Trees at Night

A tripod helped me capture maximum detail. Its adjustable height also helped me shoot from different vantage points. Exposure: 30sec at f/11 (ISO 400). Photograph/Raj Lalwani

A tripod helped me capture maximum detail. Its adjustable height also helped me shoot from different vantage points. Exposure: 30sec at f/11 (ISO 400). Photograph/Raj Lalwani

Raj Lalwani sets out in the night and gazes upwards, to capture the world of trees in a different light.

My Assignment
To capture dark, moody photographs of trees bathed in streetlight and moonlight.

It is work in progress—I have been working on the project since November 2009.

The quantity of light is not important; the quality is. Use the play of light and shadow in your images.

Stand beneath a tree, and observe the world created by that tree. It towers on you, with its leaves bright and fresh and its branches and twigs growing in all kinds of directions. I continue to be spellbound by the mood created by trees. Their subtle differences in size and structure can excite, intrigue, give a feeling of joy or even create an ominous feel that is full of drama—more so, when you observe them at night.

My Perspective
We are all used to appreciating the beauty of trees in broad daylight. But then, have you tried looking at the beauty of trees at night? There are so many beautiful sights in the night—a cluster of crisscross twigs with a street lamp in the distance delicately lighting their rim, or a canopy of trees with differently shaped leaves receiving varying levels of light. Simply walk out on a full moon night and observe the silhouetted forms of the branches against moonlight.

I came across these lovely sights for the first time a few months ago, while walking in one of my favourite suburbs in Mumbai— Bandra. By the time I would get free from office, it would be dark, and I would be itching to shoot as I had just bought a new camera. Since I did not see much activity around me, I simply trained the camera upwards. It was while observing the trees through the viewfinder that I started recognising and appreciating their beauty.

The Process
Street light can create all kinds of problems. It can fool a camera’s auto white balance (so I shot in RAW) and cause lens flare (I used a lens hood and avoided including the light in the frame). It is tempting to shoot at f/2 or f/2.8 when one is using a fast, normal lens and the light levels are low. However, photographs of trees usually look beautiful only there is a sufficient amount of depth and detail in the image, for which I needed to use apertures like f/8 and f/11.

While I used my D700 to shoot at extremely high ISOs, I also realised the importance of a tripod. The advantages of a tripod are many—it allows me to perfect the composition and also lets me use the optimum ISO and aperture settings to maximise detail.

The advantage of shooting at night is that the quality of light is constant on most days, with the exception of full moon nights. I usually shoot my initial shots handheld, as a kind of reccé. Once I have figured out which trees and locations capture my attention most, I go back to those places with a tripod, and try to improve the overall composition. My preparation includes wearing fullsleeved T-shirts to ward off mosquitoes, and carrying a music player to avoid getting bored while waiting for 30-second or 1-minute long exposures to end!

This assignment is currently work in progress. The aim is to reach a set of at least 50 pictures that are all unique and distinct from each other. Often, I have gone to shoot something else but found a few frames for this series on trees. That is the best bit about trees—they are all around— all one needs to do is look and observe.

My Equipment
This assignment can be done with any camera, as long as you use a tripod. For handheld shots, you must have a DSLR that gives good results at high ISOs. I used a Nikon D700 with a basic 50mm f/1.8 lens for most of the shots in this series.

Trees at Night with a Compact Camera

  • Always carry a torch with you. This will help you focus in situations where the autofocus of your compact camera is not be able to lock focus.
  • If your camera has a Manual mode, set it up on a tripod and use a long exposure. Alternatively, use the Night Landscape mode.
  • Switch off Noise Reduction to capture as much detail as possible. You can reduce noise during post-processing for finer control.
  • Effective light and composition are a must, whether you use a compact camera or a DSLR. Backlighting is particularly effective, to capture the transparency of leaves and introduce rim lighting for branches and leaves.
  • Remember that the viewer’s eye gets attracted to the brightest part of an image. Thus, avoid framing brighter leaves towards the edges of the frame.

To see more of Raj’s images, you can visit his website at

This article originally appeared in the April 201o issue of Better Photography.

Tags: Raj Lalwani, On Assignment, night, light, april 2010, trees