Have you ever come across beautiful cityscape photos captured at twilight and dusk (the so-called “blue hour”) with silky smooth water, like this Marina Bay (Singapore) photo below, and wonder how you could do that yourself? Assuming that you’ve already got your camera (a body and lens), let me go through some of the other gear that is required to do stunning long exposure photography at twilight and dusk.
Use a Tripod
A tripod is the single-most important piece of gear for photographers shooting at twilight and dusk. Photos shot at these hours require long exposures sometimes lasting for many seconds or even minutes. Therefore, a sturdy tripod is absolutely essential for keeping photos blur-free.
Unlike your camera body, a tripod isn’t something you will upgrade often. So, try to get the best possible tripod within your budget. A good tripod could last a lifetime! I own a Manfrotto MT190CXPRO3 Carbon Fibre Tripod (supports up to 7kg). If your tripod doesn’t come with a tripod head (like mine), get yourself a steady ball-head or 3-way style, whichever you prefer (I own Sirui K-20X Ballhead that supports 25kg).
Mini tripods come in handy at locations where a full-size tripod isn’t allowed inside (e.g. The observation deck of a tower). I own a Joby Gorillapod Focus for DSLRs which supports up to 5kg. It has a dedicated ball head (Joby GorillaPod Ballhead X for Focus) that you can buy as a bundle, but I’m using my own ball-head (aforementioned Sirui K-20X Ballhead) as I feel it’s redundant to have two.
A clamp tripod is another tool that comes in extremely handy when there is no appropriate space to set up a tripod. I own the Manfrotto 035 Super Clamp without Stud (supports up to 15kg). Into that, I plug the separately-sold Manfrotto 208HEX 3/8-Inch Camera Mounting Platform Adapter (or a cheaper alternative Manfrotto 037 Reversible Short Stud) into the socket in order to firmly mount a tripod head and camera on top of that. Then I clamp the whole setup onto handrails, etc. This setup is rock solid and is a game changer for us cityscape photographers aiming to take very sharp photos at twilight and dusk without using a full-sized tripod.
- Plug a camera mounting platform adapter into a Super Clamp socket and secure it with the double lock system.
- Mount a tripod head with DSLR on the mounting platform adapter, just like you do with your regular tripod.
Neutral Density Filters
Neutral density (ND) filters help reduce the light that is coming through the lens, allowing your shutter speed to be extended much longer. This is a must have tool if you want to create the silky smooth water effect typically seen in long exposure photography.
ND filters come in different strengths such as; 3-stop, 6-stop or 10-stop. The bigger the number, the darker the filter and the less light that is let through. My favorite is 6-stop ND filter (I own a B+W 6-Stop ND Filter). With this attached to my lens, a base exposure of 2 seconds (i.e. when no filter is attached) can be extended to 128 seconds. Each “stop” of the ND filter doubles the required exposure time (2 seconds > 4 seconds [1 stop] > 8 seconds [2 stops] > 16 seconds [3 stops] > 32 seconds [4 stops] > 64 seconds [5 stops] > 128 seconds [6 stops]), which is long enough to create silky smooth water effects.
Filters come in two types, screw-on and square filters. If you’re getting screw-on filters, be careful with the size of filter you’re purchasing. It depends on the filter thread size of your lens (e.g. 77mm for Nikon 12-24mm, 67mm for Canon 10-18mm, etc. – look inside your lens cap for the filter size of that lens). If you have two or more lenses with different filter thread sizes that you’d like to use an ND filter on, get one that fits your largest lens (i.e. lens with the largest filter thread size). Then purchase a step-up adapter ring to make the single filter fit into other lenses with smaller thread sizes.
Or, you can get a square ND drop-in filter instead, along with a holder and adapters (check out at these options we’ve reviewed and featured here on dPS). The advantage of square filters is that you only need one filter to fit all of your lenses. That said, I still prefer screw-on filters because they take up less space in my camera bag and I only own one lens that takes front filters (my trusty Nikon 18-35mm with 77mm filter thread), anyway.
Wireless Remote or Cable Shutter Release
This is another essential tool, as it lets you take photos without touching the camera and helps keep your photos sharp. No need to get a pricey one, though. I’m still using a Phottix IR-Nikon (wireless remote) that I bought years ago for $20 (it is available for Canon as well).
Long Exposure Calculator App
When you use a semi-manual mode (e.g. Aperture Priority), the shutter speed cannot exceed 30 seconds on most DSLRs. With a 6-stop ND filter used at twilight and dusk, much longer than a 30-second exposure is required. So this is where you’ll need to switch to Manual Mode and take the full control of the camera yourself.
But, how will you know the correct exposure time (shutter speed) to use when your camera no longer assists you? Well, there are a number of free phone apps that help you determine a correct shutter speed. I’m using Long Exposure Calculator app by Junel Corales (get it here for iOS devices or here for Android).
A lenskirt is a handy tool when shooting through the glass window of an observation deck, hotel room window, etc., as it helps eliminate reflections (such as yourself, room lights) off of the glass window. It might catch the unwanted attention of other visitors due to its odd shape but it has worked quite well for me and has found a permanent place in my camera bag when I’m traveling.
That’s all about it. I hope this will get you started with long exposure photography at twilight and dusk. For me, dusk is the most beautiful moment of the day. It ends in the blink of an eye, and that’s what makes it even more special. Try to capture the beauty of long exposure photography at twilight and dusk with this gear.
If you have any other pieces of gear you use for long exposures that you find indispensable, please share them in the comments below.