If you want to inject some colour and impact into your landscapes and cityscapes, one of the best ways is to wait until the sun goes down before you start shooting. That golden hour between sunset and darkness can produce some great photos. Even fairly dull cities can look more glamorous once the sun goes down and the lights go on, and there are endless opportunities for you to get creative with shutter speeds and special effects to wow your Flickr friends. At this time of year there’s also the added attraction of Christmas lights to shoot.
Shooting at dawn or dusk is pretty easy if you follow a few simple rules. You don’t even need a digital SLR – just a camera capable of exposure times of several seconds. That said, you will have more creative options if you use a DSLR or Compact System Camera, and get better image quality from their larger sensors.
This Blackpool Pier image is a combination of two shots (pier and fireworks) taken minutes apart. Nikon D300s, 14-24mm, 8 seconds f/11 (both frames). ©Tim Gartside
How to shoot Twilight – Settings
This is arguably the most important setting to get right because it determines which other settings are available.
If you’re shooting landscapes or cityscapes with the camera on a tripod set the lowest ISO possible, such as 100 or 200, for maximum image quality. The resulting slow shutter speeds that you’ll be compelled to use won’t be an issue and will even be a benefit if you’re trying to capture the motion of traffic trails, ferris wheels or fireworks, for example.
If you’re working handheld – perhaps you’re shooting street markets at night, or indoors – then you’ll need a higher ISO to prevent camera shake. The precise ISO will depend on factors such as the ambient light, your lens and whether you have image stabilisation. Luckily modern DSLRs can produce good results at ISO 3200 and beyond.
Use manual exposure mode. Auto modes can be easily fooled at night. Large areas of bright light can cause underexposure of the surrounding scene, while mostly dark scenes can be overexposed as the camera tries to turn a night scene mid grey, and any lights within that scene burn out. Manual exposure gives you more control and consistency.
If you must use auto try shutter priority if you have moving elements in the scene, so you can control how sharply or blurred that movement is recorded. For static landscapes Aperture Priority is better.
Whichever mode you use take a test shot and preview your results to determine whether you need to make any adjustment to the metered exposure.
Locking the mirror up (if your camera has this facility) will reduce the vibration as you press the shutter, resulting in sharper results.
Live view can be useful with tripod-based low-light photography, as once your shot is composed you can view your scene on screen and wait for the right moment. You can also preview the effect of settings such as White Balance. If you have a vari-angle LCD screen it’s also easier to shoot from high or low angles.
For tripod-mounted dusk cityscapes your shutter speeds will probably be anywhere between one second and 30 seconds in length, depending on the aperture you choose and the effect you want. (With traffic trails, for example, longer shutter speeds result in more dramatic trails.)
With nocturnal landscapes lit only by the night sky, however, exposure times can run into minutes or hours.
Typical night landscapes contain a mix of ambient-lit elements and artificial lighting, which makes choosing the right White Balance setting potentially tricky. In general you’ll probably find the Auto or Daylight setting the best, because this will render the lighting a yellowish-orange that looks attractive in pictures, especially when contrasted against a deep blue dusk sky. Make sure you shoot in Raw mode though, because then you can play around with the white balance settings afterwards to find the colour you like best.
Cameras can struggle to focus in low light and the AF is prone to hunt. The best option is manual focus. In a well- lit cityscape you may find it easier to use the AF to focus, then switch to manual before shooting. With night landscapes it may be very difficult to see anything clearly enough to focus on. One solution is to take a pocket torch to shine onto a tree or other element in your scene, to give you something to focus on.
How to shoot Twilight – Towns & Cities
Many towns and cities look better at night than they do in the daytime. The dark shadows hide the litter, the graffiti and the ugliness of that 1960’s office block, and all eyes are drawn to the colourful twinkling lights. Most cities and large towns have buildings that come alive when lit up, but it’s crucial to shoot at the right time, when there is still some colour in the sky, otherwise the contrast will be so high that unlit parts of scene will disappear into blackness, and you’ll be unable to make out roof lines and horizons properly. When there’s light in the sky you’ll be able to record detail even in unlit parts of your picture.
kept the shutter speed to just two seconds. Nikon D2x, 10-20mm, 2
seconds at f/8. ©Tim Gartside
Get into your chosen position in time for sunset and stay till darkness falls. During twilight the sky often records as a deep blue which provides a great contrast to the warm lights. If there’s a sunset you’ll get oranges and purples which also looks great. Your optimum shooting period varies throughout the year, but in winter can be as little as 10 minutes, so you’ll need to work quickly. Don’t try to cram too many different shots into a night’s shoot. It’s best to nail one good shot at the optimum time, and then return to get others on another night.
Look beyond the obvious viewpoints for more interesting compositions.
Adding foreground interest can provide a sense of depth. Nikon D2x,
10-20mm, 4 seconds at f/8. ©Tim Gartside
You’ll be using long exposures so a tripod is a must, and if you have either a remote release or the ability to lock up the mirror these will help you get sharper pictures. Set the camera to manual exposure and focus, and shoot in Raw mode so you can fine tune the exposure and White Balance afterwards.
The classic city skyline – in this case London’s Canary Wharf, as seen
from the other side of the Thames. Nikon D2x, 70-200mm, 5 seconds at
f/8. ©Tim Gartside
Note that when you use small apertures such as f/16, point light sources can take on a starburst effect. This can look good, but if you want to avoid this shoot at wider apertures such as f/8.
only by the street lights which, aided by fog and snow, turned the
scene an eerie red. Nikon D300s, 50mm, 2 seconds at f/11. ©Tim Gartside
If you’re using a compact camera you’ll have less control but good night shots are still possible. Using a tripod, set ISO 100, Daylight White Balance, Flash Off, and use the self-timer to fire the camera.
How to shoot Twilight – When to Find the Perfect Light
Successful night and low-light photos, particularly of illuminated urban settings, depend more than anything else on shooting at the right time of the day. For best results it’s important for there to still be some light in the sky, because once it gets completely dark large areas of your scene will be lost in deep shadow. The sun sets at very different times of the year, so you’ll be shooting in the afternoons during the winter months.
The light changes very quickly from sunset to darkness, and no two days are the same. So it’s well worth sticking around to record the changing light, and even returning on different days, and different times of the year. This sequence of shots of Brighton Pier were all shot between sunset and dusk but on different days throughout the year. Note how each one is quite different.
Shot at 3.30pm in December, at sunset. The sky is a warm orange but the unlit pier is almost a silhouette. The starlings add an extra element. Nikon D3x, 24-70mm lens, 1/125sec, f/11, ISO 200. © Nigel Atherton
Shot at 9pm in August, early dusk. The sky is quite blue and there’s still plenty of shadow detail. Nikon D700, 50mm lens, 1 second, f/11, ISO 200.
Shot at 6.30pm in February, late dusk. This is arguably a bit too late. Though there is still some colour in the sky note how most of the detail in the pillars below the pier have now disappeared. Nikon D90, 18-70mm lens, 2 seconds, f/11, ISO 200
How to shoot Twilight – Shooting Fireworks
Fireworks are a perennial favourite subject for photographers, and Guy Fawkes Night is the best time of year in the UK to shoot them. You’ll need a sturdy tripod and a remote release. Get to the event and pick your spot well in advance. If you can include an illuminated landmark on the ground, so much the better. You may need a wideangle lens for this.
Taken during a fireworks display at Leeds Castle, Kent, which Tim
Gartside has included in the foreground. Nikon D300, 14-24mm, 20 seconds
at f/11. ©Tim Gartside
Alternatively use a more telephoto lens and fill the frame with sky. Set an aperture of around f/11 and the shutter to the B (Bulb) setting. Expose for 10-20 seconds to capture multiple bursts (though if you have a lit building in shot be careful not to overexpose it). One method is to keep the shutter open and hold a piece of black card in front of the lens between bursts so you can build up a large number of fireworks on a single frame.
How to shoot Twilight – Capturing Reflections
The wet days and nights that are common at this time of the year provide additional opportunities for night photography. Simply look down and seek out interesting reflections in wet pavements and puddles. If you’re lucky enough to have a body of water such as a lake in your shot you’ll find it easy to capture a perfect reflection of your subject.
Eilean Donan Castle at dusk, reflected in the Loch. Taken half an hour after sunset. Canon EOS 5D, 70-200mm, 10 seconds at f/16. © Craig Roberts
Reflections on the wet pavement at Piccadilly Circus, London. Nikon D2x, 70-200mm, 2 seconds at f/11. ©Tim Gartside
How to shoot Twilight – Lights In Motion
Moving lights provide fantastic opportunities for photographers to get creative with shutter speeds and create an endless variety of effects. Most of us live within easy reach of an endless stream of moving lights in the shape of a main road or motorway. By setting up your camera on a tripod and leaving the shutter open, their lights will record as streaks of coloured lines – headlights being yellow and tail lights being red.
The M25 never looked so pretty! Shot from a footbridge at sunset, while
there was still colour in the sky. Had the picture been taken later when
the sky was dark it would have been less successful. Nikon D2x, Sigma
10-20mm, 30 secs at f/16. ©Tim Gartside
For best results find a viewpoint that will enable you to see traffic going in both directions so you record both colours. Make sure the traffic is free-flowing – try to avoid junctions where traffic may stop for a while. Shooting with traffic coming towards and away from you will generally make a more interesting shot than traffic going left and right. A high viewpoint, such as a bridge or an upper floor window, will also help. Again, shoot before it gets completely dark so you record some detail in the scene other than the lights, and if you can find a viewpoint that provides an interesting backdrop, such as a landmark building, so much the better.
Set a shutter speed between 10 and 30 seconds, depending on the light, the speed of traffic and your composition.
For a more dynamic alternative to traffic trails head to the nearest funfair. They’re always extravagantly lit and the motion of attractions such as the ferris wheel makes a great subject.
Long shutter speeds will enable you to record the rotating lights as a continuous blur.
The ferris wheel on Blackpool Pier at dusk, photographed both moving and
stationary. Both shots are different though equally effective. Nikon
D2x, Sigma 10-20mm, ISO 100. ©Tim Gartside
An alternative approach to shooting traffic trails is to be in a moving car yourself. Make sure someone else is driving, though! You can attach your camera to the dashboard or front windscreen using a clamp or suction cup. Or you can attach the camera to a tripod and poke it out of the top of the sunroof, as Tim Gartside did here (see image). Set up your composition before you set off, and make sure that the camera won’t move during the exposure. If your camera has live view this will make it easier to monitor what the camera is seeing, while you’re still safely strapped into your seat. If shooting through the sunroof a vari-angle LCD screen would be a bonus too.
The next step is for your designated driver to drive steadily along your chosen route while you shoot using a remote release. Your resulting images will record any lights as streaks. Tunnels, areas with lit buildings or lots of moving traffic may provide the best shots.
Tim Gartside wedged a tripod between the driver’s and passenger’s seats
and raised it so his camera stuck out of the sunroof. As his wife drove
down a local main road, Tim took pictures. Nikon D2x, Sigma 10-20mm, 10
secs at f/16. ©Tim Gartside
Exposure settings will vary depending on the ambient light levels and the result required, but start from a 10-second exposure at around f/11 and work from there.
How to shoot Twilight – Rural Landscapes
A blend of two exposures to retain maximum detail. Shot at Kimmeridge Bay, Dorset.
Canon EOS 5D Mk II, 17-40mm, 8 seconds, f/22. © Guy Edwardes
Most photographers agree that dawn and dusk are the best times of the day to photograph landscapes, but once it gets completely dark most photographers pack up their bags. You can get great shots of unlit landscapes and seascapes even in almost pitch darkness if your exposure is long enough. Some photographers use exposure times in minutes and, in some cases, even hours. The effect is that skies often take on a milky appearance as the moving clouds record as a blur. Any water in the scene also takes on a misty, smooth-as-glass appearance, which can add an ethereal atmosphere to an image.
Dusk and night landscapes are often more effective if you have water in the foreground, because solid ground can look a bit murky at night, so try heading to the coast or the nearest lake. Don’t forget to look after yourself by wrapping up warm, taking gloves and perhaps a flask of hot drink, as temperatures can drop rapidly at night.
Adam exposed for the shadow side of the boat closest to him, and used two ND grads with a combined blocking power of five stops to prevent the sunset sky from over-exposing. Taken in Jasper National Park, Canada. Canon EOS 5D, 17-40mm, f/19, 120 seconds, ISO 100. © Adam Burton
How to shoot Twilight – Using ND Grads
‘I went up to Hadrian’s Wall in the late afternoon to catch the sunset’,
says Craig Roberts, ‘but the sun refused to come out from behind a
cloud.’ This was taken at dusk, using a two-stop ND grad to darken the
sky. Canon EOS 5D, 17-40mm, 2-stop ND grad, 1/2sec, f/16. © Craig
If you still have some light in the sky you might need to take some Neutral Density (ND) Graduated filters. These are neutral grey at the top and clear at the bottom (see right) and can be used to reduce the brightness level of the sky to balance it more closely with that of the foreground.
Dead tree on Rannoch Moor, Scotland, in winter at dawn. Jeremy Walker
used an ND grad to darken the sky. Nikon D2x, 24-70mm, 5 seconds, f/16. ©
Otherwise you will have to choose between overexposing the sky or underexposing the foreground. To use them, take separate meter readings for the ground and sky, calculate the exposure difference in stops. If it’s three stops, say, use a 3 stop (0.9) ND grad over the sky and set your camera’s exposure to the reading obtained for the foreground. If the difference is greater than three stops you can combine multiple filters to get the amount of blocking power you need for some extra-long exposures.
Guy Edwardes photographed a snow-covered Gold Hill in Shaftesbury early one winter morning. As it was still fairly dark, a 30-second exposure was required. Canon EOS 5D Mk II, 24-105mm, 30 seconds, f/16. © Guy Edwardes
How to shoot Twilight – Useful Accessories
Avoids jerking the camera when you press the shutter, so helps produce sharper pictures.
Essential to get sharp shots from long exposures.
Helps reduce the risk of flare from street lighting and spotlights shining into your lens from oblique angles outside the frame.
Neutral Density Grads
With night landscapes the sky can be much brighter than the ground. ND filters can be used to darken the sky so you can balance its brightness level to match the foreground. They come in various strengths and can also be combined for stronger effects.
Helps you see what you’re doing, and adjust the camera settings more easily. Also helps with focusing in the dark.
While on-camera flash is a no-no, a targeted burst of flash from a handheld flashgun during a long exposure can be used to lift unlit shadow areas of, say, a foreground or building.
In case you get caught short. Long exposures consume more batter power.
How to shoot Twilight – Hints & Tips
This comparison shows the effect that your White Balance has on your results. The right image was shot at the Daylight setting while the left one was shot at the Tungsten position. Note how much cooler it is. If you shoot in Raw, however, you can change the White Balance setting afterwards.
Long exposure times increase the risk of image noise spoiling your pictures. Most cameras offer built-in Noise Reduction for long exposures to reduce this (you’ll find it in the menu). But leaving this feature on will increase your processing time between shots dramatically, so you may prefer to turn it off and apply your noise reduction in Photoshop on your computer afterwards, where you’ll also have more control over the end result.
If you’ve stopped the aperture right down but still can’t get shutter speeds as long as you’d like, try using a neutral density filter over the lens to reduce the amount of light entering the lens. This will increase your shutter speeds still further.