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.