One of my favourite times for taking photos is at twilight. Especially during the spring and summer, the seasons when the light is at its most magical at this time of evening.
I’ve always liked the idea that great photography happens on the edges. Twilight, the transition between night and day, is an edge. While the low light levels can be technically challenging, the reward in terms of quality of light are well worth it. I think of it as the ‘magic hour’. You may also see it referred to as the blue hour, a reference to the colour of the ambient light as night falls.
What is twilight?
Twilight is the time that marks the transition between day and night. It starts after the sun has set and continues until night completely falls. The quality of light during twilight can be truly beautiful, especially after a bright sunny day. The duration depends on your distance from the equator. In the tropics night falls very fast and twilight is short. Go far enough north (or south) in the summer and it can last for over an hour.
Landscape photography during twilight
One of the more obvious subjects that benefits from the quality of light at twilight is the landscape. Now, I’m sure most photographers are aware that one of the best times to photograph the landscape is during the golden hour – the hour or so before the sun sets. The sun is low in the sky and the warm, raking light it casts can bring the best out of a beautiful location.
Whenever I’m on location and see other photographers, I’m always a little surprised how early most of them leave. For the few that wait until the sun has set the reward is often an intensely beautiful, soft golden glow that gradually fades as night falls. This type of light is especially beautiful if you are by the sea or a lake as the water reflects the light. The opening photo is a good example of that.
There are two approaches to taking landscape photos in low light. One is to use a high ISO setting and shoot with the camera hand-held. I took the photo above at 1600 ISO shortly after sunset.
To take full advantage of the beautiful light during twilight though you will need to use low ISOs (better image quality) and consequently slow shutter speeds. You’ll need a tripod to support the camera and a cable release or remote control to fire the camera without touching it (the self-timer will do in a pinch). The advantage of this approach is that you can use the slow shutter speeds to create blur. This works particularly well when there is water in the scene, as in the photo above.
I also like twilight for portrait photography. It’s not without challenges, but if you can overcome those you’ll be rewarded with some beautiful portraits taken in unusual conditions where many photographers wouldn’t bother taking photos.
The best way to take advantage of the twilight for portraits is to arrive with your model before sunset to take advantage of the late afternoon light. Explain to your model that the light is best at this time of day, and they will be rewarded with some beautiful images. Then, just as in landscape photography, you can keep shooting after the sun has set until the light fades or the magic disappears. Unlike landscape photography though it’s not practical to use a tripod, so you will need to set a high ISO and use the wide aperture settings of your lenses.
When it comes to lenses, primes are best because the wide maximum apertures let you shoot for longer. For example, if you have a kit lens, the maximum aperture at the telephoto end (focal length usually around 55mm) is f5.6. If you have a 50mm prime lens, the maximum aperture will be at least f1.8. That’s a three stop difference.
You will also need to set a high ISO. It’s a good idea to test out your camera beforehand using different high ISO settings to see how high you’re willing to go before the deterioration in image quality is more than you’re happy with. On my EOS 5D Mark II, for example, I’m quite happy to shoot at 3200 and sometimes even 6400, especially if I can expose to the right to maximise image quality. If you have a newer camera, especially full-frame, you might even be able to go higher. If your camera is older your limit will probably be lower. It’s a personal decision that only you can make.
The photo above was taken using ISO 6400 and an aperture of f1.4. It was nearly dark, much darker than it looks in the image. The lights behind the model are a good indication of this.
Another approach is to use a tripod to support the camera and a portable flash to illuminate your model. If your model keeps still during the long exposure, there will be very little blur. This portrait was taken with a shutter speed of two seconds. This technique allows you to keep shooting during twilight when there is very little light.
My latest ebook, Mastering Photography: A Beginner’s Guide to Using Digital Cameras introduces you to digital photography and helps you make the most out of your digital cameras. It covers concepts such as lighting and composition as well as the camera settings you need to master to take photos like the ones in this article.