Digital Photography 101: How to photograph the different phases of twilight

Digital Photography 101: How to photograph the different phases of twilightPhotographs of sunsets and sunrises can certainly be beautiful, yet they can also be somewhat repetitive. Many people think that if you've seen one sunset picture, you've seen them all. But if you stick around for a while after the sun has set and the sky starts to deepen into twilight, you'll find even more gorgeous light and fabulous photographic opportunities.

kmg 300 twilight lake flickr foton28Did you know that there are actually 3 distinct phases to twilight, and they all have names and explicit definitions? Read on as we explain the differences and show you how to take beautiful pictures during this magical time of day. Hopefully, there will be no sparkly vampires in sight...

The term twilight refers to the period of time between darkness and the sun cresting the horizon in the morning and vice versa in the evening. Its 3 phases are called civil twilight, nautical twilight, and astronomical twilight; they are sometimes referred to as dawn or dusk (e.g., civil dawn, nautical dusk, etc.) to differentiate the two times of day. The technical definitions have to do with the range of actual geometric degrees by which the sun is below the horizon, but generally speaking, they can be thought of as brightest twilight, middle twilight, and darkest twilight. 

In all cases, twilight is the time of day characterized by a gorgeous deep cobalt, indigo, or lavender sky, lovely clouds, and interesting silhouettes.

kmg 300 twilight fireworksTips for shooting at twilight
The 3 different phases of twilight each require their own set of techniques, but basic low-light photography tips apply to them all.
  • Use a tripod to steady your camera, so you can select a shutter speed without worrying about blur from camera shake. The more ambient light there is, the less important using a tripod will be, but it's always a good idea!
  • Use a low ISO to reduce digital noise, but be aware that it requires an even slower shutter speed. This is especially important with twilight photography because you will likely be shooting large swaths of deeply colored sky, where digital noise can be obvious.
  • Let your composition choose your aperture. A large, open aperture makes it easier to use a shorter shutter speed and low ISO, but it also gives you a much smaller depth of field. If you're photographing a cityscape or landscape where you want a larger depth of field, use a smaller aperture.
  • Turn autofocus off. Your camera will have a lot of trouble focusing in the dim light, so you're best off doing it manually.
Civil twilight
Civil twilight is the brightest phase of twilight, occurring between sunset and the moment the geometric center of the sun is exactly 6° below the horizon. During civil twilight, there is still plenty of light to see by, the horizon is clearly visible, and only the brightest stars and planets are visible. You can probably even get away with taking pictures without a tripod, if your ISO is high enough.

kmg 630 twilight civil campfireDuring civil twilight, the colors of the sky are changing most rapidly. At sunset, any clouds in the western sky are illuminated by a range of sunset colors, and the eastern sky is quickly deepening into blues and indigos. This is the time when there is the most contrast between sky, clouds, and ground. Generally speaking, civil twilight lasts for about 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the season and latitude.

kmg 630 twilight nautical flickr yinghaiNautical twilight
Nautical twilight occurs when the center of the sun is between 6° and 12° below the horizon. It represents the last part of the day when navigation via the horizon and star sightings at sea is possible, before darkness falls to such an extent that the horizon is no longer visible. At this point, much of the sunset glow has faded, and the colors are a cool blue spectrum. With little light available, you will definitely need to use a tripod for shooting.

kmg 300 twilight flickr gustavioverissimoArtificial light becomes more important in your pictures during nautical twilight. Photographs of city skylines are particularly stunning at this time of day, as are shots of harbors, bays, and lakes, with the faraway lights of civilization reflected on the calm water. Don't hesitate, though -- while nautical twilight generally lasts about 30 minutes, the lighting conditions change very quickly. You'll probably have the best luck taking multiple shots of the same scene, to see which light and color looks best.

kmg 630 twilight astronomical campfireAstronomical twilight
Astronomical twilight occurs when the sun is between 12° and 18° below the horizon. After astronomical twilight ends (or before it begins in the morning), it is considered full night -- it's as dark as it's going to get! During astronomical twilight, there is still a small amount of indirect, ambient light from the sunset still discernable on the western horizon, but in most locations where there is sky glow from cities or other light pollution, this time may well be indistinguishable from full night.

kmg 300 twilight astronomical moonIt's difficult to get good photographs of scenes without artificial light during this phase, though cityscapes can be particularly beautiful. It's a great time to try photographing light trails or doing some light painting. Astronomical twilight's also a perfect opportunity to photograph campfires or the moon hovering low on the horizon.

Getting beautiful photographs of twilight takes commitment. You have to be willing to stick around after most people have already packed up and headed home. You must take the time to plan your shots, set up the tripod, and wait for that perfect moment when the colors are truly gorgeous. But with perseverance and a bit of luck, you will be well rewarded. 

[Writing credit: Katherine Gray. Image credits: K. GrayFoton28YinghaiGustavo Veríssimo]

Thanks to our friends over at Tecca for submitting this post and you can find more How-to tech articles & Gadget news at  And, as always, feel free post your own "twilight photos" over at the Steve's Facebook page!