Further Thoughts Beyond the Blue Horizon
Last week's article on shooting in the twilight beyond sundown brought up a number of follow-up questions. It's time to deal with them now.
My images are too bright. How do you make images that actually look like twilight?
Images shot at twilight should look like they were shot at twilight. That means they should be exposed somewhat below medium toned. That means you need to take control of your exposures. A camera's ability to automatically expose an image can be a great thing when you don't have time to do it yourself. But if you've taken the time to be out there after dark or before sunrise, I'd suggest resisting the inclination to take shortcuts. Your camera thinks that every scene it sees averages out to medium toned. A truly average shot taken at mid-day just might qualify, but not one taken at twilight when there's barely enough light to see by.
There are two main ways to approach the problem. The simplest way is to set the exposure compensation to around one or even one and a half stops under. My preferred method though is to shoot on manual exposure. Either way can work to make sure you at least get in proper range for twilight exposures, but manual exposure gives you more control. And I like that.
Even as it approaches complete darkness, I wouldn't recommend shooting at too much less than -1.5 stops because the resulting images will lack sufficient detail. So long as you are somewhat under medium toned, you don't need to try for complete accuracy in darkness. A viewer's brain and eye will inform how they see an image.
What about white balance?
Just as auto-exposure doesn't work well for twilight images, neither does auto-white balance. I'm betting that one of the main reasons you're interested in shooting after dark is to record the amazing colors that only happen at that hour. Don't let your camera neutralize those colors in its efforts to make everything come out neutral gray.
Remember that if you are shooting in RAW mode you can freely adjust and correct the white balance after the fact without loss. But the image you see on the camera back LCD display will render with the "as shot" white balance. And I have noticed that the better it looks the more enthusiastically I'll pursue a subject and thus the more likely I am to get good images. That means especially when shooting images that fall well out of the norm for white balance I'd recommend dialing in at least something closer to what you expect to end up with.
White balance can be a great creative tool too. If the colors don't look to your eye quite like what you'd hoped for, you can punch them up at least a bit through creative use of white balance. If your camera things you are shooting in the shade, it will boost the color temperature to compensate. It will do the same even when you aren't shooting in the shade, resulting in images that look warmer than they would otherwise.
I only ever get images with a stripe of color along the horizon rather than filling the whole sky. What am I doing wrong?
Sometimes that's all there is to see I'm afraid. Sunrise and sunset tend to be a bit unpredictable. Without at least a few puffy clouds to reflect the colors, they can dissipate all too easily. But with the wrong kind of clouds, you won't see very much color at all. With the sun at or below the far horizon, there's a lot of atmosphere between you and it to influence what you and your camera see.
One way to make the most of what you do see though is to use the longest lens you have available. If the only good color lies close to the horizon, try to magnify that region to fill as much of the frame as you can.
It may also be worth considering that, with the sun below the horizon, the brightest region will be where the sky meets the land. Above that, the sky will gradually transition to darker and darker tones since you will be looking further and further from where the only source of light is. So some darkening, and therefore some loss of vibrancy, will indeed be normal even under the best of conditions. That's not to say you shouldn't wish for greater color in the top part of the frame though. If you don't like what nature has provided, and really have your heart set on a wide angle or medium focal length lens, you might consider using a reverse graduated neutral density filter. Such filters are darkest near the transition zone and gradually transition to clear as you approach the edge of the filter. As the name implies, this is the reverse of how the gray density of a normal graduated density filter works where the darkest region is at one end of the filter, transitioning to less density in the middle.
How can I compose when it's dark?
Now this is an interesting question. A strong flashlight would hardly be practical. Luckily, digital cameras can function quite well for seeing in the dark. Simply take a picture and look at the results on the back of your camera, then adjust accordingly. You'll be surprised at what your camera can see that remains lost in shadows to your naked eye. This technique will not only let you see trees and other annoying distractions you might otherwise miss, it can also help you gauge just how the colors in the sky transition from the horizon on up. As you scan the sky, your eyes automatically adjust to brightness, making it very difficult to tell just how bright or dark one area is in relation to another. Let your camera guide you.
Can't I just use a "sunset filter" and get a good night's sleep?
Obviously you could do this, but your results will tell the tale. There's just no substitute for the real thing.