The Magic of Twilight Photography

Heavenly shades of night are falling
It’s twilight time
Out of the mist your voice is calling
It’s twilight time
When purple colored curtains
Mark the end of the day
I hear you my dear at twilight time

— The Platters

One of my best photography tips is a simple one: Don’t leave after the sun sets.

There are two cool sky events that happen after sunset. The first is the “afterglow” which is that burst of color that frequently (not always) spills up into the clouds after the sun has sunk below the horizon. The other is simply twilight, and you can count on that every night.

Blues and Purples

Twilight, to me, is an incredibly pretty time — the sky fills with blues and purples and any artificial lights have a nice, warm glow. Also, because the light tends to be very even at twilight, contrast is low and you have a lot of latitude with exposure.

I always shoot in RAW these days, so I can also moderate the amount of blue/purple light in the twilight and adjust the exposure before I even open the image in Photoshop. As far as metering, I tend to just meter the sky using the matrix or center-weighted meter and let the foreground shapes go into silhouette.

The shot below was taken in East Haven, Connecticut, at Lighthouse Park — a great setting for sunset and twilight shots. I shot the photo with a Nikon D90 and an 18-70mm Nikkor zoom, on a Bogen 3021 tripod. Exposure was 1/50 second at f/5.6.

Skylines at Twilight Time

I’ve always loved shooting city skylines. There is something magical about all those thousands of lights glittering silently in the night. The bigger the city is, of course, the more impressive the skyline — and when it comes to places like New York or Chicago, the view is downright breathtaking at night.

The trick to getting a great photo of a city skyline at “night,” though, is not to shoot it at night, but rather at twilight. Depending on which direction the skyline faces, you can often get a beautiful mix of sunset colors, twilight sky and city lights all mixed together.

Probably the very best time to shoot is just after the sunset and during a very brief, magic window of opportunity when the twilight sky glows an almost turquoise blue and the city lights are beginning to come alive.

I recently had the chance to shoot the Manhattan skyline from the New Jersey shore along the edge of the Hudson River. There is a beautiful boardwalk that runs along the entire waterfront in Jersey City that makes a perfect shooting location; it’s a devastatingly beautiful vantage point. I shot this picture from a continuation of that walking path that runs through Liberty State Park — one of the state’s most beautiful parks.

The photo above was made a few minutes past the peak of the sunset. In retrospect, I should have begun shooting about 10 minutes earlier, but even as the sun was setting there was a driving rain falling — it was a wild mixture of light and weather. In fact, just a few minutes before I shot this, the rain was pounding so hard that I almost abandoned the shoot.

Even on the best of weather days, this kind of beautiful twilight/sunset light only lasts about 15 to 25 minutes, so you really have to be in place with your tripod set up and your camera ready to shoot a half an hour before sunset.

Once the sun starts to set, the buildings (at least with west-facing buildings like these) take on some spectacular colors, and as the sky darkens the city lights get brighter and brighter. If you can capture the exact moment when all of the lighting conditions are peaking, you’ll get some fantastic shots.

A Stunning Mix

You’ll definitely need to use a tripod to get shots like this, because you’re going to need a relatively small aperture and a correspondingly long shutter speed. This shot was made at f/10 at 2.5 seconds.

At such long shutter speeds, I also suggest using either a remote control (wireless) or the self-timer, and possibly also locking up the mirror.

Even though this shot is pretty sharp, I’m not totally satisfied with the sharpness and I’m not sure if the softness came from the lens I was using or lack of depth of field. I’m going to go back and re-shoot this with a different lens (probably a prime lens), and I’ll probably begin shooting a bit earlier and also use a smaller aperture to get even more depth.

You can, of course, continue to shoot after the blue has faded from the sky, but skylines just aren’t as pretty with a black sky as they are with that nice blue glow.

Also, if you shoot much after dark you’ll be using much longer exposures, which causes the lights in the scene to blur together and create pockets of bright glare.

Twilight is the primo time, in my opinion. So just get to your location well before sunset, choose your shots and then be ready when the worlds of sunset, twilight and city lights begin to collide. It’s an absolutely stunning mix.

6 Responses to “The Magic of Twilight Photography”

  1. Beautiful .. I've yet to venture into the realms of twilight photography but I'm keen to do so.

    Great tips; thank you!

  2. sometimes twilight is called "blue hour" and it's really a great time for urban photography.

  3. Great stuff Jeff. I live next to a lake, one of the biggest in Europe, and see loads of people who are photographing sunsets over it pack their cameras away as soon as the sun has dropped below the horizon.

    Like you say, they're missing the best.

    You say 15-25 minutes. I've found that (so long as you've got a tripod, and depending on the time of year and latitude) you can carry on shooting for up to an hour after sunset and get some stunning shots - way better than the sunset itself.

  4. Great Post! Very good read. Although I am not a professional photographer & reached this blog post through twitter link of @twilightfairy still I enjoyed the every bit of it. Looking forward to being a professinal photographer. 🙂

  5. Do not overlook using HDR for cityscapes at twilight. It will make any of those shots better whether you do a realistic look or a fantasy look it is up to you.

  6. Thanks for Great tips. Am still learning and what better technique to learn. I love the dramatic but soft feel to these shots. Definitely going to give this a go. Thanks

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