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.
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!