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An In-Depth Look at Dusk and Twilight Photography

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This post is part of a series called Night Photography.
Observation, Visualisation and Composition for Night Photography
How to Set Up Your Digital SLR for Night Photography

The dusk and twilight hours are undoubtedly my favorite time of day to take photographs. When I was starting out I couldn't help but be captivated by sunsets and want to capture they beautiful colors with my camera. This guide takes you through the complexities of working during those hours and hopefully will inspire you to get out there and try it for yourself.

As I have learned more about the complexities of light, I have begun to appreciate to a greater extent the magical experience of shooting just after the sun has set, utilising the fading ambient light to create some of my favourite work.

What's so special about dusk?

So often in photography you will hear that it's all about the light and who am I to disagree. The fundamental element of photography is the light used within the shot as it dictates the outcome of the photograph.

Twilight offers a unique lighting scenario, within which ambient light (sunlight) gradually fades, creating a sparse but magical effect that is almost impossible to create artificially. It fades into the artificial light being emitted by street lights. Houses and offices and can sometimes create an 'un-real' feel as the shortage of light diminishes the eye's perception of distance.

Portraits before the sun goes down

So before we get on to the hours of twilight photography within which the sun has set, I just wanted to highlight the opportunities offered by the hours just before sunset, often referred to as 'The Golden Hours,' along with the hours around sunrise.

This natural formation of light offers extremely beneficial photographic conditions, as the low golden light from the sun is projected sideways. It delicately warms the subject matter with enough light to work with, without having the over bearing brightness of direct sunlight closer to midday.

This can be extremely useful for landscape photographers, but is also utilized by portrait photographers looking to conduct a shoot outdoors as it offers a very welcome warm glow to their models features.

Photo by Sean Molin

Timing the magical light

So when do you find this inspiring lighting effect? Well, timing is everything. So head out well before the sun has set, at least half an hour and find a suitable location for your shoot. Set yourself up and start shooting. Be sure to peel your eyes away from your viewfinder to appreciate the changing light around you. The ethereal atmosphere will be present as the ambient light fades into darkness.

I like to continue shooting as the light changes, often leaving the camera on it's tripod in the same spot, so I can see the changing light through the series of shots.

Photo by Aigle Dore

What settings are required for shooting in low light?

You'll find that you need to keep adapting your settings according to the amount of ambient light available. However, I'll try and fill you in on what would normally be required for shooting in low light.

First up, you'll be using long shutter speeds, anything longer than 1/60 and I'd use a tripod. It will be essential for keeping your camera steady and getting sharp shots after the sun has gone down. When working with landscape shots a narrow aperture is required to ensure a deep depth-of-field.

As you are using the shutter speed to control the light, this won't need to be adjusted according to the light available, but purely to ensure the correct depth-of-field. You can also afford to select a low ISO, as you do not need to increase the sensitivity of the sensor as you have enough light coming in due to lengthened shutter speed.

As far as white balance is concerned, when working in tricky lighting conditions, I would always shoot in RAW and adjust custom white balance in post-processing. As the sun goes down and the light fades, the temperature of the light will change as you move from capturing purely ambient light, through a combination of ambient and artificial light to purely artificial light. This way, you can alter the custom white balance settings according to the type of light within each shot.

Photo by Alternate Words

Working with landscapes in the evening

My favorite type of shot to take during the twilight hours are landscapes. The warm, colored light breeds an other-worldly atmosphere which only seems to enhance the breathtaking scenery before you. As always with landscape work, finding the best vantage point is essential. Once you're there, it's a case of letting the light work it's magic. Be patient.

Look for particular highlights with the scene before you that might add interest to your shot. Foreground elements are always welcome. When working in mountainous terrain, look to capture the distinction in depth between the mountains closer to you and those further away. As the light fades the tones of further away objects will become more faint, highlighting their distance.

Photo by Simon Bray

Stunning sunsets

As I admitted earlier, I'm a sucker for taking photos of sunsets, but many photographers get tired of seeing endless sunset shots as they can all get very predictable. It's essential to try and be inventive. Utilizing the colors in the sky is obviously essential, but try and compose your shot in a way that adds more interest and depth to the scene than purely the colors on show.

Add some foreground interest or find a line that the eye can follow through the shot to add some depth. Try using a filter, such as a graduated neutral density filter, to enhance the color in the sky.

Photo by Simon Bray

Getting great urban shots

It's not only landscape shots that can benefit from evening light, you can also get some great city and urban shots. Try working in amongst the architecture before the sun has set. The low sun will cast ambient light over the buildings and can create some really attractive contrasted scenes alongside the shadows.

Later in the evening, as the sun sets, try to find a vantage point to get a cityscape shot. The fading ambient light and glowing artificial lights will offer the perfect city scene to capture with a long shutter speed.

Photo by Simon Bray

Subtle silhouettes

With the fading light, it's not always possible to light subject matter adequately, but do not worry, these twilight scenes are the perfect time to try some silhouette photography! Look out for opportunities to work with interesting corresponding shapes. It's important to utilize the available light as the back drop for your silhouettes to enhance their form, particularly if there are attractive colors in the sky.

Photo by Luz

Dealing with practicalities

It always pays to travel prepared, and when you're heading out into the night to take photographs it's even more important. Always take a torch, just a small pocket sized flashlight, it will not only help you find your way but will also aid you when trying to adjust settings on your camera.

Make sure you dress for the cold and account for the fact that it'll be a lot colder once the sun goes down! Tell someone where you're going and when you expect to be back.

Photo by Ed Yourdon

Now it's over to you!

Hopefully, you are now equipped and prepared to go and take some of your own twilight shots. The difficulties of ensuring that there is enough available light is easily outweighed by the magical quality of light that can often occur (depending on the weather).

You could choose an area or specific subject to work with, or just go on a photo walk and shoot as you explore your surroundings, it's up to you. As always, please feel free to share any shots you've taken in the comments below.

Photo by Mgermani
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