Shooting at twilight

Last week we set a deliberately challenging Foto Mission because we know you are all capable of pushing your photography further, writes Andrew James.

Your Twilight challenge is to “…capture an image that is evocative of this very specific period of time (twilight) and in the Foto-Buzz world it’s regarded as the time from the moment the sun has set until approximately 40 minutes afterwards (or until the sky has turned black).

You may choose any subject but it must be taken during this specific period between the end of the day and the onset of night and we must have a mood of twilight within your image. That means, landscapes, wildlife, portraits and all manner of subjects can be tackled as long as your image is shot within the so-called ‘blue hour’ period. Your entry can be colour, black & white or toned. You can also use additional lighting but make sure it complements the mood of your photo rather than overpowering it.”

It’s quite a specific brief but with a broad range of subjects open to you. It’s impossible for the judges to know for sure whether your shot is within the ’40 minute window’ so there is an element of flexibility here. In other words, if your entry looks and feels like twilight that’s good enough and there will be no poking around in the EXIF information!

Over the years I’ve lost count of the times when I’ve seen photographers packing up and heading off as soon as the sun has gone down. Yet I think this is often the period when things can get interesting, especially after a colourful sunset. It means staying out a bit later but that period from the moment the sun has dipped below the horizon to the point when all the light has gone and the sky has gone black can often yield some interesting results.

With dramatically falling light, it does present some photographic challenges. The main one is shutter speed so let’s deal with that first. You basically have three options in lowlight twilight conditions and these are use a slow shutter speed, push ISO really high to give yourself a faster shutter speed or introduce some extra light somehow – with flash being the most obvious. Let’s deal with each of these options.

Normanton Church
Any regular Rutland Water visitors will know Normanton Church as it’s something of an iconic landmark. I’ve photographed it under every condition possible. This is a simple twilight landscape shot with the image taken with a longer exposure and the camera on a tripod. The actual exposure is 1 second at f/8 and of course the camera was on a tripod and the shutter was fired with a cable release. The important thing here was there was still that faint blush of colour in the sky and I’ve allowed that twilight blueness to infuse the shot.

Swans at dusk
This next shot was taken 10 minutes after the landscape when the light had dropped even more. In fact, if you look at the landscape image you can see the two swans in the distance, just to the left of the building. The camera was still on a tripod but I pushed ISO right up to 6400 and was able to get an exposure of 1/50sec at f/2.8, just enough to freeze any movement on the birds. Again, I’ve allowed the blueness of the evening scene to be part of the narrative and mood of the photo. You’ll also wonder why the shot – taken at ISO 6400 isn’t noisier and it’s simply because I’ve used Topaz De-Noise to take a lot of it out using the technique I explained in the video here.

Flying flamingo
Clearly this shot wasn’t taken at Rutland Water but it illustrates the next point. At twilight, panning is an option for animals in motion. I shot this about half an hour after the sun had gone down but there was still light in the sky, so at ISO 800 and an exposure of 1/30sec and f/4 I could capture this rather abstract image which maybe a bit marmite but has an unusual feel to it. Sometimes I prefer the panned subject to be sharper than this but the softness works okay here and the blue evening sky acts as a great foil to the pink of the flamingo. I’ve also fought the urge to crop this tighter because I think the space around the subject is integral to its success.

Flashed action
The introduction of a secondary light source is always an option and this is a flashed, slow sync image. It’s taken at twilight because otherwise the sun would overpower the shot, plus you wouldn’t be able to get the slow shutter speed necessary. The shutter speed was 1/40sec at f/8 and, just as I did with the flamingo shot above, I’ve followed the action as Teddy (a much younger version than the one now) leapt off the swing with the evening sky above him.

All the images so far have the twilight blueness above them but yours doesn’t have to follow the blue is best rule. If you are able to choose a stunning evening when the sky lights up then post-sunset that light can still be around, especially if there are clouds for it to hit. Quite often the post-sunset colours are much more intense as you can see in the next shot…

Cement works
This cement works is something of an iconic landmark near where I live and on this occasion, as the sunset disappeared, the sky became an amazing combination of blue, yellow and red. Naturally this is a long exposure again and the lack of wind meant the smoke from the chimney stayed in frame. These sorts of conditions don’t happen every day but if you aren’t out looking for them then you’ll never know if they do.

Traffic Trails
This is the A1 very close to the view to the cement works and twilight is the perfect time to get traffic trails like this, as long as you have enough cars about on your road of choice. Note there is still colour in the sky here – it’s dropping to a deep blue which signals that it is almost become night. This image was taken by using the cameras Bulb mode. Essentially the shutter is opened and remains open until you choose to close it but in-between passing cars I held a black card over the front of the lens to prevent light from getting in. The shutter was probably open for several minutes but the time the sensor was exposed to the light from the cars was probably only 40 seconds or so. It gives the illusion of a busy road when, in truth, there were only a few passing.

City shooting
If you live in a built-up area then twilight is a great time to get different shots of your surroundings. As the artificial lights come on and while you still have some light in the sky, you can combine the two to great effect, as I’ve done here with this shot taken from a bridge in Spain. It’s always amazing how cities come to life and it’s the twilight period when they are at the best as the balance between natural post-sunset light and the artificial lights balance beautifully.

Norfolk beach
Silhouettes can be really effective post-sunset. I’ve got two quite different ones here to show you and this first this one was taken on a Norfolk beach five minutes after the sun had set. The wet beach was still reflecting the sky to add some foreground interest while the golf club building on the edge of the sea creates some strong shapes.

Walking the dog
In this shot – also in Norfolk and taken on one of our Foto-Buzz workshops there – I’m using the blue evening sky to silhouette a man walking his dog on a high bank. You need faster shutter speeds for the motion of course, but since you are taking your shutter speed reading from the brightest point in the frame that’s usually not difficult to achieve.

Twilight shooting tips 

To finish off here are a few quick tips to think about when you are venturing out in the twilight hour to get your FM entry…

  • AF might struggle as light levels drop so manual focus is a good option, especially for landscape images.
  • Shooting raw is essential. This way you can tweak the colours in post-processing or even play around with WB at the time to see the different affects you can achieve.
  • Don’t head out without a tripod and cable release. While handholding will be possible at higher ISOs, a tripod will give you lots of options. I know it’s sometimes a pain to set them up but it is worth it if you nail that shot!
  • When you are working at the extreme of exposure then full Manual Mode can often be the best option. If you’re not comfortable with Manual then Aperture-priority Mode is the one to use, not Shutter-priority.This might sound counter-intuitive since it’s shutter speed that is the most important thing to consider but set aperture and then see what shutter speed you are getting and adjust aperture, ISO or introduce light as required!
  • Be creative. Trying panning for motion shots or use Bulb to capture moving lights. Dare to be a bit different.
  • When the sky has gone black go home, to the pub or shoot the night sky but the window of ‘twilight’ opportunity has gone.
  • Take a torch with you, if only to find the car keys in your bag!
Published in Camera Skills
  1. Great refresher AJ, something for everyone here!!

  2. Oh good heavens, late nights ahead – well, once it dries and warms up!

  3. thanks AJ useful ideas and tips, pretty sure you mean DO take your tripod and remote release 😉

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