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Go For the Golden Hour, Stay For the After Show

The beautiful warm glow near sunset in often referred to as the "golden hour." For photographers, it can seem a perfect way to end the day. But if you're ready for it, the show is only just beginning.

There's something about a sunset photograph. Everything is lit up in a way that seems impossible to resist. Whatever color something may be during daylight hours, that golden warmth seems to make it look better. But I've noticed that most photographers tend to pack up and head out once the big bright thing dips below the horizon. The star attraction (literally) is over and the curtain has come down. But the magic of twilight can be every bit as photogenic as the legendary beauty of sunset. And in some respects, it can actually be easier to get killer shots once the sun goes.

Before we can begin any discussion of shooting into the twilight though, I need to stress how important it is to have a flashlight with you so you can find your way back to where you need to be once you do decide to call it an evening. While I won't venture into astrophotography here, with that exception, shooting at twilight will likely wind down within an hour after sunset, once the last of the color has drained from the sky and you are left in darkness. But if you've got anywhere to be and aren't dressed and provisioned to stay the duration, you surely want a good light so you can get back to your car or camp. Sunrise is pretty predictably a number of long, cold hours away. Luckily, this is an easy problem to prevent. Just bring a light. Bring two if I've gotten you overly nervous. Better safe than sorry.

Precisely because most folks leave when the sun goes down is a huge part of why I like shooting into twilight. Even at popular sites where photographers are jockeying for position as the sun neared its slow-motion impact with the solidity of the horizon, things tend to get easier after main event. The two won't actually touch of course, but they sure do look as if they will. The sun slides gracefully behind the horizon, and the lights go down in the proscenium arch of the heavens. And just like with a show in an actual theater, once the crowds leave it gets a lot less, well, "crowded." Finally, you have freedom and elbowroom to work. During sunset, a lot of good shots are often out of reach because of other photographers or just plain families and tourists standing where or in front of the spot you wished you could be. With them out of the way, you might be able to make your wish come true. Figure out all the details while you can still see everything clearly, and then go for it once twilight begins and you the best spots are no longer taken.

It can be hard to get good sunset shots because of the extreme contrast between light and shadow. Invariably, you either end up with a foreground lost in shadows or a sky so burned out that little color actually remains. Neither version looks the way such a scene appears to the human eye because of how our eyesight compensates. Pupils dilate and contract unconsciously and we see a composite built by our consciousness. HDR and other multi-shot techniques have allowed photographers to simulate this to a degree, creating photographic images that exceed the limits of any single-shot capture technique possible with current technology. Someday, camera sensors may get good enough, but not yet. It takes a lot of work to get those killer sunset shots with everything looking well exposed. But once the light source that is the sun becomes shielded but the curvature of the earth, light levels begin to drop sufficiently to make exposure easier. And twilight shots look just fine with dark shadows, so expose for the colors in the sky and let everything else fall where it may. If you shoot in raw, you can pull out a few details from lightly shadowed areas with little difficulty. I rarely find it necessary to resort to multi-shot techniques at twilight. And even should you feel the need someday, it should be no more difficult than at sunset. Indeed, twilight requires long exposures and a lack of subject motion while the shutter is open. As such, those subjects are unlikely to move much between exposures either. Piece of cake.

Don't worry about the white balance when shooting at twilight. Just shoot raw and you can adjust the color to suit in Lightroom later. And within the bounds of good judgement, a slight tweak of the vibrance can often make an image look even more the way your mind exaggerated it. There's a certain palette of colors possible, but just how they translate into a final image is largely within your control. Don't get discouraged if the camera back LCD image display doesn't look as vibrant as you think it should. But do remember to check the histogram for exposure. Dark shadows are to be expected, but burned out highlights are almost always bad.

You may find that autofocus stops working which shouldn't be too unexpected as lighting levels dwindle. Just switch to manual focus. Find something you can focus on that's the same distance and then don't change it as you recompose. If your camera needs it, make use of the long-exposure noise reduction feature. Zoom in in the LCD after the shot if you need to double check focus. And be sure your batteries are charged. All these long exposures and double checking things on the LCD back can take some juice.

Compositionally, look for subjects that you can look up at so you can silhouette them against the bands of color in the sky. Or find a tidepool, mountain tarn or even a puddle to reflect the sky. See if you can make a shot that shows the color contrast between the oranges near the horizon with the deep blues of the sky above reflected in the water. And even if you've already shot a particular composition earlier in the evening, remember to double check it later on once the color spectrum changes from oranges to pink. There are all sorts of colors and possibilities to twilight.

Date posted: January 19, 2020


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Related articles:
The Twilight Zone: Shooting After the Sun Goes Down
Sunrise versus Sunset
Beyond the Blue Horizon
That Perfect Sunset Shot

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