Photographing Landscapes at Twilight :: Digital Photo Secrets

Photographing Landscapes at Twilight

by David Peterson 2 comments

You've heard me talk oh-so many times about that magic hour, the time just after sunrise and just before sunset when the light has that beautiful, magical quality that can transform a dull, flat scene into a stunning photograph.

What you haven't heard me talk so much about is twilight. Twilight could be called something similar - that glittering hour, perhaps, or that surreal hour. Twilight photos are different because there's that element of other-worldliness to them that only appears during that brief moment between day and night. Twilight can be a beautiful setting for any photo, but particularly for landscapes. Master creating twilight images and your photo collection will really be spectacular.

[ Top image The night country by Flickr user James Jordan]

So why haven't I lauded twilight photos the way I do that magic hour?

The reason is simple - twilight is tricky. If you do it right, you'll end up with some great photos - but twilight photography is not for the faint of heart. If you do it wrong, you may end up frustrated and a whole day away from your chance to try again. Twilight is unforgiving, and it's brief. You have to know what you're doing and you have to work fast.

Twilight landscape photography is not something you can do on a whim. You can't really go out there and wander around, hoping to stumble upon a nice shot - because you just don't have that much time. Instead, try to view every scene you shoot in the daytime through a twilight in your imagination. How will that bridge look in the soft, fading light? How about that little cove on the coast or that mountain lake? Where would you need to stand to use that beautiful, pale light to its best advantage? And remember to use good rules of composition, too - think about what you could put in the foreground to increase your photograph's sense of depth.

  • Canon EOS 400D Digital
  • 100
  • f/8.0
  • 0.4
  • 20 mm

Smoke on the Water - A Fire in the Sky (HDR) by Flickr user Matt. Create. (Roads Less Traveled)

The first step in mastering twilight photography is to understand the three phases of twilight. Each one provides you with a different quality of light and a different photographic opportunity.

The term "twlight" is usually used to describe either that time just after sunset, or a series of wildly popular teenage vampire movies. Technically, it can also be used to describe the time just before sunrise. In fact the three phases of twilight apply to the morning as well as the evening - in the morning, of course, they happen in reverse order.

  • Canon EOS Digital Rebel XSi
  • 200
  • f/9.9
  • 0.02 sec (1/49)
  • 18 mm

Lately Early :: HDR by Flickr user Jon.B.

Civil Twilight

Civil twilight occurs at the moment the sun slips below the horizon and lasts for about 30 minutes, depending on the season and your physical location. It is arguably the best time to get good twilight landscape images - during those moments, you'll have access to a range of beautiful colors, from blue to pink, to purple, red and orange. But you will still be able to capture elements in the environment, too, which will only become more difficult as the light fades. This is also the time when you will first start to see the brightest stars. Choose civil twilight if you want a beautiful warm light (which fades to a cooler pink as that half hour progresses) and/or if you want to capture detail in your surroundings.

Blue Hour at Killdeer Plains by Flickr user Stephen A. Wolfe

Nautical Twilight

Just after civil twilight, most of the warm colors in the sky fade and are replaced by cool purples and eventually by deeper blues. Some oranges and pinks will remain just above the spot where the sun vanished, but the dominant tones will be in the cool range. Much of the detail in your landscape is going to be lost in shadow, and you're going to be capturing a lot of silhouettes instead. During nautical twilight, it is very important to focus only on those areas where ambient light remains, since the rest of your scene is going to lack detail. Like civil twilight, nautical twilight lasts about 30 minutes, give or take.

  • Canon EOS 60D
  • 800
  • f/11.0
  • 0.008 sec (1/125)
  • 135 mm

Full Moon Between two Trees by Flickr user lrargerich

Astronomical Twilight

Astronomical twilight is the light that's left over after the first two phases of twilight have ended. For landscapes it's probably the least useful of the three phases, although with the right equipment and a long shutter speed you can get a good shot in almost any light. The only color remaining at astronomical twilight is a deep blue, and over the next 30 minutes that blue will fade to black. Because there isn't a lot of ambient light left during astronomical twilight, it's a good time to seek artificial light, or to use the moonlight if its available. Cityscapes look great when shot at this hour, but it might not be the right time for that shot of a secluded mountain stream.

Geting started

Many modern DSLRs have excellent low-light capabilities, but to give yourself the best shot at capturing a flawless twilight image, bring a sturdy tripod and a cable or remote release. This will eliminate the need to turn up the ISO, which can of course result in noisy images.

  • Nikon D200
  • 200
  • f/5.0
  • 0.017 sec (1/60)
  • 13 mm

Kavarkkal Tea Estate, Valparai by Flickr user Motographer

Since you're shooting landscapes, you'll want to set the aperture to be fairly small (F9-F22), which will give you good depth of field across your shot, but still leave the aperture open enough to let enough of the fading light into your camera. And you'll almost certainly need to use a slow shutter speed - how slow will depend on which twilight phase you're working in. Your camera's meter probably works with up to a 30 second exposure, so during civil twilight you should still be able to use it to figure out how long the exposure needs to be. As you move into the nautical and astronomical phases, you may need to switch to the bulb setting - which either requires an external light meter or a guess. To use the bulb setting, depress the shutter button once to open the shutter, time your shot, and then depress it again to close the shutter (some cameras require you to hold the button down with your cable release for the length of the exposure). As with most types of low-light photography, experimentation will yield the best results.

Twilight is one of those lighting situations where you want to make sure your camera captures as much information as it can from the scene, since you'll lose detail and color if you aren't careful. Don't depend on your camera's auto white balance setting during twilight, because you probably won't be happy with the results. Instead choose the daylight setting - though even that may not give you perfect results. And shoot in RAW, if your camera gives you that option - the changing colors will make it difficult to get those colors right, and having your images in RAW will make it possible to tweak them in post processing until they look exactly the way you want them to.


As with any kind of night photography, safety is important. Take a friend along with you, or at the very least make sure you tell someone where you're going and when you will be back. Have a flashlight, because the trail is going to be a lot harder to find after twilight ends than before. And make it your goal to press that shutter button as much as possible. The light will slip away - don't let those photo opportunities do the same thing.

Want to see what's possible with Twilight photography? See my gallery of 25 twilight images.

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  1. Jerri Ward says:

    David, Just reading about twilight photography makes me wish I could go out right now and capture it. I can see the many colors as you describe the different stages of twilight. If I only understood exposure, f stops and all of the many other things that make up a perfect photograph as you do. I see many things, but miss a lot in still trying to grasp and understand the meat part of photography. Thank you so much for sharing the wealth of knowledge that you have and the gift that you have as well with those of us who long and strive to be the best photographer that we can be.

  2. algirdas says:

    Thank you dear David,
    best wishes

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.