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Saturday, September 1, 2007

No-Light Landscapes

Sunset isn't the time to put away your camera

Besides the nature of the landscape you’re shooting, the type of weather will help to make these types of photographs possible. A clear blue, cloudless sky isn’t the ideal condition. It’s better if it’s clear, with a fair amount of clouds around, preferably over the western horizon.

In the ideal conditions, these clouds will act as reflectors, directing the red rays from the sun sitting below the horizon and redirecting onto the landscape in front of you. Red rays are the longest in the color spectrum and hence the last colors you generally see from a sunset.

Indeed, those dramatically bottom-lit clouds may be the first thing to draw your eye in this situation. Go ahead and shoot some of that, but don’t forget to look over your shoulder, too. However, most twilight landscapes will look best when you’re facing away from the sunset.

Tools And Techniques.
Don’t be tempted to try these landscapes with fast film or high ISOs and handholding. Your exposure times will definitely require the use of a tripod and a cable release, and since you’re looking to record as much detail as possible, a lot of grain or noise (the bugaboo of long exposures in digital imaging) is just what you don’t want. So use the lowest ISO you have available.

You’ll probably still run into some noise issues during these long, multi-second exposures. You can combat this by using the noise-reduction features of your camera or with noise-reduction software. Some shooters prefer one method to the other, and some try a little of both. The key is to experiment to see which results you prefer. For my shooting in digital, I use Nikon’s Noise Reduction setting in the camera and then may work on the final image a bit more with Noise Ninja, a noise-reduction program that I run as a plug-in filter in Photoshop.

Even though the viewfinder is really dark and hard to see, I still may add a Singh Ray Gold-N-Blue Polarizer to the front of my lens, especially if there isn’t much afterglow color due to a lack of, or too many, clouds. This filter seems to intensify the saturation of warm and cool tones, even in this nearly nonexistent light, adding yet another skill to its seemingly magical list of abilities. You may have to look into the sky portion of your shot to see how the filter is working, since the viewfinder will be pretty dim at this point.

Another way to intensify the color of the afterglow is to play around with your white balance (especially if you’re shooting JPEG). If you’re getting a warm afterglow, try accentuating it by going to a Shade or Flash white balance to further pump up the warmth. Likewise, if the light is predominantly cool blue, you can pump that up by going to a Tungsten white balance (film shooters can do the same with warming and cooling filters, or for the cool blues, go to a Tungsten emulsion).

Cool blue twilights look especially good around water and beach areas. An added benefit of the long exposures you need to work in this light is that it records moving water as an almost ethereal mist (the longer the exposure, the more pronounced is this effect).

Often, situations that start off with a warmish afterglow will go to blue before the light fades entirely. On my last trip to Big Sur, this is precisely what happened as I shot a stretch of the rocky coastline. The early twilight was a rich, warm afterglow from a spectacular sunset, but the same scene was cool and blue by the end of twilight.

So the next time you’re out shooting late-afternoon landscapes, don’t pack up and leave right at sunset—the show may not be over. Nature often provides a spectacular encore that you won’t want to miss!

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