Winter is a favourite season for outdoor photographers because in the higher latitudes of northern Europe and North America the sun stays low in the southern sky. The days may be shorter at this time of year, but the sun’s lower trajectory during the course of the day provides a softer, gentler light with longer shadows. Yet some of the best lighting conditions occur when the sun disappears below the horizon. From this moment, the brief yet strangely alluring period known as twilight begins.
The darkest stage of twilight is known as dusk. What many people don’t know is that dusk has three distinct stages, with varying degrees of darkness, each defined by the sun’s distance below the horizon. The first and lightest stage is known as Civil Dusk, when the centre of the sun has reached six degrees below the horizon and there is still enough ambient light to read outdoors and distinguish objects without artificial lights.
Nautical Dusk is when the sun has reached 12 degrees below the horizon, a point when objects cannot be distinguished without streetlights and other artificial illumination.
When the sun dips 18 degrees below the horizon it’s known as Astronomical Dusk: by this time the sun no longer illuminates the sky and therefore does not interfere with astronomical observations. Apart from the light of the stars and moon, the sky is completely dark.
During this brief period between sunset and Astronomical Dusk, the success of any photography will depend largely on prior planning and preparation.
Of course, knowing where and when the sun will set is a key part of this planning. While all geographers know the importance of a compass, outdoor photographers need to know the sun’s path during the course of the day at any time of year, as well as the direction of sunrise and sunset.
Such a tool is available – a sun compass, a pocket-sized accessory that features a small magnetic compass centred between a series of markings giving the direction of sunrise and sunset, month by month, during the year. Commonly used by cameramen in the TV, film and aviation industries, it is a popular accessory with many landscape photographers too. It locates the sunrise and sunset positions for mid-month throughout the year, for all locations between 45°N and 55°N.
Another important part of your planning is the weather forecast: listen for clear skies with just a thin veil of cloud, make a note of the sunset time and get into your chosen position before the sun sinks below the horizon. Even on a cold and clear winter’s night, where the orange glow of twilight makes an obvious spectacle on the western horizon, you will need to have your camera rigidly still on a tripod as shutter speeds are bound to be slow – and slow further as dusk draws in. There is another reason for the tripod: to keep the horizon level, should it feature in any part of your composition.
Photographers often refer to this period as ‘the golden hour’, an aptly descriptive title given the quality of natural light that warms up the sky and surrounding features in the landscape. Although the sun has entirely slipped from view in this period, the horizon eventually glows ember orange as the minutes pass, casting a warm golden light on features in the landscape. Modern city buildings with their highly reflective steel and glass surfaces glow dramatically in such light. Thin, broken cloud helps add to the array of hue and colour as the sun’s rays are refracted and scattered in the atmosphere.
As dusk draws in, other man-made light sources come into play: streetlights, floodlit landmarks, lights from shops and offices, the trail of car lights from traffic on a freeway. Photographing urban environments at dusk requires an awareness of the different ways this artificial light is recorded by your camera’s image sensor.
For instance, floodlights and street lamps have a different colour temperature to daylight, resulting in a different colour cast. This can be corrected by changing the white balance (WB) on your camera to the appropriate setting for the relevant lighting. However, by keeping the WB setting to daylight, a variety of colour casts from the different light sources will be recorded on your image, for example: orange for tungsten, green/blue for neon or fluorescent lights.
It’s worth experimenting with the different WB settings and checking your monitor to see how these different colours affect the resulting image. Such compositions are open to experimentation, particularly when using long exposure times to record even more light from the scene.
The practice of keeping the camera shutter open for several seconds or minutes, is a simple procedure that produces unique images, aesthetically pleasing and often of scientific value.
The fading light of dusk makes it an obvious occasion for using time exposures. Time exposures are open to experiment because you can vary how long you leave the shutter open. However, it is vital that there is no movement or vibration of the camera during the exposure. For this reason, the shutter needs to be fired remotely using a remote release or the camera’s self-timer. Most cameras offer shutter speeds of up to one or two minutes, but for anything longer you need to use the bulb (B) setting which will keep the shutter open as long as you like.
Mixing flash with long exposures is another technique that can produce some striking images at dusk. One of these is ‘painting with light’ which involves firing a flash at close range at an unlit subject – say an upturned rock, tree, statue, stone wall or barn –and covering its surface with bursts of light while the shutter of your camera stays open. Foreground subjects painted with flash in this way look even more striking against a background of a glowing western sky at dusk.
When painting with light, be careful not to let the flash illuminate any part of you in front of the camera. Wear dark clothing and don’t linger in one place for too long. In the absence of flash, a torch can be used with a daylight bulb fitted or the conventional tungsten bulb if you prefer the warmer colour cast.
METERING AND MOUNTAINS
Metering is one of the trickiest aspects of photography at dusk when there is a fair amount of lighting – natural or artificial – in the scene. However, for time exposures, your choice of metering mode – spot, centre-weighted, or matrix – is of little consequence to the overall result. Instead, the greatest variable factor is the shutter speed. It is a different consideration though during the earlier stages of twilight and dusk, when the sky is ablaze with the colours of the sun’s refracted rays.
In this instance, a meter reading should be taken off the sky and the exposure value locked so you can recompose then fire a sequence of images with different exposures bracketed around your metered value. By making so many different exposures, you have a choice of images with varying degrees of colour saturation. Ultimately, it is a matter of taste as to which images you prefer and choose to download.
Without foreground lighting, those parts of the image that break the horizon are likely to be rendered as silhouette against a sky still lit by the hidden sun. The inclusion of a recognisable shape such as a palm tree, lighthouse, wind turbine, even an iconic building with a recognisable outline, will add interest (and scale) to the scene. Alternatively, by including water in the foreground – a river, lake or wet pavement – the reflected colour of the sky’s changing palette at dusk will boost the overall impact of the image.
Further inland, mountain photography at dusk can be breathtaking. Snow-covered peaks take on a different guise in the minutes after sunset, reflecting a variety of light from vibrant pinks to liquid gold. Rising above the horizon, mountains make a dramatic subject and look even more imposing when viewed through a telephoto lens, thereby eliminating the foreground. As a result, the changing colours of dusk in the night sky are shared on the slope of the mountain, more so if there is snow – another compelling reason for trying dusk photography during winter.
Check the weather forecast and sunset time so you know what conditions to expect, where to go and when to set up.
Fix the camera to a tripod and ensure the surface you’re working on is as stable as possible.
Experiment with shutter speeds. Vary the amount of time you keep the shutter open and check the results on the camera monitor.
Press the shutter button with your finger. Light levels are very low at dusk and shutter speeds will be slow, so use a remote release or the camera’s self-timer.
Ignore the foreground. The sky at twilight and dusk may be spectacular but think carefully about what’s in front of you. Water or a wet surface is wonderful for reflecting any colour in the sky.
Procrastinate. Dusk is a brief time and the light is constantly changing, so keep firing the shutter and make any exposure and composition adjustments quickly.
Night & Low Light Photography Photo Workshop by Alan Hess, John Wiley & Sons, sb, £19.99
Digital Night & Low Light Photography by Tim Gartside, ILEX, softback, £16.99
Twilight: Photography in the Magic Hour by Martin Barnes, Merrell, hb, £35
Accessory option: Sun compass
This pocket-sized accessory features a magnetic compass centred between a series of markings giving the direction of sunrise and sunset month by month, during the year. The sun compass (£21.20) indicates positions based on a latitude of 50°N, but is useable for all areas between 45°N and 55°N. If you’re serious about dusk photography this is the accessory for you.
Accessory option: Professional tripod
The ideal tripod should be one that is solid enough to support your camera outdoors, especially when windy. Tripods made of carbon fibre or aircraft-grade aluminium are popular as they are both light and strong enough to support the heaviest camera and lens combinations. Manfrotto, Gitzo, Giottos (£150-£350) are the best.
Camera option: Full frame DSLR
Nikon’s latest pro-model DSLR, the D750 (£1,799.99, body only) is ideal for low-light shooting as it uses a new 51-point autofocus system operable down to light levels as low as –3EV. It has a new 24.3 megapixel CMOS sensor for cleaner results at higher ISO settings and is also the first Nikon to include a tilting monitor. Maximum shooting speed is 6.5fps and the ISO range of 100-12,800 is extendable to 50-51,200.
This story was published in the December 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine