Landscape photography is all about light. At least it is for me, and the best light of all is dynamic light; light that changes in intensity, warmth and colour before my very eyes. You have probably already figured out that I am, of course, talking about the light seen around sunrise and sunset. I love light such as this, and I realised a while ago that it doesn’t have to be a case of getting out there and hoping for the best. A little understanding of what happens to light around the ends of a day can go a long way to making a landscape photography outing successful.

Interested in knowing more? Then come with me to the twilight zone.

Nature and wildlife photography: Twilight Zones.

The Zones
Dawn and dusk both fall under the twilight banner and both are of interest to outdoor photographers. In order to simplify things I will be describing events as they happen around sunrise. There are two reasons for this: I am a morning lark, not a night owl, so I tend to seek out sunrises rather than sunsets as a matter of personal preference; also, as the sequence of events are basically mirrored at each end of the day it will save me a lot of repetition. So if for you, sunrise is something that happens while you are still tucked up in bed, you can always apply what I say to the other end of the day (albeit in the reverse order).

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that something as natural as the daily transition from night to day has been broken down and scientifically classified. The roll of honour reads something like this: night, astronomical twilight, amateur astronomical twilight, nautical twilight, civil twilight, sunrise and day.

Night is the period when the sky is completely dark and is unaffected by any light from the sun at all. Astronomical twilight officially begins when the sun is at a position of 18 degrees below the horizon. It is no longer pitch black, but it is still dark enough to carry out astronomical observations successfully. This blends with amateur astronomical twilight, when it is no longer totally dark but most astronomical observations can still be carried out. For our purposes we can class them as one and the same thing.

Now it is beginning to get noticeably lighter. Nautical twilight is an old mariner term - it begins when there is sufficient light to define the horizon and read a sextant, while still being able to see enough major stars to navigate by. The sun is now 12 degrees below the horizon. Civil twilight starts when the sun is six degrees below the horizon; by now it is light enough to work outside without the aid of artificial lighting. Sunrise is, yes you’ve guessed it, when the sun begins to rise above the horizon. Officially it is defined as when the upper edge of the sun’s disc touches the visible horizon.

What does all of this mean for the landscape photographer? Let’s take a look.

Photographically Speaking
It’s pitch dark, stars are shinning brightly and you can barely see your camera – this is night. These are ideal conditions for taking photographs of star trails where exposures can be up to several hours long. Or, if you live far enough north, you can best catch dancing ribbons of colour during displays of the Northern Lights. These opportunities remain throughout astronomical twilight with only a slight tendency to record a background colour.

Nature and wildlife photography - twilight
Photographs taken before civil twilight begins will be predominantly blue in colour.

About one hour before sunrise, light levels have risen enough to be able to look around and make out some detail. The sun is 12 degrees below the horizon and nautical twilight begins. In some ways this is a halfway house between darkness and day. Light levels are subdued and landscape photographs taken now will be predominantly blue in hue.

Civil twilight kicks in approximately thirty minutes before sunrise and this is when the action really begins. By now the sun is six degrees below the horizon and is in such a position that light can catch the underside of clouds. Make a note of this, because until this point it is impossible for sunlight to directly light any cloud, and it is this light that creates the effects that landscape photographers think are worth getting up at an unearthly hour for. Clouds near the horizon will light up first and as time ticks by this effect will move across the sky. Under ideal conditions, where cloud is broken and at several levels, the sky can look like the aftermath of an accident in a paint factory.

Colour fades and the show moves on to sunrise.

For a short period everything basks in a deliciously warm glow. How long this lasts is incredibly variable, ranging from a few seconds to tens of minutes. After this, light conditions don’t really change much at all and I simply think of this as being daytime.

Using The Knowledge
Civil twilight is when light is most dynamic and it is the critical time for stunning skies. It is very important to be on location before civil twilight begins. I find that getting on location about one hour before sunrise, at the start of nautical twilight, is best. This gives me enough time to get myself organised and in the right frame of mind for some creative landscape photography. Arriving on location in good time also allows ample opportunity to scout out different foreground/background combinations that may not have been spotted on previous visits.

Nature and wildlife photography - twilight
Red is the first colour to be picked up by overhead clouds.

Keeping one eye on my watch I’ll look around for additional potential pictures but always make sure that I’m at my camera and ready to start taking photographs at least 35-40 minutes before sunrise. During civil twilight things change fast. In a matter of minutes light levels can increase by several stops, so it is important to keep checking camera settings, especially if you are using your camera in manual mode for these kind of photographs (which I thoroughly recommend). Study the sequence of colours so that you have some idea of what is coming next and how much time you have left. Typically blood red clouds steadily lighten to mid-red and then to pink. Next they turn orange and finally wash out through gold to yellow to white.

Once colours have faded it’s time to pack up your camera – right? Wrong! Unless of course you are an alpenglow junkie (I’ve seen a few of these landscape photographers in action. They disappear before the sun has risen because, as far as they are concerned, once the civil twilight colours have gone there is no point in taking any more photographs). Now it is time to capture the sunrise itself.

Some very special effects can be seen as the sun’s disc creeps above a distant horizon. Contrast can become a problem and usually shadow detail needs to be sacrificed to prevent total burning out of any highlights. I find that this is a good time to try for silhouettes against a rising sun. It can take a couple of minutes for the sun to completely clear the horizon, giving me plenty of opportunity to create a variety of images – providing that I work fast.

A wonderful light that is favoured by most outdoor photographers now illuminates the surrounding landscape. This sweet light can last for anything between a few minutes and a couple of hours, and shouldn’t be neglected. On a typical morning shoot I will have been facing the eastern horizon until this point. Now I turn around and look for pictures basking in golden light as warm low-angle lighting can transform even an ordinary scene, and should not be ignored.

Every daybreak writes its own story and just how the twilight zones will apply to a given location will vary with season and latitude. I live at a latitude of almost exactly 54 degrees north - nearer the equator or poles characteristics of the twilight zones will be different. However, by using the descriptions above as a guide you won’t go far wrong.

Nature and wildlife photography - twilight
Broken and layered clouds will give the best displays of colour.

Sunrise is what anchors all of this and you need to know exactly what time it occurs. The Web is a wonderful resource for this sort of information and many sites will provide it. First I will check the location on Multi-map or Street Map and make a note of the latitude and longitude values. I will then use this information to calculate sunrise times on the U.S. Naval Observatory website. A quick Web search will find many other sites for you if you don’t particularly like this one.

Timing is one key piece of the planning jigsaw and weather conditions are another. Broken cloud is essential for spectacular colour displays. Mist and light fog can fill a sky with a single colour, clear skies can create a ribbon of colour above the horizon, but are usually surprisingly uninspiring while thick low cloud is the worst. It smothers out all colour displays and can be a real disappointment, especially if you have just driven a couple of hours to get to your location. Best of all is a morning when cloud is broken and layered at different altitudes. Clouds such as these will pick up different colours and display them all at once across the sky.

Do It
Of course all of this has to come together to get the best results, but you won’t need everything at 100 percent to get a great landscape photograph, although understanding what is happening will certainly help in making the most of any given situation. Now all you need to do is get up, get out, get in the zone and get photographing.