Twilight and Beyond (Part 1)

I recently had the opportunity to make a presentation to the membership of the  Vienna Photographic Society in Vienna, Virginia on the subject of night photography.  A friend and fellow photographer suggested that the subject might also be of interest to write about here.

For openers, many people might ask why in the world someone would want to go out and photograph things at night. And they have a point, because everything is more difficult in the dark.  It is hard to see what you are doing or where you are going.  And then there is the inconvenient fact that photography relies on light.

But despite the challenges, night photography opens a whole new world of photographic opportunities.  After the sun has set, the world begins to be transformed into something unfamiliar and strange.

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Moonrise, near Marquette, Michigan

As the above image shows, photographing a scene at night produces a totally different result in daylight. Much of what we see at day has disappeared while things we could not see are now apparent. Even more interesting is how a scene becomes more abstract as the light fades.  And in certain cases, you have the ability to capture the passage of time.

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Washington Monument at Night

These other worldly characteristics make it necessary to adopt a different mind-set when photographing at night.  For example, in a night-time urban environment one is dealing with many, perhaps thousands, of light sources instead of just one. But in a landscape environment, you may be dealing with virtually no light.

Although the scene may be radically different than in daytime, the photographer faces the same technical constraints.  The four factors of   aperture, shutter speed, and light sensitivity are still with us, but at an extreme level, often pushing the limits of our equipment.

There is some disagreement among photographers over the definition of “night” when discussing night photography.  For me, it covers any photograph taken in the time between sunset and sunrise.  One of the most magical aspects of this genre, in my opinion, is the slow transformation between daylight and darkness (evening and morning) which is known as twilight.

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World War I Memorial, Washington, DC (19 minutes  after sunset)


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US Capitol and Senate Garage Fountain (30 minutes after sunset)

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Paris, Place Concorde Fountain (73 minutes after sunset)

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Ferris wheel, Madison Wisconsin (Night)

Twilight begins at sunset, and while the sun is relatively close to the horizon, illumination is provided by the scattering of sunlight in the sky.   During twilight, the earth is neither fully lit nor completely dark.  The twilight period actually is divided into three separate phases, Civil, Nautical, and Astronomical, each of which is about 30 minutes long.  For further details on these terms check this link.

During the transition between daylight and actual darkness, the quality of light changes rapidly and close attention to what is happening in the scene is advisable.  This is especially true in an urban environment when artificial lights begin to become dominant, overwhelming the ambient light from the fading twilight.

Night Photos Washington CityscapeMoonrise over Kennedy Center, Washington, DC (20 minutes after sunset)

Night Photos Washington TwilightPhotographed 5 Minutes Later


My favorite technique for adding drama to a twilight scene is to include a rising or setting moon as shown below.  Taken in 2001, there was no “app” to guide photographers to the

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Moonrise, Lincoln Memorial (7 minutes after sunset)

perfect location.  One needed a real compass and a source of information on the lunar cycle, such as the US Naval Observatory website.

Today, the easy availability of products such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris, Photo Pils, and others make it much easier.  But there still are a few additional elements that are helpful to know.   That will be the topic of the next installment of this series.

In the meantime,

Keep Shooting…..

After-Before Friday

Stacy Fischer, of VisualVenturing, has launched an invitational series “After-Before Friday” in which participants may submit two versions of an image, one being the final result and the second being the original or starting point.  The idea is to exchange ideas about a photographer’s conceptual vision and how she or he made it happen.  Stacy’s weekly post will display a series of submitted image pairs, each with a brief description by the photographer.   Each submitter also has the option to provide a link back to their own blog which would provide more details on the post-processing techniques used to achieve the final image.

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Marine Corps Memorial, After Post-Processing

I really liked this idea and submitted these two images (After above) to the first running of this series.   The subject is the Marine Corps Memorial just around sunset on September 4, 2009.   A storm front was approaching from the southeast and I had a difficult lighting situation: a sky with dark clouds and bright open sections, an overall low light level, and a very dark main subject.  The dynamic range exceeded the capability of the sensor to duplicate what the eye could see.  My plan was to expose so that there would be at least some detail across the entire range and the actual scene could be restored during post-processing. After_Before 02

Marine Corps Memorial, Original RAW File

The “Before” image above is the image after a few tweaks (clarity and vibrance) in Adobe Camera Raw, but is essentially the way it looked immediately after download.    From here all changes were made in Photoshop, although there are other ways this could be accomplished.


After_Before 03Result after Step 1

Step 1:  A Curves adjustment layer (blend mode: luminosity) was used to darken the image as shown above.  A layer mask was added to retain the original brightness of the gold leaf insignia and lettering on the base of the statue.

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Result after Step 2

Step 2:  A Curves adjustment layer (blend mode: normal) was used to provide additional darkness to the clouds. A mask was added to block any change to the statue, foreground and trees.

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Result after Step 3

Step 3:  A selection tool was used to isolate the flag, then I employed another Curves adjustment layer (blend mode: screen) to brighten the flag.

After_Before 06Result after Step 4

Step 4:  A selection tool was used to isolate the green signs in lower left, and then I added another Curves adjustment layer (blend mode: normal) to darken the signs.

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Result after Step 5

Step 5:  I used a selection tool with a very soft feather to create an oval mask centered on the statue and extending out toward the corners. Then a Curves adjustment layer (blend mode: multiply) to slightly darken the corners.  It is pretty subtle, especially at this size and the objective is to avoid making it noticeable.  But the purpose is to help bring the viewer’s attention to the center of the image.

After_Before 01Result after Step 6

Those who have worked in a “wet” darkroom recognize that these techniques (Steps 1-5) are what used to be called dodging and burning.  At this point, the digital darkroom made it possible to consider a creative issue: should the bystanders and small dog on the right be allowed to remain in this scene?  This is not anything I would have considered in the old days of film and chemicals because I (and most photographers) lacked the skill and resources.

In this case, the decision was to remove them because they tended to detract from the composition rather than strengthen it. This is particularly noticeable when the image is printed in a large size.

Most of my images don’t involve nearly this much change from the original.  But even with all of the work, anyone who was there would agree that this is pretty close to what it looked like at the moment of the exposure (except for the tragic disappearance of the bystanders and dog).

My thanks to Stacy Fisher for her efforts in organizing the Before-After Friday series. I am looking forward to the submissions of others and learning from their experiences.