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Tuesday, January 1, 2008

After Sunset

Nature photographers shooting digital can capture striking scenes after the sun has gone below the horizon

The Arches in Utah
Balanced Rock, Arches National Park, Utah. The image was taken nearly 30 minutes after the sun had set, with a 30-second exposure at ISO 100. Canon EOS 40D, Canon EF-S 10-22mm, Gitzo 6x carbon-fiber tripod, Really Right Stuff ballhead

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If you haven’t tried shooting after sunset with a digital camera, you might think this is absurd. This fall, I was doing a workshop in Moab, Utah, and after the light had gone from the fall-colored cottonwood in a low area of Arches National Park, some of the group wanted to keep going and head up to Balanced Rock, which wasn’t far away.

Although the distance was short and there wasn’t much traffic, we reached the rock just as the sun had gone down below the horizon. Here’s where it get interesting. An obviously very serious nature photographer was heading back to his car as we packed up in the parking lot. He had a decent tripod and a pack of gear. As we were getting our gear out of our cars, he commented loudly to his companion about how fast the light went off the rocks. "You could just watch that light go up Balanced Rock as the sun set. It was great, but now it's gone."

As we hit the trail, a short one to Balanced Rock, they were leaving the parking area. We could see Balanced Rock, and to be honest, the light was pretty dull. Within five to 10 minutes, though, the light began to change. An afterglow lit up the sky where the sun had set, and it gave a beautiful, warm, soft light that was wonderful on the rocks.

We started shooting. My companions were excited by what they were getting as they looked at the LCDs on their cameras. We continued photographing at least 30 minutes after sunset, when it was getting too dark for us to really see. Yet the cameras still were seeing some wonderful light.

Such photography was possible with film, but filled with problems that made it more work than it was worth. First, there was exposure—what was the right exposure? Often, you found that built-in meters gave poor readings.

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