Guide to getting the best light for dusk and dawn twilight photography

If you’re a fan of night photography and are getting frustrated that your pictures don’t look anything like what you see on the TV or magazines, you need to be aware of how fast things move during and after sunset. It’s not just enough to have a tripod and do a long exposure- you need to capture the right time of the twilight.

If you wait too long, you’ll end up with something like this:

An absolute piece of garbage picture. I joke, this was one of my first attempts at night photography and I was just excited to not have a blurry picture. To get to the next level, you need to watch the light, even on a night when you’re without your camera.

Most photographers are aware of the golden hour – that magical hour before sunset and after sunrise where the sun is low above the horizon and provides the most flattering light for your subjects. What many are not aware of however are the stages of the light shortly after the golden hour:

  • Daylight (to stay on topic, let’s say anything where the sun is above the horizon)
  • Sunset
  • Civil Twilight (Sun is at 6 degrees under the horizon)
  • Nautical Twilight (Sun is at 12 degrees under the horizon(
  • Astronomical Twilight (Sun is at 18 degrees under the horizon)
  • Dusk, Night, boring.

Sunrise pictures have the same concept except in reverse.

This is the time to be on your toes and keep shooting. Here is the golden hour:
Pre-sunset Golden Hour…ok this is like almost at the end of the golden hour.
The Pennybacker Bridge at sunset

Actual sunset is not that exciting. It’s just boring light
Sunset. The sun’s center is right at the horizon. You have some light leaking on the sky but the light is not enough to be useful as a main light and too bright to have a nice sky. To make this sky look good, you’d have to use a strobe with CTO gel on your subject and change your white balance to tungsten, otherwise, your sky will be boring.

1400 Smith Street and 1500 Louisiana  Street Buildings

Civil Dusk is when things start getting interesting. The center of the sun is now 6 degrees below the horizon. The sky is darker now and there is still enough light to capture landscapes without blowing either one out. If you don’t have any man-made lights on your subject (nature and not buildings), or you’re trying to capture the moon along with buildings, this is a very good time for photography.
Civil Dusk/Twilight

1400 Smith Street and 1500 Louisiana  Street Buildings

After just a few minutes, the center of the sun will be 12 degrees below the sunset and my favorite time to photograph buildings. The sky is a darker blue but there is enough light to capture all the details of the buildings without blowing out the highlights

Nautical Dusk/Twilight

1400 Smith Street and 1500 Louisiana  Street Buildings
The next stage is Astronomical twilight where the sun is 18 degrees below the horizon. This is your last chance. The sky will be a very deep steel blue. If you have dimly colored lights, this would be a good time to photograph. If the lights are too bright, then it may blow out your highlights if you want the sky to show up.
Astronomical Dusk/Twilight

1400 Smith Street and 1500 Louisiana  Street Buildings

Next stage is night. The sky is now black. Boring!


Hope this helps. It’s not meant to be scientific and I probably made some technical errors, but I think it shows the stages of light pretty well.


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