After the Sun
Capturing the Glow and Magic of Dusk
As you read this, we are awash in the long days of summer. Flowers, green lawns, warm weather, and allergies aside, this time of year is most unique in that the average "nine-to-fiver" can come home from work, deep-six the suit, grab the camera bag, and hightail it out the door into the sweetest light of the lingering day.
(Note: If you reside on the flip-side of the equator, bookmark this article and come back in six months.)
There are several elements that make dusk shooting so special, and so very different from daytime shooting. First, sunset and dusk are devoid of the glare, harsh shadows and washed-out skies that that commonly plague photographs taken during the midday hours of summer. Secondly, daylight photography is about reflective light, and as such, what we see around us is the world under a spotlight, both figuratively and literally. Once the sun drops out of view, however, we are left with a brief period of time when the sun, though out of sight, leaves an afterglow in its wake that, at its peak, lasts less than a half hour.
Dusk is also the time window light, streetlights, and the glow of neon signage start emerging, no longer washed out and diminished by the sun's overpowering rays. During this brief period of time, a wonderful balance is struck between the glow in the sky and the ambient light emanating from buildings and the streets. No longer strong-armed by the sun, the various glows emanating from signage and window light interplay with the blues and occasional pastel colors that illuminate the twilight skies.
Unlike daytime light, the contrast range of dusk light is well within the comfort levels of almost any well-exposed image file. Still, if you have the time, bracket your exposures. As for white balance, you might want to try a few settings starting with Daylight and Auto. If your camera has a Nighttime setting, give it a try and see how it compares to the others.
Since no two camera sensors "see" light and color the same way, it's a good idea to experiment by shooting at different Scene and White Balance settings to establish which settings work best under different lighting conditions.
If your camera captures RAW, you can easily tweak the image until it looks exactly the way you remember it looking, or maybe wished it looked. (Don't worry… we won't tell.)
If you plan on shooting images containing mixed lighting, i.e. street lamps, incandescent window light, neon, and fluorescent office lights, and electronic signage, you will be running into every color shift known to mankind. If this is the case, stick to whatever settings render the sky most faithfully, and "fix" the rest downstream in Photoshop, as needed.
As dusk approaches, light levels begin dropping off dramatically. Even with a fast (i.e. f/2.8 or wider) image-stabilized lens on your camera, stability becomes an important factor as per how sharp your pictures will turn out. If your lens has an effective maximum aperture of f/4.5 or slower, hand-holding is dicey at best, and becomes even dicier as you increase the focal length of the lens. (And this is at wide aperture … we haven't even stopped the lens down yet). Even if your image-stabilized camera/lens enables you to hand-hold your camera four stops slower than normal, at a certain point you're far better off turning the stabilizers off and mounting your camera on a tripod or other stable platform.
Easy-to-tote solutions to this problem are tablepods, ultra-compact tripods, and similar pocket- and pouch-sized products designed to help maintain optimal levels of steadiness under less-than-desirable shooting conditions. If you're shooting with a point-and-shoot or lighter-weight DSLR, Gorillapods are well worth looking into.
But don't limit yourself to tables. Lampposts, building walls, car tops, and the occasional boulder all make excellent steadying posts. The Leica Tablepod and Leica Ballhead combo, aside from being an amazingly sturdy-yet-compact tablepod, can be used as a chest-pod by spreading the three leg sections to a position that's comfortable when seated on your upper ribcage. The average DSLR, when mounted on this combo, sits darn close to eye-level. Similar high-seated tablepods can be used in the same fashion.
More compact camera supports designed to steady your camera and better ensure sharp pictures under low-light conditions are available from Benro, Bogen, Bushnell, Cullman, Hama, Gitzo, Novoflex, Slik, Sunpak, and Velbon. For a complete listing of all of the above products Click Here.
And don't forget sunrise...
Dawn and sunrise are essentially sunsets in reverse, and everything you've just read is equally applicable to the earliest light of day. The difference is you have to get up at an ungodly hour in order to be up, out, and ready to press the shutter button when the light starts getting pretty. And keep in mind there's no guarantee street and store signs will be lit, as many go off automatically in the wee hours. And lastly, don't expect everyone to leave their window lights burning all night to make you happy. But then again, if you're just lying there tossing and turning in bed, you might as well get up, get out, and go take a pretty picture or two. Right?
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