Shooting Beyond the Golden Hour: The Three Types of Twilight

Photographers know that the best lighting is found in the hour or two before sunset or right after sunrise – the Golden Hour. I have an app on my phone that can calculate and bookmark exact locations and times no matter where I go to ensure I’m maximizing this time. The color spectrum is warm and at a very flattering angle for portraits and landscapes. But don’t panic if you’re still working a session and the sun is quickly setting.

Shooting during twilight can yield some pretty impressive results, but you have to know the types and times of twilight to be prepared for shooting in these special circumstances.

The First Twilight: Civil

Civil twilight begins the moment the sun passes below the horizon and ends when the sun is 6 degrees below that.  There is still quite a bit of available light during this first phase and the sky is typically turning into a pale turquoise or purple while the clouds are often in a colorful contrast to the sky.  This is a great time for shooting directly toward the horizon and capturing impressive colors.

alexandria waterfront portraits

The Second Twilight: Nautical

Nautical twilight happens when the sun is between 6 to 12 degrees below the horizon.  The sky becomes a deeper and darker blue and objects are much more difficult to make out without the assistance of artificial light.  Some of the brighter stars and planets become visible during nautical twilight, giving photographers a good chance to capture interesting silhouettes. Nautical twilight doesn’t last very long though, so have your settings and subjects at the ready.

Nautical Twilight Photography Virginia

The Third Twilight: Astronomical

This final phase of twilight is defined when the sun is between 9 and 18 degrees below the horizon.  This is often considered night by some as many stars become visible.  For most astrophotographers wanting to capture galaxies and nebulae though, this isn’t quite dark enough.  There is still a hint of sunlight left in astronomical twilight before entering true nighttime.

Astronomical Twilight, Tennessee Smoky Mountains

It’s probably best to work in manual mode during twilight because your camera will want to force your automatic settings into “correct” exposure, giving you really noisy images. Might also be a good time to bring out your tripod.

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