Shooting the Blues: 5 Twilight Photography Tips For Amazing Images After The Sun Sets
Golden hour may be the most popular timeframe for photography, but calling it the magic hour isn’t being fair to the often overlooked big sibling, the blue hour. Photography pet names aside, twilight is a great time of day to take photos. Staying out after all the other sunset shooters have packed their cameras away means you can capture photos, well, unlike all the other sunset photos out there. The brief time of day between sunset and full darkness (or between night and sunrise, if you’re a morning person) creates images with vivid blue skies and turns landscapes into dramatic silhouettes. But, there are a few challenges to nabbing the best shots — here are five tips to make the most out of your twilight photography.
Bring the right gear.
Hauling along the right gear will help make twilight photography simpler — and you don’t need to drop a fortune for blue hour photos either. Anytime you are shooting with limited light, a tripod is a must, and since you’re shooting just after sunset, it’s well worth the added weight to your kit. Choose something that’s sturdy and you don’t have to worry if you’re using an older camera that’s not so great at higher ISOs.
Any time you are using a tripod, a remote release is a nice extra, though not a necessity. Using a remote release (or a smartphone if you have a wi-fi enabled camera) prevents any hand shake from releasing the shutter. If you don’t have one, simply turn on the two-second timer mode to prevent the extra shake.
One more extra to pack in your bag with your usual camera and lenses? A flashlight or a head lamp. You’ll be shooting in the dark, and a bit of extra light is helpful for adjusting your settings (if you’re not familiar enough to adjust them blindly), packing up your gear and finding your way back.
Twilight may be called the blue hour, but it’s actually much shorter than an hour. Typically, that blue sky effect only sticks around for around twenty minutes or so. With a short shot window, pre-shooting is a good idea. Scope out the area you want to shoot in and decide what compositions you’d like to snap, as well as which ones are most important and what shots are simply as time permits.
Of course, shooting before blue hour will get you vastly different effect, so keep that in mind. Cityscapes will look quite different once the lights pop up, so try to envision the how the area will look once the sun goes down. Also, watch out for nearby streetlights that will wreck the ambient light.
Find the right exposure settings.
If you’re familiar with manual modes, adjusting your know-how to shoot twilight is a breeze. Since you are shooting with a tripod, you can use a low ISO to avoid grain. A narrower aperture will help make nailing the focus without much light easier, but you can set your aperture to reflect the depth of field you had in mind, leaving the shutter speed to balance out the exposure. Of course, if you’re trying to shoot something like a portrait that’s not perfectly still, you’ll want to crank up the ISO a bit and use a wide aperture, or you’ll wind up with some blur. With portraits, a flash with a blue gel is also a helpful tool.
Not so savvy with manual modes? Try shooting in aperture priority mode with the lowest ISO setting your camera allows. Set your aperture between f/8 and f/11 and your camera will choose the right shutter speed.
One more thing — auto white balance doesn’t do so well for twilight shots. Set your white balance manually with a white balance card or another white object, or choose the sunny preset and shoot in RAW so you can perfect it later.
Embrace manual focus.
One of the trickiest parts to shooting after the sun goes down is the fact that autofocus won’t do you much good in the dark. That makes manual focus a necessity. But if you haven’t ventured far into manual focus, don’t panic, it’s not as scary as it seems.
If you set up before the sun fully sets, you can use the autofocus to select your subject, then flip over to manual to keep the focus put. If you can’t pre-focus (or you want to move to take several different compositions), you’ll need to adjust with the dial. If your camera has Live View, switch to that mode and use the magnifying glass to zoom in, then you’ll have a higher chance of nailing the focus. Some cameras (often the models with electronic viewfinders) have focus peaking which will highlight the objects in focus for you, another helpful way to get a good focus manually. Take a few test shots and zoom in as well to check your subject. Using a narrower aperture will also help, since the lower the f-stop is, the less room there is for error, and with a tripod the loss of light shouldn’t be an issue.
Time it right.
After the sun sets, the quality of light changes very quickly — you’ll likely notice shots even a few minutes apart are quite different. Since the light changes quickly, you’ll want to take several shots and keep shooting until you see that the best light has faded completely. Right after the sun dips below the horizon, you’ll get oranges and reds before the light changes to blues and purples. Often, the best light hits around 20 to 25 minutes after full sunset — but there’s nothing wrong with shooting earlier with the orange light.
While timing with the sun is important, don’t forget about the moon. Adding the moon into your shots often enhances the photo, and the light from the moon will alter the images overall light as well. If you’re looking to catch the first few stars out, wait for a clear night with no moon in the sky, since the moon’s light overpowers the star’s.
Staying out past when all the sunset shooters have packed up not eliminates the crowds, but offers some pretty spectacular light. Twilight is a tricky time to photograph, but with a tripod, some pre-shooting, manual exposure and focus, and the right timing, you can capture some amazing images.
Got your shot? Get some feedback on your twilight photography at August’s Photo of the Month Club. Share your work, chat with other like-minded photographers and get valuable tips on improving your work. Learn more about the Photo of the Month Club here.