Landscape Lighting Photography - Advanced Tips

Landscape Lighting Photography - Challenges & Solutions

Camera Settings:
The following settings only apply to cameras that have manual controls. If you are using a camera that can only shoot in automatic modes, then you will most likely be disappointed with the results.

  • Film speed: lowest possible (usually 100 ASA), only ramp up the film speed on the darkest of situations. (Decent results can be achieved at 200 or 400, but will start to get grainy or posterized.)
  • Aperture: Shoot for the aperture that gives the finest detail (usually between F8 and F16). The actual best detail depends on the quality of the lens.
  • Shutter speed: In order to use a small aperture, 20-30 sec. exposures work well. The best approach is usually to set the camera at the longest possible shutter speed and then adjust the aperture for the exposure.
  • Color temp: This should be set manually. At around sunset you should use 5,500ºK and 8,000ºK depending on how blue the sky is (8,000ºK for very blue sky). After sunset you should shoot at 3,000ºK to match the incandescent lighting.
  • Quality: Shoot in RAW mode. This gives you great flexibility in making non-destructive color and brightness adjustments in the raw image editor of Photoshop.

Site Preparation:
Photos are unforgiving in the sense that every flaw in the landscape will be noticed.

  • Prior to the shoot, walk the property to remove debris, toys, hoses, etc. Trim plant materials and remove dead or dying leaves.
  • Ask the homeowner to remove cars from the property.
  • Rearrange outdoor furniture and planters.
  • Ask the homeowner to turn on every light in the house. As night falls, you will want to check this indoor lighting to make sure indoor lamps are not glaring into the lens. You may want to close curtains or ask the homeowner to re-adjust levels and positions of lamps.
  • Consider 120-volt fixtures at the entryway, on posts and other locations - you may want to dim these, turn them off, or remove or replace their bulbs.
  • Find the best location for the 'big picture' shot. Set your tripod there, line up the shot and place a piece of tape on the ground at the base of each leg. You will return to these marks for a day/night shot. You may also mark other locations.

The Shoot:
Before it gets dark, shoot photos at the 'big picture' location and other locations where you might want to create day/night comparison shots. Start nighttime shooting when you begin to see the effects of the lighting on the architecture. The sky may still be too bright, but that can be corrected later in Photoshop.

  • After you are confident that you have the big picture shot, move to every other location that looks good. Be sure to capture close-up details and several angles of the architecture and property.
  • Bracket at every location. This means you take one shot with the exposure suggested by the camera's internal meter. Without moving the camera,take two more shots. The second exposure should be 1 1/2 stops below the first exposure. The third exposure should be 1 1/2 stops above. You may be surprised that the over or under exposure may look best on your computer. This also gives you different exposures to work with as layer in Photoshop. When it gets very dark, you will want to increase your bracketing range to include +/- 2 1/2 stops.
  • Return to the locations you marked for your tripod several times to make sure you get shoots when the light and sky are best.

Darkening the Sky:
You can use polarized filter on your camera that can darken the sky in some cases. Note, however, that polarizing filters only work under certain conditions. With a polarizing filter on the camera, you will only get a sky darkening effect when the camera faces a direction perpendicular to the path of the sun - meaning, the sun needs to be setting or rising to your left or right. You will also notice that the darkening will not be uniform - on a wide shot, only a portion of the sky may be darkened. There are both spherical and linear polarizing filters.

Adjusting Fixture Aiming and Brightness:
Even though you have optimized your lighting desing for the best viual affect, you need to re-think the lighting for what works best for the photos.

  • Re-aim fixtures to reduce brightness. Everytime you shoot, you should adjust the fixtures in order to avoid hot spots on structures and trees.
  • Place diffusion gels (filters) over fixtures. You can purchase diffusion gels and neutral density gels in sheets. Cut these sheets into circles that fit over MR-16 fixtures and well lights. If you have fixtures that are overly bright for the photos, place these gels over the fixtures to reduce brightness (neutral density gels) and/or to diffuse the light (diffusion gels). IF there are fixtures creating hot spots on plants, use diffusion gels. For fixtures uplighting structures, use neutral density gels since these don't change the beam spread. These gels are made fro hot fixtures so they won't burn.

Contrast - The Biggest Challenge:
The main challenge in Landscape Lighting Photography is the contrast ratio between the illuminated regions and the unlit regions. In case you're unfamiliar with this term, it refers to the difference in brightness between one area and another. Digital cameras have a fairly low dynamic range (tolerance for high contrast ratio). This means that if your exposure is set for shadowed areas, the lit areas will burn to white - if the exposure is set to illuminated areas, the unlit areas will go to black. In the dead of night, lit areas have an illuminance as high as 5 foot-candles while shadowed areas (even under a full moon) will never go above 0.01 foot-candles - that's a contrast ratio of 500:1. You need to attain a contrast ratio of about 10:1 to see details in both lit and unlit regions. Since contrast ratios become so high late in the night, it becomes impossible to see details in shadowed areas. These areas will become black in the photos and not accurately represent the beauty of your lighting design. That's where Photoshop comes in...

If you are serious about getting great landscape lighting images, then you (or someone you hire) will need to use Photoshop. Here's how it works. Using the bracketed shot for a single location (described above), open all three images in Photoshop and place them on top of each other as layers in a single Photoshop image. Using the marquee and eraser tools, eliminate regions that are poorly expposed to leave only the correct exposure for all poarts of the images. It's important to know this is available to get the best possible photos. If you can't learn it yourself, find a graphic designer to do it for you.