Arch and Cave at Night

The Magic of Twilight – Part II

Continued from The Magic of Twilight – Part I .

After civil twilight in the evening (and before it in the morning) is a period known as nautical twilight.  This stage of twilight occurs from the time the sun is 6 to 12 degrees below the horizon.  This can be another great time to capture images.  You can get unique shots that convey the brief moment in time between the dark of night and the light of day.

Twilight near Sand Flats Road

I took this image at the beginning of nautical twilight in the evening, when the camera was still able to capture a lot of light on the land.

During nautical twilight, it will start to become too dark to use your camera’s exposure meter.  You’ll need to switch to manual exposure on your camera.  You should use the widest aperture you can, while still getting everything in focus.  You’ll need to use longer and longer exposures (up to about 30 seconds) and start raising the ISO to properly expose your shot and get data extending to the right side of your histogram.

Chimney Rock, San Juan Mountains

The colors from a vivid sunset were still visible over Chimney Rock well after the sun went down.

It will start to look quite dark to the naked eye during nautical twilight.  However, your camera can often still capture some golden light hitting the landscape.  You’ll usually get the best light on the land if you are facing away from the spot where the sun set or where it is about to rise.  If, on the other hand, you face toward the direction of the sun, you can often get good colors in the sky just above the horizon.  If there was a very colorful sunset, some of the color on the clouds may last until nautical twilight.

Canyon Country at Twilight

In this image from a remote overlook, some colorful light remains visible over the horizon where the sun set.

During the beginning of nautical twilight in the evening (or the end of it in the morning), it will often be light enough to get a good exposure of both the land and the sky with a single shot.  As the light fades, though, you’ll likely need to combine two exposures to get a good quality image.  You can take a longer exposure for the land and a shorter exposure for the sky and combine them in post-processing.  The techniques for doing this are beyond the scope of this article, but I discuss this in detail in my night photography guide and post-processing videos.

Arch and Cave at Night

I combined two exposures – one for the land and one for the sky – to capture this image of a remote arch about 45 minutes after sunset.

Your camera will be able to capture quite a few stars during nautical twilight.  However, it won’t be dark enough to capture very dramatic images of the Milky Way.  You’ll need to shoot during astronomical twilight or during the dark of night to capture these images.  I will discuss shooting during astronomical twilight in the next article.

About Author Grant

Grant Collier has been working as a professional photographer since 1996 and has been shooting photos at night since 2003. He is the author of 12 books and has recently released a book called Collier’s Guide to Night Photography in the Great Outdoors. He has also produced a new instructional video called Collier’s Guide to Post-Processing Night Photos.