Once, on a trip to Bryce Canyon National Park, I was sharing the Sunrise Point Overlook with half a dozen other shooters, all of us lined up with our expensive SLR cameras and carbon-fiber tripods, shooting away as the sun set (yes, it’s called Sunrise Point, but it's equally spectacular at sunset). As Old Sol hovered over the western horizon behind us, most of the hoodoos in the valley before us fell into shadow while the distant buttes were catching the last rays.
When the sun set and those buttes fell into shadow, all of my neighbors folded their tripods and cleared out. Obviously for them, once the sun set, the show was over. For me, the show was just entering its second and sometimes most spectacular act, and I spent the next 20 minutes shooting the hoodoos in the otherworldly glow that occurs sometimes at twilight until the light truly was gone.
Many photographers can appreciate the magic of shooting twilight when they’re in more urban situations. The interplay of the artificial lights from monuments, skylines, lighted signs and illuminated building windows, combined with the dusky, blue natural light of twilight, results in a beautiful mix—a symphony of warm and cool tones that’s almost irresistible to a viewer.
That’s why so many photographers refer to twilight, that 30 minutes or so before sunrise and after sunset, as the magic hour. But there are times and places when a natural landscape, without any artificial illumination, looks just as rich and moody in the afterglow of sunset.
It takes a little practice to recognize the conditions where twilight will work for landscapes. Since the light is very low in volume and contrast, the ideal landscape will have lots of open detail and bold shapes. A forested hillside in a cloud forest, for instance, is likely to just suck up whatever light is around and not yield a very interesting photo.
On the other hand, the red-rock country that’s found throughout the American Southwest, with its rich colors, buttes, hoodoos and mesas, is probably the ideal landscape for shooting at twilight. Coastal areas and beaches are also good places to try this type of work.
If you’re shooting film, you'll want a very saturated and contrasty film like the newly reintroduced Fujichrome Velvia 50 or Kodak Ektachrome VS to make up for the very low contrast light. In my film shooting days, I always had to convince myself to keep shooting in this light because without the presence of artificial lights to brighten the scene, it looks pretty drab through the viewfinder.
Indeed, there’s a period right after the sun sets, but before any afterglow begins, when the light truly is dull. It’s worth waiting it out, however, and shooting when the twilight richens. I’m always amazed at how much better these twilight landscapes look on film or digital than they do to the naked eye, and you have to keep the faith and not pack it in too early.
Of course, digital is perfect for helping you keep the twilight faith because not only does it seem to be able to reach into dark, low-contrast areas and pull out color and detail, but you can see that it’s working immediately (or after a few seconds, depending on your exposure times). How digital chips are able to pull out light and detail where there seem to be none is the subject of another column (preferably written by someone more scientifically inclined than me!), but it may be because we’re recording on a charged device and not an inert piece of celluloid. Shooting digitally at twilight does come with one drawback, which I’ll discuss a little later, but by and large, digital and twilight landscapes seem made for one another.