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.

Then there was reciprocity failure; this was a built-in limitation of film. As exposure increased beyond one second, the film would start losing sensitivity. One second at ƒ/8 should give the same results as eight seconds at ƒ/22 (reciprocity of exposure), but it didn’t (the failure of reciprocity). You often needed exposures that doubled, tripled or even more to get a proper exposure.

And there were the color issues. As exposure with film increased, different color layers responded with varied reciprocity failure of their own, meaning that colors often shifted. While some films did better than others, these challenges often meant that even photographers who knew about this late light were disappointed and frustrated with the results.

You could just watch that light go up Balanced Rock as the sun set. It was great, but now it’s gone.

Digital has changed all of this—except the attitudes that photography is done when the sun sets! Digital has minimal reciprocity failure, but you can compensate quickly for any exposure discrepancies because you can review the shot with the LCD and histogram. The LCD alone helps you see results quickly even though your eyes may not be able to clearly see what the light is doing. And digital cameras just seem to be able to dig detail out of low-light conditions in amazing ways. Older digital SLRs had problems with long exposures, but with new cameras, that isn’t an issue for the photography described here.

Winter is a great time to explore light after sunset with a digital camera as the days are short anyway, so this lets you lengthen them for photography. The sun is also at a lower angle to the Northern Hemisphere, and that often means better light after the sun has set. In addition, snow can be beautiful in these conditions.

One important note about winter shooting: You must have extra batteries. As your camera gets cold, the batteries will get cold and won’t power your camera properly. Sometimes photographers think this means the camera isn’t capable of cold-weather photography—not true—it’s the cold batteries. So keep a warm battery in your pocket and use it to replace the cold one when your camera quits working. Then put the cold battery in your pocket to warm up.

Here are some additional tips about this near-dark sort of photography:

1 Exposures will get long. Exposures of four to 10 seconds are common as you start shooting in these conditions and go up from there, so you need a sturdy tripod. Most digital cameras allow you to set an exposure of at least 15 to 30 seconds. Just don’t handle your camera during the exposure.

2 Metering and white balance. Use your LCD and histogram to judge a proper exposure. The light often is low in contrast, so don’t expect a histogram that fully spans the space from left to right. Just keep the main part of the histogram off the left side. A handheld meter often is more accurate in these conditions. Set a white balance for better color control, even if shooting RAW. I often use Cloudy.

3 As exposure increases, so does noise in a digital camera. Anything over a second has the potential of increasing noise, but this depends a lot on the camera, its sensor and the noise-reduction circuits in the camera. Do some tests and see what you get. Even cameras with more noise still give fascinating results because the look of the scene is so different, including the noise. Most cameras have long-exposure, noise-reduction capabilities, so turn that on (it’s usually in the shooting menu). When you do this, however, don’t be surprised to have the camera “work” long past the time the shutter closes as it reduces the noise in the photo (this time often matches the actual time of the exposure).

4 Keep the ISO setting to 100, if you can, or 400 at most, unless you want a special noise. Sometimes you need to adjust the ISO because of wind, especially if shutter speeds are still relatively fast (say, in the 1 to 4 sec. range).

5 The direction of light. In general, you’ll find the best results from shooting away from where the sun set. You’re using the glow of the sky to illuminate your subject. The exception to this is when photographing water. Then the water can reflect the glow in some cool ways. A 10-sec. exposure of moving water reflecting late-sky light can be amazing.

6 Just do it! If you want to capture great new images, try your digital camera after sunset. You may need to experiment to get it right, but you will, and you’ll discover new ways of seeing the light!