From dusk till dawn: low-light photography tips

Valtteri Hirvonen honed his low-light and night photography skills during Finland's dark winters. Here he reveals his techniques and tips.
Rocky outcrops in Zion National park, Utah, USA, pictured at night. Blurred lights run along the road and the Milky Way can be seen in the sky above.

Finnish photographer Valtteri Hirvonen learned how to master night photography during his country's long, dark winters, and his talents have taken him all over the world. He created these light trails while skateboarding through Zion National Park in Utah, USA. The inclusion of the Milky Way in the sky above was a happy coincidence. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm, 30 secs, f/2.8 and ISO1250. © Valtteri Hirvonen

For Finnish photographer Valtteri Hirvonen, low-light photography is an integral part of his image making. It's in his bones. Brought up on a diet of long, dark Finnish winters, young Valtteri honed his photography skills in the dark. It led to a specialist skillset forged in the twilight.

"We have sunlight all summer, but the whole of the winter is really, really dark in Finland," he explains. "I love the cold weather and the snow, but in the winter, if I wanted to take photos, it had to be at night when my day job finished. So I had to come up with ideas for how to do my hobby. It happened naturally – basically, there was no light but I learned how to take photos." Despite Valtteri's subsequent success in commercial photography, his passion still remained in the ethereal world that occurs as the sun descends.

Armed with his Canon EOS R5 and Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV), a wireless remote control and a carbon-fibre tripod, Valtteri is well placed to capture atmospheric images that require vision and determination. In an eclectic career spanning two decades, his fascination with low-light photography has resulted in an inspiring body of work. This includes romantic low light travel and adventure photographs, and most notably his series The Darkest Hour. Here he shares some choice nuggets of wisdom that can help anyone setting out to photograph at dusk.

A bright moon shining in the sky above a forest.

Valtteri captured this moonrise while driving home from another job – he shot handheld from the window of his car and says the ergonomics of his camera are crucial for enabling him to react quickly when he spots an opportunity. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 70mm, 1/125 sec, f/5.6 and ISO1600. © Valtteri Hirvonen

A full blood moon shining in the night sky above a semicircular tent illuminated from the inside.

This long exposure image of a full blood moon was taken in midwinter while Valtteri was camping next to a swamp – fortunately in a matching tent. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 70mm, 6 secs, f/8 and ISO3200. © Valtteri Hirvonen

1. Shoot wide

While it might be tempting to pack your long lenses for an evening shoot, Valtteri suggests otherwise. "In low-light scenarios, it can be hard to focus with a telephoto lens. I usually use focal lengths of between 24mm and 50mm. If it's pitch black or you are shooting in moonlight or starlight, focus bracketing might be necessary with a telephoto lens. I'm not interested in that, so 90% of the time I use my Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens because 24mm on a full-frame camera is wide enough for just about anything.

"The 24-70mm focal length is the most natural for me. Not too wide and not too long. I know that I can get something out of every situation with that. I don't have to carry anything else with me. It gives me the freedom not to think about my gear while shooting."

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Similarly, Valtteri has always shot on Canon and says it's crucial that his camera feels right. "I'm outside so much that I usually wear gloves, so my camera's ergonomics are really important," he explains. "It's not all about megapixels – there are things you can't measure, such as does the camera feel good?"

2. Focus on the content

Don't aim for technical perfection at the expense of creativity and interest, Valtteri advises. "The most important thing is not to worry if your photo is shaky or not technically perfect. If you think about iconic photos from the past, you don't really see the technical side – it's about the moment and the content. If you've taken a good photo and it's shaky, it's still a good photo. If your photo is really sharp but you don't have anything interesting in it, it's not a great photo. It's not the end of the world if you're not getting the sharpest shots."

Valtteri's low light and night photography stands out thanks to his strong compositions incorporating natural and man-made elements. Points of interest in his images may be an eagle sweeping into the centre of a scene, light trails amid a lonely landscape, the first rays of dawn stretching through cloud cover, or the simple elegance of a full moon bathing the forest floor in its light. By shooting at different times of the night and in different seasons – from pink summer sunsets to deep midwinter darkness – and playing with exposure lengths, Valtteri also shows that low light and night photography comes in many colours, not just shades of blue.

Of all the ingredients that make a great image, Valtteri covets one above all else: “I'm always searching for that special light. Even in the most ordinary location you can get beautiful results in the right light, and using a distinctive composition."

Tall conifer trees covered in snow, set against a dark sky.

Valtteri loves shooting in Lapland during the polar night season when the sun refuses to rise. This image was taken at noon, when this is as bright as it gets. It's a good example of the "right light" transforming the atmosphere of an otherwise simple location. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 50mm, 1/25 sec, f/8 and ISO1600. © Valtteri Hirvonen

3. Turn off image stabilisation for long exposures

Image Stabilisation, particularly the In-Body IS in the Canon EOS R5 and EOS R6 that gives you up to 8-stops of IS when paired with some lenses, gives you the freedom to shoot handheld in situations where a tripod just isn't practical. However, if you are shooting a long exposure at night with a tripod, you will want to turn your IS function off, as Valtteri does.

This is because of the way IS works. When an IS lens group is active, for instance, the elements can move. They are designed, in this mode, to detect motion and move accordingly to counteract it. So if you're shooting on a tripod with IS turned on, those elements are free to move around, "hunting" for movement to try to counteract, which can introduce unwanted blur into your long exposure. On a rock-steady tripod, turning IS off will lock those lens elements in place. Most modern lenses do have tripod detection to avoid this issue, but you could still turn IS off to save power.

Wings outstretched, a great grey owl swoops down towards the forest floor.

Birds of prey shot at twilight with the EOS-1D X Mark III

How does Canon's flagship action camera perform when shooting fast-moving birds in extreme low light? Wildlife photographer Markus Varesvuo finds out.

Valtteri says: "If you're going for two seconds or more, turn off the stabilisation. Stabilisation makes a huge difference when you're shooting handheld and at quicker speeds, but if you're going for a second or more and shooting from a tripod, image and lens stabilisation can have limited benefits."

4. Experiment with adding your own light sources

Valtteri often adds artificial light in order to create a point of interest or to accentuate the palette in his images, whether it's by adding light trails or an illuminated tent that perfectly matches the hue of a full blood moon. For this reason, one of Valtteri's most prized pieces of kit is his headlamp. "I always have a powerful headlamp with me, to see where I'm going and also to paint with light. If it's pitch black, the headlamp also helps me to see the edges of my composition – I can use it to see the right-hand and left-hand sides of my frame."

A pink sunset over a still lake.

Deceptively simple, this image was shot in Finnish Lapland just after midsummer. The sunset's ethereal colours are reflected in the still waters of the lake below. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 28mm, 1/25 sec, f/2.8 and ISO3200. © Valtteri Hirvonen

A man wearing a headlamp standing in front of his tent, which is positioned on top of a hill overlooking a lake.

Captured shortly after the previous photo, this shot illustrates the lack of light pollution in Finnish Lapland. Valtteri spent the night in a tent on top of a hill looking at the stars. He prefers to arrive at a location before the sun sets so he can compose his shot, and then to sit and wait. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm at 1/25 sec, f/2.8 and ISO3200. © Valtteri Hirvonen

5. Arrive before it gets dark

Valtteri says arriving early is key to creating a great composition. "I usually go to the location before it's pitch black so I can see the landscape and compose the image through the viewfinder. I then play the waiting game. I have a flask with me, filled with tea or hot chocolate, and I wait and enjoy the scenery. I start taking photos at twilight, but you never know before taking a picture if the best light will be just before it's really dark or when it is really, really dark. There is a weird twilight within the twilight. It's the same if you're shooting at sunrise. I go with the moment, see how the situation and the landscape evolves, and then just go for it. That waiting game can last two to three hours."

Two walkers silhouetted against a bright circle of sunlight shining through storm clouds.

These two walkers silhouetted against an eerie globe look like they were captured at night-time, but this image was taken in Norway in the middle of the day while dark storm clouds were obscuring the sun. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 70mm, 1/100 sec, f/4 and ISO400. © Valtteri Hirvonen

Two spiny trees in Joshua Tree National Park, California, USA, surrounded by light trails. The orange night sky is dotted with stars.

This nighttime long exposure image – taken at the Joshua Tree National Park in California, USA – marked the moment Valtteri lost his camera in the desert. He used his radio remote controller to trigger the camera, and his headlamp created the light trails that chronicle his frantic search. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 70mm, 30 sec, f/2.8 and ISO3200. © Valtteri Hirvonen

6. Seek out real darkness

The effects of light pollution can severely impact low-light photography, so Valtteri avoids them at all costs. "If you live in the city, there will be a lot of light pollution," he says. "If you have a chance to get away from the light pollution you'll see a dramatic improvement in your night-time photos. It's magical when the stars actually light your landscape after a five-minute exposure – you can't see that with your bare eyes. The camera sees something you don't, and it's a really nice moment."

7. Don't be afraid of high ISOs

Valtteri doesn't fret about image noise. Not only do his Canon EOS R5 and Canon EOS 5D Mark III's low light capabilities minimise this issue, but more importantly working at high ISOs enables him to get the shot. "Don't be afraid to use your sensor's higher ISOs and to push it up as far as you need to get the photo. Use whatever you need to get your photo. Of course, go as low as you can, but if that's ISO 12,800, that's it then. If you have to use a high ISO, you have to use it. It's a no-brainer."

Mark Alexander

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