundary Water Canoe Area), MN: Taken not far from Brandenburg's backyard, this shot shows some of the northern lights. Canon EOS 5D, 20mm f/1.8 Sigma EX DG lens on tripod, 30 sec at f/2, ISO 320.Photo By Jim Brandenburg
Landscapes-After-Dark-Moonlight
Landscapes-After-Dark-Moonlight
MoonlightPhoto By Jim Brandenburg
Landscapes-After-Dark-Taken-in-Dallas-Sheep-walk
Landscapes-After-Dark-Taken-in-Dallas-Sheep-walk
Taken in Dallas, Sheep walk along the ridgelinePhoto By Jim Brandenburg
Landscapes-After-Dark-Camping-at-sunset
Landscapes-After-Dark-Camping-at-sunset
Camping at sunsetPhoto By Jim Brandenburg
Landscapes-After-Dark-Aurora-Borealis
Landscapes-After-Dark-Aurora-Borealis
Aurora BorealisPhoto By Jim Brandenburg
Landscapes-After-Dark-Deer-walking-at-night
Landscapes-After-Dark-Deer-walking-at-night
Deer walking at nightPhoto By Jim Brandenburg
Landscapes-After-Dark-The-sun-looking-red-as-it
Landscapes-After-Dark-The-sun-looking-red-as-it
The sun, looking red, as it risesPhoto By Jim Brandenburg
Landscapes-After-Dark-Judd-Lake
Landscapes-After-Dark-Judd-Lake
Judd LakePhoto By Jim Brandenburg
Landscapes-After-Dark-Aurora-Borealis-over-Jasper
Landscapes-After-Dark-Aurora-Borealis-over-Jasper
Aurora Borealis over Jasper LakePhoto By Jim Brandenburg
Landscapes-After-Dark-The-North-Star-on-Christmas
Landscapes-After-Dark-The-North-Star-on-Christmas
The North Star on Christmas NightPhoto By Jim Brandenburg
Landscapes-After-Dark-Lightning-in-the-distance
Landscapes-After-Dark-Lightning-in-the-distance
Lightning in the distancePhoto By Jim Brandenburg
Landscapes-After-Dark-A-Prairie-Winter-Moonrise
Landscapes-After-Dark-A-Prairie-Winter-Moonrise
A Prairie Winter MoonrisePhoto By Jim Brandenburg
Landscapes-After-Dark-Pinnacles-and-star-trails
Landscapes-After-Dark-Pinnacles-and-star-trails
Pinnacles and star trails, Badlands National Park, SD: Brandenburg painted light onto the rockfaces with the high beams on his car. Tripod-mounted Nikon F3 and 20mm f/2.8 AI-S Nikkor. Exposure, about 5 minutes, wide open, on Kodachrome 64.Photo By Jim Brandenburg
Landscapes-After-Dark-Aurora-Borealis
Landscapes-After-Dark-Aurora-Borealis
Aurora BorealisPhoto By Jim Brandenburg
Landscapes-After-Dark-Aurora-Borealis
Landscapes-After-Dark-Aurora-Borealis
Aurora BorealisPhoto By Jim Brandenburg
Landscapes-After-Dark-The-Longest-Night
Landscapes-After-Dark-The-Longest-Night
The Longest NightPhoto By Jim Brandenburg
Landscapes-After-Dark-Croissant-De-Lune-Crescent
Landscapes-After-Dark-Croissant-De-Lune-Crescent
Croissant De Lune (Crescent Moon)Photo By Jim Brandenburg
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