Twilight Dancing in My Mind

The visions dancing in my mind
The early dawn, the shades of time
Twilight crawling through my windowpane
From “Twilight” by ELO

A favorite song from one of my favorite groups, supposedly ELO is singing about following under the spell of a woman, although I wonder if the real meaning is more about a drug-induced state of mind. Come to think of it, I guess there really isn’t any difference. No matter, it’s a great song. And the atmospheric condition of twilight is my favorite situation in which to photograph. Technically, twilight is the period when the sun is below the horizon but is still illuminating the sky. Within a few minutes of sunrise or sunset, the sky is so bright that very little color appears unless there are clouds in the sky, but when the sun is around 15 to 40 minutes below the horizon, the sky can be awash in pink, purple, and golden hues. I positively love it!

Seashells and twilight sky

Whelk shells on picket fence silhouetted against the twilight sky.

After sunset in the western sky (and before sunrise in the eastern sky), a golden or orangish glow appears on the horizon. Depending on the atmospheric conditions, this glow, called the twilight arch, can become super-saturated and makes a terrific photographic subject. If the conditions are right, one of my favorite atmospheric phenomena occurs with crepuscular rays shining into the sky above the horizon. Crepuscular means “pertaining to twilight,” so the term “crepuscular rays” technically refers to sunrays that occur when the sun is below the horizon. (In popular usage, the term also refers to sunrays occurring during the day.) Crepuscular rays typically occur when the sun is around 15 to 40 minutes below the horizon.

While the twilight arch and crepuscular rays are lighting up the eastern sky at sunrise or the western sky at sunset, in the opposite direction another phenomenon occurs called the antitwilight arch or twilight wedge. As the sun sets in the west, a blue band appears on the eastern horizon with a pink band above it. The blue portion is Earth’s shadow, while the pink portion is the sky illuminated by the sun. As the sun sinks lower, the blue band rises higher. Between 20 to 30 minutes after sunset, the pink band disappears and the blue becomes indistinguishable from the night sky. The exact opposite occurs in the western sky at dawn. In addition to the antitwilight arch, there is another phenomenon called anticrepuscular rays, which occur opposite the rising or setting sun. 

New York City skyline at twilight

New York City skyline at twilight.

Color by itself is not a good photo subject. If it were, all we’d need to do to make a great shot is shoot a closeup of a smooth painted wall. You need line, form, texture—something—to go with it. With twilight, one of my favorite things is to silhouette graphic objects against the sky. Silhouettes always make strong subjects, and when you add a gorgeous twilight sky as a backdrop, you have a winning combination.

Besides the obvious benefit of a beautiful sky, the real advantage of shooting during twilight for a night photographer is that this is when the illumination in the sky most closely matches the illumination in cityscapes. In any given twilight period, there will be a few minutes when you can shoot a cityscape that has good exposure in the city lights AND in the sky, and you can get it in IN ONE SHOT! No need for HDR or stacking two exposures and masking. The exact time after sunset or before sunrise when this occurs will vary according to season and atmospheric conditions, so it’s best to start shooting early and keep at it until the twilight is gone. 

Crepuscular rays

Crepuscular rays illuminate the sky in Nantahala National Forest.

Not all is perfect in the twilight world, however. As many of you know about me from my talks, I think it is a cruel irony of nature that my favorite time to photograph is also my favorite time to eat and drink wine. I mean, come on, why couldn’t twilight occur at 2pm or 3am or something like that instead of dinnertime?    

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