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…..