Shooting in the Twilight Zone

Shooting in the Twilight Zone

For most photographers, the best time to shoot is during the golden hours – those times right around sunrise or sunset when the sky is full of drama.

For me though, the best time to shoot is a little while after all that drama happens and all the other photographers have packed up and gone home – twilight – when the skies become calm and peaceful.

Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California

Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California

The length of twilight varies dramatically depending on the time of year and your position on earth. At the poles twilight can last as long as 2 weeks! But generally speaking, twilight usually starts shortly after the sun drops below the horizon and continues for another 40-60 minutes or so before the sky is completely dark.

During this time the sky still has plenty of rich colour but there is no longer any direct light. You might be surprised how much colour there really is in the sky during twilight since a camera’s sensor can pick up more light than we are able to see with our eyes.

The images in this post demonstrate how different the sky can look between the early stages of twilight to the end of twilight.

Driftwood Beach, Jekyll Island, Georgia

Driftwood Beach, Jekyll Island, Georgia

I prefer to shoot twilight after sunset, but of course it happens in reverse order in the morning too!

Assuming you are shooting after sunset, the first stage of twilight is when the subtle pinks begin to show in the sky. Slowly the blues will begin to appear. I love to shoot landscapes during this early stage when there is still a lot of ambient light so the land is not entirely dark.

Basin Head, Prince Edward Island, Canada

Basin Head, Prince Edward Island, Canada

During this early stage the sky is often much brighter than your subject which makes exposure difficult. It’s a great time to use high dynamic range (HDR) photography and blend multiple exposures to maintain detail in the landscape. Or, depending on the type of scene you are photographing, you can use graduated neutral density filters to even out the exposure.

Soon the sky will begin to get darker and the pinks and blues will deepen. The exposure will even out so that neither HDR nor graduated neutral density filters are needed.

Mule Ears, Bid Bend National Park, Texas

Mule Ears, Bid Bend National Park, Texas

During the later stages of twilight the pinks will fade and the blues will intensify to a dark cobalt shade. This is a great time to photograph cityscapes. The combination of natural light in the sky and artificial city lights is magical.

Seattle, Washington

Seattle, Washington

To make the most of the limited amount of time you have to shoot during twilight, scout out your location before hand. Twilight doesn’t last long so you need to be prepared. If you can’t make a separate scouting trip at least go an hour or two early so you have plenty of time to explore before deciding what to shoot.

Find a subject with a distinct shape and take some test shots to figure out the best composition and perspective. Keep your eye out for good foreground elements and any artificial light sources that might be present later.


  • Use a low ISO to reduce the amount of noise in the image.
  • Long shutter speeds will allow the camera to pick up lots of colour.
  • If there are city lights in your image use a small aperture, like f/22, to turn the lights into star bursts.
  • A tripod is an absolute requirement if you want a low ISO, long shutter speed, and small aperture.
  • You may need a polarizing filter and/or a graduated neutral density filter for the early stages of twilight.
  • Use a cable release and/or a 2 second timer so you do not introduce camera shake.
  • Use your mirror lock-up feature so the movement of the mirror does not introduce camera shake.
  • Your camera’s auto-focus may not work in low light conditions. If you set up ahead of time, you can use your auto-focus while there is still light in the sky and then turn auto-focus off to prevent your camera from attempting to refocus when it is is darker outside. Otherwise you will need to focus manually.
  • Use your histogram to ensure you are getting a good exposure.
  • Bring a flashlight so you can find your way home.
  • Wear or bring bug spray so the little bugs don’t ruin your good time.
  • Bring warm clothes! Don’t miss the perfect shot because you got cold and left too early.

Shooting at twilight can sometimes take a little preparation and planning but the rewards are definitely worth it.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Anne McKinnell is a photographer, writer and nomad. She lives in an RV and travels around North America photographing beautiful places and writing about travel, photography, and how changing your life is not as scary as it seems. You can read about her adventures on her blog and be sure to check out her free photography eBooks.

Some Older Comments

  • aaanouel January 29, 2013 01:37 pm

    A very good, useful and inspiring post, indeed!
    Thanks a lot for sharing.

  • Warren Gammel January 18, 2013 12:42 pm

    Totally agree, most people pack up and leave when there is still plenty of good light.

  • Anne McKinnell January 18, 2013 05:31 am

    Thanks everyone for all the great comments! Glad you enjoyed the post.

  • Mark Fussell January 18, 2013 04:57 am

    What a great photo of Seattle, I know exactly where you shot it and will return to try it myself! Thanks for the tips and reminding us of the twilight sweet spot.

  • Stephen Emlund January 17, 2013 03:46 am

    Great thoughts! I'm just getting into landscape photography this year and will definitely have to try waiting a bit longer after the sun goes down.

  • Ranjith January 17, 2013 01:28 am

    I always like the colors of the sky best at evening twilight...i totally agree with Scott..

  • Guigphotography January 15, 2013 10:23 pm

    The colours are beautiful and what a good point, about waiting a little longer (or starting a little earlier). And I've found that I prefer the attached shot to the earlier ones with a flaming sunset. Thanks for your post!

  • Darryl Lora January 15, 2013 04:14 pm

    Thank you Anne for the great post........a lot of food for thought! Darryl

  • scottc January 15, 2013 06:06 am

    I used to some shooting in the morning twilight, though I think the colors are better in the evening.

  • Mridula January 15, 2013 04:26 am

    I realized it recently how enchanting Twilight can be!

  • Shannon January 15, 2013 03:14 am

    Thank you for the great information. I honestly have not thought about twilight. I always have this must be there for sunset/sunrise mentality. You've given me something to try.

    I also really enjoyed the images that you included, especially the Seattle skyline.

  • Jai Catalano January 15, 2013 01:56 am

    It must be my blonde hair because I thought WOW someone is shooting in the "Twilight Zone". :)