I’m starting the section of picture analysis with one of my most recent work. This picture dates from 24 March 2016 and was taken in a water reservoir near my city. The original plan was to photograph a near iron bridge at dusk, but after the sunset other opportunities arose. So I guess the first lesson in this blog is: keep your eyes wide open to catch any opportunities that might happen, even if you didn’t planned for them. The picture is titled “Soon after the moonrise”, and you can click on them to enlarge:
As you can see, this is a typical landscape shot, in which you can see a fragment of the river that leads to the reservoir, with the horizon behind and the sky filling the rest of the picture. So… Which is the element that makes the picture special? In this case is the illumination, provided by the moon and partially diffused by a thin strip of cloud. We are used to see landscapes with sunlight, which is very rich in yellow tones that make green and yellow very outstanding. The trick here is to change the illumination to a dim global and bluish light, which makes it feel much colder that it really was, and very different to the way that what we are used to see it.
Lets begin with the technical part.
In order to get this picture a tripod is always needed. A picture taken at night, even with full moon (which is the case), is a situation of very low light available. If we want to keep the sensibility of the sensor in a low value to avoid noise we will have to increase our exposure time to the order of seconds. In this case, the picture was taken using ISO 1000 (an acceptable noise level for a Canon 5D mkIII) 10 seconds of exposure and an aperture of f/5.6.
Increasing the exposure time could have been an option to reduce the noise of the picture. The decision of setting it only to 10 seconds is to avoid capturing the movement of the stars (#3). For this picture I wanted them to appear still, as points, instead of trails, so increasing the time would have been risky as we are already moving in the threshold times. Also, the aperture could have been increased up to f/4, but working on f/5.6 grants me more quality as I am working on the sweet spot of my lens. Having into account that the noise level at ISO 1000 is fairly good on the camera the parameters are a reasonable choice. If, on the contrary, we had to take the picture with a noisier camera reducing ISO would be necessary for a clean shot and star trails or a bit less of sharpness would be the price to pay.
Another point to have in mind while taking night pictures is the moon. Because moon rises usually at night, we tend to associate it with the dark. But we tend to forget that, even in the dark sky, it is a body fully illuminated by the sun, so we have to take that into account. It is impossible to correctly expose the moon and the sky/earth at the same time, as the relative brightness of both exceeds the dynamic range of any commercial camera we can use. That doesn’t mind if we can turn that on our benefit. In this picture the full moon (#2) is completely overexposed, but we can make the defect less noticeable waiting for it to be behind a pale cloud. The cloud blurs the light and progressively extends the light to the sky, so instead of having a full perfect white circle in a dark sky we have a degraded light from white to dark blue. If we had exposed the moon correctly, that would have been the only object visible in the picture.
Also, in this picture the reflection (#3) takes a great importance. In order to get the moon perfectly round in the water we had to wait for two things to happen: The first one, obvious, is the moon to raise enough over the horizon to reflect from our angle of seeing. The second, less obvious, is to wait until there were no wind or currents in the water, as both of them tend to perturb the surface and produce elongated reflections. The first condition eventually happened, and we were lucky that the second happened for a few minutes, enough to take the picture. The surface was so still that even the brightest star (#3) reflected enough to be captured.
According to the composition, a few points are worth noticing. First one is the horizon (#1). In any landscape photography it is compulsory that it is perfectly leveled horizontal. In this case it looks a little bit inclined to the left because of the mountains in the right part, but if you look closely in the left part of the horizon it is perfectly horizontal. Of course this can be corrected on Photoshop later but at the cost of losing a portion of the external part of the photograph. The best leveled the camera is the less picture you will lose correcting it. A more subtle topic is where to put the horizon. The rule of thirds says that it should be in the upper or lower third of the picture but this is one of the cases when we decide to avoid the rule on purpose and center it. The reason for this is symmetry. We want to capture the sky and the moon, but also its reflection, so putting it in the middle of the picture makes a good symmetry between upper and lower parts. If we didn’t have had the reflection, the composition would have been boring and still.
Finally, in order to complete the composition, some bushes were included on the left side in order to frame the composition. This adds a little bit of naturalness to a picture that could be rather still and mathematical, and also breaks the symmetry to increase the force of the composition.
General advice to take any night picture is to take care of the white balance. At night there is no “correct” white balance, so choosing the one that feels more natural is a good recommendation. Also, knowing that night pictures tend to be noisier that their diurnal counterparts, not sharpening until the last moment and doing it smartly is also a good advice in order to not increase it and make it even more noticeable.
What do you think? Do you have any advice into night photography? Or perhaps any observation to make? Comment and share your mind with us.