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How to photograph twilight
The first things to consider when photographing twilight scenes are location and composition. Areas that are floodlit or feature some other kind of artificial lighting work well for twilight shots, whereas twinkling lights on their own can leave most of the scene in relative darkness, making for uninteresting shots. You can boost the appearance of lights in twilight shots by including reflections in your composition. Ponds, lakes and rivers work a treat in rural areas. If you’re shooting evening cityscapes look for wet roads, pavements and puddles, as these also work well.
Next on the list, timing is critical. Twilight itself is the time before sunrise and after sunset, when the sun is below the horizon but its light still bounces back off the upper atmosphere. This gives ambient light an intriguing blue quality, unlike the ‘golden hour’ – photographers often refer to this as the ‘blue hour’. This period only lasts for about 40 minutes in the UK, however – rather less as you get nearer the equator, and much longer towards the North or South Pole. More crucially, the amount of light in the sky can drop off radically within the space of just a few minutes, so it’s important to be set up and ready for the optimum moments.
Blurred shots are a common problem in twilight photography, generally caused by camera shake due to slow shutter speeds. There are two ways to beat the problem. Firstly, you can increase your camera’s sensitivity (ISO) setting to enable a sufficiently fast shutter speed for handholding your camera. For wide-angle shots at a focal length around 18mm, aim for a shutter speed of at least 1/30 sec, but you can even go as slow as 1/8 sec if your lens features IS (Image Stabilization). The downside to this is the images may look a bit grainy due to the increased digital image noise, but this is better than ending up with blurred shots.
Some of Canon’s D-SLRs, such as the 550D, 60D and 7D, offer remarkably good noise suppression even at extremely high sensitivity ratings of ISO3200 to 6400. This is useful not only for handheld twilight shots, but also if you need to freeze any motion, such as boats bobbing around on the water.
The second tip for optimum quality is to use a sturdy tripod for twilight shots, and stick to your camera’s base sensitivity setting, usually ISO100. You may need very slow shutter speeds of up to 30 seconds, so make sure your tripod is firmly planted on solid ground, preferably away from traffic vibration. A bonus of very slow shutter speeds is that people walking around will essentially become invisible in the shot, and lights from passing vehicles will be transformed into artistic light trails. Ripples in water will also be completely smoothed out, giving the surface a mirror finish.
Get perfect twilight results by following our guide…
1. Manual exposure
Switch to the Manual shooting mode so you can take full control of exposure settings. You can still use the metering display in the viewfinder or LCD as a rough guide to guard against over/under-exposure, but you should also review your images while you’re shooting to check the brightness levels.
2. Narrow aperture
A fairly small aperture of around f/22 will give you greater depth of field and can also create a nice star effect around small, bright points of light. If autofocus is struggling in low-lighting conditions, switch to manual focus and focus on a point that’s about a third of the way into the scene.
3. IS off
Some of Canon’s newer Image Stabilizer lenses feature automatic tripod detection. This operates only when the mirror flips up and switches off during exposure to stop blur being introduced by repeated over-correction. In our experience, however, switching IS off gives more consistent long-exposure sharpness.
4. White balance
Using the Auto white balance setting will typically accentuate the blue cast in the sky at twilight, and Daylight, Cloudy and Shade settings will progressively tone down the blueness of the sky and give artificially lit areas an increasingly yellow cast. The Tungsten white balance option is also good for twilight shots.
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