Beyond Sunset: The Different Phases of Twilight

Beyond Sunset: The Different Phases of Twilight


Sunsets are one of the most common and widely photographed events in nature. They are stunning and inspiring to watch and never seem to last quite long enough before everything is over. I’ve been on quite a few photo walks with groups of photographers during sunset, and I always notice the same thing: Once the sun dips below the horizon, the majority of people pack up their gear and head home. They see a setting sun as the end of a wonderful night of shooting, but they are missing so much!

I see the same thing with portrait photographers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been out shooting a lifestyle or engagement session at a popular location during sunset and watched all the photographers scramble to get their shots in. Sure enough, as soon as the sun sets the place clears out, which is fine by me!

What most photographers don’t understand is that once the sun has disappeared, a new window of opportunity begins, there is still plenty of useable light left! Twilight is the period of time in between day and night, and is caused by refraction and the suns rays scattering from the atmosphere. What most people don’t know is that there are three different phases of twilight, each with very distinct and unique features that open up different worlds of opportunities for your images. My goal for this article is to shed some light (pun definitely intended) on what happens after the sun goes down, and to let photographers know that the setting sun is just the beginning!

Sunset and Sunrise

The period of time leading up to sunset or directly after sunset are the most popular times for photographers. The light is beautiful and perfect for portraits and landscapes. The sunlight is diffused and less harsh, and beautiful warm tones are cast across the horizon. Sunsets and sunrises are also popular photographic opportunities because the sun acts as another interesting element in a photograph because of it’s low relative position to the horizon, which can’t be done during the day time in most cases. I think there is also something very spiritual about these times of day, they have a way of making people stop and take everything in. It’s both calming and invigorating. But all across the world, at all the sunset watching parties and photo walks, as soon as the sun hits the horizon people begin to pack up and head home. Little do they know that twilight is upon them and the many photo ops of the evening have just begun.

Civil Twilight

© Jacob Lucas

Civil twilight is the brightest phase of twilight and occurs from the moment the sun dips below the horizon and lasts until the center of the sun is geometrically 6 degrees below the horizon (or from the time the sun is 6 degrees below the horizon until it hits the horizon in the morning). This period of time lasts about 30 minutes on average but can be longer or shorter depending on the time of year and your position on the globe. During civil twilight, you may also be able to see the brightest stars in the sky, as well as some planets like venus. The horizon is clearly visible and taking handheld pictures is relatively easy to do. Objects are clearly defined and no additional light is needed in most cases. The light cast during this phase can be anywhere from warm golden tones to cool pink tones.

During civil twilight, the colors of the sky are going to be changing quickly. The sunset colors are going to go away and an entire new set of colors are going to splay out across the sky. These colors are going to become cooler in temperature as time goes on and it’s important to be able to adapt to the quickly changing conditions. As the next phase of twilight approaches, the gradation from the sunset point to the other end of the sky is going to become very smooth and pleasant, and the dynamic range of light in your images is going to decrease drastically.

Nautical Twilight

Nautical twilight occurs right after civil twilight in the evening, and right before civil twilight in the morning. This phase occurs when the center of the sun is between 6 and 12 degrees below the horizon in the evening. This period also usually lasts around 30 minutes and the primary color cast across the atmosphere is usually a deep blue tone with still noticeable orange and yellow hues left over from the fading sun. The horizon is still visible during this time but hand held shots are going to be somewhat difficult by now. The light has started to dissipate quickly and silhouettes are going to be more prevelent in your shots. Details will be harder to make out during this time but there is still some remaining light on the horizon from the sun.

This is a great time to start looking for artificial light for your images. During nautical twilight, the artificial lights in buildings and structures will really begin to take over the scene, and there are endless opportunities for compelling images. Be sure to use a tripod during this time as hand held images will be extremely difficult. Pay attention to the way the remaining light and manmade light in your scene interacts with the subjects in your image. Use the directional light from the horizon to add hints of definition to objects and be ready to take multiple images as the light conditions will change rapidly.

Astronomical Twilight

The last phase of twilight is known as astronomical twilight, or “astro” for short. This period of twilight occurs when the center of the sun is between 12 and 18 degrees below the horizon and slowly degrades over a period of 30 minutes before night time officially begins. Getting hand held images during this time is pretty much impossible, and a tripod is strongly suggested. During this phase of twilight, there is still some useable light to make for very interesting pictures but night will be approaching quickly.

Cityscapes really comes to life during this time and the smallest light becomes a powerful tool of illumination. There is still a faint cast of dark blue across the horizon at first, and this slowly turns to black as night time begins. Away from the city, stars will be very visible and can be incorporated into some shots. Details will be somewhat difficult to make out without the help of some sort of artificial help. This phase of twilight is certainly the most difficult for creating images, but it can still be very rewarding.


I hope this article will inspire you to stick it out after the sun dips beneath the horizon. Whenever I schedule a client shoot 30 minutes before sunset, they often have a freak out moment because they are afraid 30 minutes won’t be near enough time for a photo shoot. I then explain to them what I’ve explained in this article; that sunset is just the beginning and there is still plenty of time afterwards for amazing light and amazing images. Getting shots during twilight completely depends on your commitment to getting the shot. Are you prepared to stick around when everyone else has left? Are you willing to go out and take pictures while everyone else is eating dinner or still in bed? Are you ready to carry that tripod with you even though it’s bulky and inconvenient? If the answer is yes, I guarantee you will walk away from your experience with dramatically different images than anyone else.

If you have an iPhone, I strongly recommend purchasing an app called SoLuna. It finds your location and tells you the exact time of day for sunrise and sunset, moonrise and moonset, as well as exact times for each phase of twilight. It’s great for planning when to go out and when to have your tripod and camera set up by.

Follow Me!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter if you aren’t already (@jamesdbrandon). I’m always available to answer questions there or in the comments below. I also do my best to share plenty of links to inspirational articles and other photographers work and what not. Good luck and happy shooting!

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James Brandon is a landscape photographer and educator residing in Dallas, Texas. Join 20,000+ photographers and get access to his free video tutorial library at his website. James also has an online store full of video courses, ebooks, presets and more. Use the coupon code "DPS25" for an exclusive discount!

Some Older Comments

  • Michael Minick February 13, 2013 02:56 am

    I don't understand your definition of Civil Twilight...especiaqlly the part in brackets. That seems to contradict the first part. The part in brackets seems to imply that Civil Twilight lasts all night long. Please clarify.

  • Sandeep Chopra July 29, 2012 12:52 am

    Nice blog post about Beyond Sunset: The Different Phases of Twilight. I appreciate you taking the time to write about this wonderful and insightful topic. Have a nice day and when you have time, check out my post about IMEI Check!

  • Pat November 7, 2011 02:43 pm

    Fabulous article! I am stumped, though, about which white balance to use during these different phases of twilight.

  • Punchful August 3, 2011 12:01 am

    I got a good picture of the moon in what would be... Nautical twilight?

  • Albert June 10, 2011 05:05 pm

    Very informative! I never knew there is any difference within such short time span after the sunset. Thanks!

  • James O. May 20, 2011 12:01 am


    Most excellent article. Very, very informative. The only real blank in my mind is where and how dusk fits into the scheme of things vs twilight. Thank you for writing this - I got a great deal out of it indeed!


  • James Brandon February 21, 2011 12:37 pm

    There not going to be ONE white balance that works with all phases of twilight. The light of each phase will be constantly changing, and each night be have different colors in the sky depending on air quality and cloud cover. You can either start with auto and see if that works, go through each obvious setting to see which one looks right, or you can go a more advanced method and create a custom white balance. To do this, you'll need something white to take a picture of, like a blank sheet of paper. To learn how to do this, simply check your cameras manual, I can't be sure how to set white balances on every camera on the market, and I shoot Canon.

    If you don't get an answer right away, you may have to go out and find the answer yourself through research. Google is a great way to find the answer to stuff like this. Thanks.

  • Pat February 21, 2011 12:18 pm

    So ~ am I to assume that comments are accepted, but answers to questions not given? This was the comment - and question - I posted on February 10: "Thank you, James, for this valuable information about twilight. I have been experimenting but struggle with the correct white balance to use at all phases of twilight. I shoot with a Nikon D700." Maybe it's because I didn't pose it in the form of a question. So, here goes: Can you tell me what white balance to use at the different phases of twilight? Thank you.

  • Tanweer February 20, 2011 03:52 am

    Very nice,
    Outstanding article. I have tried that but not the way you explained.
    Thanks James. Thanks for this new vision.

  • Pat February 11, 2011 01:18 am

    I recently added a comment, but it continues to state - "Your comment is awaiting moderation." What does that mean? Thanks...

  • Pat February 10, 2011 01:44 pm

    Thank you, James, for this valuable information about twilight. I have been experimenting, but struggle with the correct white balance to use at all the phases of twilight. I shoot with a Nikon D700. Thank you.

  • Kelly February 1, 2011 06:45 am

    Thank you for also mentioning that this includes sunRISE. I get some of the best pictures just before the sun has actually risen:

  • Pat Kunder January 25, 2011 03:50 am

    Great article, very clear on is a website which will give you the time of each of the phases for your location. I generally print a monthly calendar so I always have it handy.

  • Michael Minick January 21, 2011 01:09 am

    Hi James,
    Greqt aarticle...I hope that it educates photographers as to things that I had to lerarn the hard way ( which I enjoyed doing).
    My tip or addition when shooting sunsets is: Don't just focus on the sunset....turn around 180 degrees and look at the sky, yuo'll be stunned at the soft colours and tones that are on display in the eastern sky!
    Sunset is a 2 part thing....west & east:)
    Mike Minick (AKA Eddy Vortex)

  • Indianapolis Photographer Stuart Meyer January 20, 2011 03:32 pm

    I hadn't known there were different types of twilight, and I'll definitely pay attention to the type of photography I'm going to aim for at each one. Where I live in Indiana, we see all three types, sometimes dramatically. Thanks for the article.

  • Jerry January 18, 2011 12:28 am

    Great insight in sunset photography. I use these 2 free apps for my iPhone. Mr. Sun and Sunrise & Sunset

  • Paul McKillop January 16, 2011 09:20 am

    There is a really good application which helps with shoot planning. I needs an Internet connection when running as it gets data from Google Maps. Fine it here

    The tripod issue is one I'd like to resolve. I have a good sturdy one but it's a lump on a long walk. Any recommendations that won't break the bank?

  • Martin Soler HDR Photography January 15, 2011 12:24 pm

    Great article, I shoot most cityscapes during the "astro" which I had no clue about before. One thing I noticed about the atro twilight is that is casts a deep blue sky even on cloudy days. Like in this photo which I shot on a rainy evening, but still came out nice and colorful.

  • amir January 14, 2011 01:38 pm

    Great - This is new idea. Next time I will try this. After sunset there would be nice period of time. I agree with the idea

  • AKSHAY January 14, 2011 12:07 pm
    Check this and Would like to receive commnets on this....all shots are taken by simple point and sht cam.

  • AKSHAY January 14, 2011 12:03 pm

    Intresting .. but Can i do this with 18-55mm CANON D500 ?

  • Samraz January 14, 2011 08:06 am

    Good article as far as inspiration to staying after sunset and capturing twilight tones are concerned. However, as you talk about "clients" and "portraits" I was expecting tips and example-photos in that regard. Taking sharp wow portrait after sunset must require some great skills. Please write more in this direction. Plus required post techniques to improve those photos. Thank you.

  • Sue Wotton January 14, 2011 06:33 am

    Excellent article, James. The times before sunrise and after sunset are my favourites, and yes, you're right, many photographers pack up, often as I am arriving... o well.

    An iPhone app which I like is The Photographer's Ephemeris: and its quite expensive but its a marvellous app and is universal (iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad). The price seems to have gone up since I bought it. There's also a free desktop application, available from the website:

  • Barb January 14, 2011 01:54 am

    Thanks for all the precious information you shared on the this website. It's very generous of you to share your knowledge. As I am a total noob to photography, it would be good to include camera setting for each sample photos so that I can learn from each different situation.

  • Blackpool hotel January 14, 2011 01:23 am

    Thanks for the article. I live on west coast of UK and we get some spectacular sunsets - I won't be so quick to pack away now and will play with longer exposures after the "dip". I'll check the app out too, thanks.

  • Laurel January 14, 2011 12:45 am

    I used to visit Maui a lot. Known for its fabulous sunsets, there were always loads of people on the west facing beaches taking pictures and as soon as the sun vanished, they'd leave. But I noticed that the "professional" looking photographers always stayed behind. I soon found out why. For a good half hour after the sun had gone below the horizon, the sky would take on the most magnificent colors, often seemingly glowing. I never did understand why people didn't stick around for what I considered to be the best picture opportunity of all!

  • Leo Mangubat January 13, 2011 06:16 pm


    Here are some of my twilight photos. Just click on the link to see the pictures. I hope you enjoy them.

  • Bev January 13, 2011 04:52 pm

    I remember my firsst sunset at the north rim of the grand canyon. There must have been hundreds of photographers scattered around the rim. The moment the sun disappeared, so did most of the photograpers. I was shocked! I remeber saying to my partner of the few that remained,"these are the real photographers!"

  • Pam Bycraft January 13, 2011 04:17 pm

    Very interesting article. Thank you for the terminology, now I know what to call some of my very favorite shots. Instead of just "after the sunset", I can now add Civil Twilight

  • kathy January 13, 2011 01:30 pm

    Windows 7 phones have an app called Sun and Moon which gives times for your location. Cost is $.99. There are several to choose from, try before you buy, as some do have more details.
    I've taken shots at some of these times, but haven't really utilized the twilight and my camera. I live by an east facing beach which has some historical buildings in the surrounding area. I'll definitely play with this more!
    Thanks for the article! As a new photographer (began August of 2010), I've learned so much here!

  • smashleyOno January 13, 2011 02:34 am

    James (and anyone else for that matter),

    Would you please post some examples of some of your twilight portraits? This really grabs my interest.

  • Leo Mangubat January 12, 2011 06:51 pm

    You are right James, in fact my favorites are sunset/sunrises most specially night photography. I don't care what time I go home as long as I got the shots I like. I don't mind carrying my tripod though it's quite heavy and bulky as long as I got my shots sharp. You are right when you said sunset is just the beginning. In fact, there was a time I spent my time out from sunset to sunrise..... and guess what? I took a lot of very nice pictures.
    My only problem with long exposures are HOT PIXELS which really destroys the beauty of my shots. I have a 4 years old OLYMPUS E400 which is already showing a lot of hot pixels during long exposures. Do you have any suggestions regarding this matter?

  • Faried January 12, 2011 05:02 pm

    I love this post. I simply love dusk. Need to get more creative and this post got my juices pumping.
    My best sunset picture yet. Not quite at sunset, but close enough.

  • ksporry January 12, 2011 01:51 pm

    interesting read. however, i do wonder why the sunrise/sunset topic only covers twilight, but not sunrise. sunrise actually provides very different light from twilight. may be worth discussing as part of this article...

  • Hilton Meyer January 12, 2011 01:28 pm

    I liked the article but surely there are some factors to take into account when taking pictures at these times. Is there a chance of a follow up with some tips on what apertures or exposures we should be playing with. I see someone mentioned fill-in flash, is this always necessary.

  • James Brandon January 11, 2011 11:56 pm

    Thanks again for the comments everyone! Glad there are some comprable apps for the Android

  • Digital Photography Fan January 11, 2011 06:50 pm

    Wonderful article...Thanks for all of the valuable information!

  • Koshy January 11, 2011 03:01 pm

    Thank you for a very scientific and detailed article on After-Sunset-Photography. I have always been fascinated by the first half hour after sunset and have taken some really satisfying images. Now I know what that time is called. Also I'm inspired to try some shots even after that 'magic hour'

  • Carlos Santiso January 11, 2011 02:48 pm


    There is also an application, called SUNDROID, for any Android phone. It costs $ 2.01 (weird price, isn't it?)
    You can enter any location or use the phone GPS for your current one.
    More at:


  • Mei Teng January 11, 2011 01:48 pm

    Nautical twilight is also known as the blue hour?

  • Lori January 11, 2011 03:30 am

    Incredible article, as always! Thanks for sharing such great information, ideas and inspiration!

  • Axel Eble January 10, 2011 09:45 pm

    The matching App for Android is Living in the Sun - Free

  • Brett January 10, 2011 09:02 pm

    As always, thanks for sharing your wealth of information.

    My latest HDR was shot after sunset.

  • Doug Sundseth January 10, 2011 07:47 pm

    Civil twilight is one of my favorite times to take portrait shots using fill flash:

    And a shot from near the boundary of civil and nautical twilight:

  • Jacob Lucas January 10, 2011 07:00 pm

    Great post James - super informative!

  • Dale L. January 10, 2011 06:14 pm

    Thanks for the great information. Had a great chance at getting some shots last fall while in downtown St. Paul, MN just after sunset.

  • James Brandon January 10, 2011 05:32 pm

    Thanks for the comments everyone! Loving the links and images, keep them coming.

  • DH January 10, 2011 05:17 pm

    Wow, very cool article. Thanks.

    One I completely nailed nautical sunset, with a point and shoot.

  • Barbara Hall January 10, 2011 04:56 pm

    Thanks so much for an informative and clearly written article. I will definitely download the iPhone App -- what a great tip!

  • Chris Kenison January 10, 2011 04:28 pm

    Great Article, James! Thanks for posting it!

  • ScottC January 10, 2011 04:24 pm

    Great explanations of the different phases of twilight. I'd also recommend downloading "The Photographer's Ephemeris", it's free and very handy for identifying twilight times and Sunrise/set direction.

    Taken at about the beginning of astronomical twilight one morning in Luxembourg:

  • Steven Natanson January 10, 2011 03:57 pm

    An app called "Living in the Sun" for the Droid has all the info you need for the twilight, moon phases, sunrise and set times.

  • Tim January 10, 2011 03:32 pm

    You don’t need an app for that. Just go to (or use their app) and enter any search query you like. In this case e.g. "new york city sunset tomorrow" (or new york city sunrise today"). Not everything needs to be an executable binary on your computer/phone.

  • Maik-T. Šebenik January 10, 2011 02:49 pm

    Really interesting article. I recently also read about this topic and it's really useful to plan you shootings along with the exact times. There are plenty of websites which offer Google Maps integration and show when and where the sun sets + the times of the different kinds of twilights.

    Nevertheless I love taking photos of sunset/sunrise! 8-)

    Here are 2 examples:
    Sunrise on Haleakala volcano (Maui, Hawaii):
    We got up very early just to see the sun rise above the clouds. Too bad there were higher layers of clouds. However, this is IMHO the best shot I took there.

    The other one is sunset on the west coast of Maui (Hawaii):
    I think I don't need to say anything about this photo. I just waited for the perfect moment, when the waves would splash on the shore.

  • Jen at Cabin Fever January 10, 2011 02:47 pm

    I absolutely love photographing sunset/sunrise, but not just the actual sun. You're absolutely right. There is so much more beyond the sun and once its set is often when even better photographic opportunities arise. Patience is rewarded.

    Cabin Fever in Vermont

    One Word. One Photo. Everyday.

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer January 10, 2011 02:42 pm

    I really liked this article James.....I cannot recall seeing anything similar that talks about different kinds of twilight in a single post. I also appreciate the specific details given in the post.

    Here is an example of a recent nautical twilight shot (winter solstice moon) taken in Florida:

    As you wrote in your conclusion asking if one is willing to go out and shoot while others are still eating dinner, I wrote about the above photo that it was a time I am normally otherwise engaged in taking my dog out or cooking dinner. When I saw the moon I knew, as a photographer, that it was not acceptable to pass up such a photo chance.

    As you also wrote, if one makes such an effort, the rewards often come in a shot that can be long appreciated after the initial inconvenience.

  • Aleksey January 10, 2011 02:27 pm

    Thank you for this very informative article, James!
    This was the first one that I've read, actually explaining each phase of a twilight.
    Great job!

  • Kiff Backhouse January 10, 2011 02:13 pm

    Thanks for a very interesting article and yes, it will motive me to stay out a bit longer. I tend to last until about Nautical Twilight but will do better next time!