Twilight Isn’t All About Vampires


Taken during Civil Twilight

Understanding how natural light works is a major topic of discussion during my digital photography classes. Since photographing sunsets and sunrises is a popular activity for travel photography, I typically try to explain how sunlight interacts with the atmosphere to create some stunning effects.

In addition to discussing the concept of the “golden hour”, which is the first and last hour of sunlight in a given day, twilight also plays an important role in outdoor photography. Most people are familiar with the term twilight, but many are unaware of the different types of twilight. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, twilight occurs in three phases and occurs during both sunrise and sunset:

  • Astronomical Twilight: the time at which the sun is 18 degrees below the horizon. It is that point in time at which the sun starts lightening the sky. Prior to this time during the morning, the sky is completely dark. During the evening, this is the point where the sky completely turns dark.
  • Nautical Twilight: the time when the center of the sun is 12 degrees below the horizon, and only general or vague outlines of objects are visible. During the evening this is when it becomes too difficult to perceive the horizon, and in the morning this is the point when the horizon becomes distinguishable. This term goes back to the days when sailing ships navigated by using the stars.
  • Civil Twilight: the time at which the sun is 6 degrees below the horizon. At this time, there is enough light for objects to be clearly distinguishable and that outdoor activities can commence (dawn) or end (dusk) without artificial illumination. Civil twilight is the definition of twilight most widely used by the general public.

To demonstrate the twilight effect, I photographed the morning sky behind my home.


This image was captured at 6:39am.


This image was captured at 6:41am

While these images were taken only moments apart, the color of the sky and clouds is quite different. This is due to the fact that the sun was moving through the phases of twilight, altering the angle at which light hit the atmosphere. As this angle changed, so did the color of the light.

When capturing images during the early and late day, consider shooting before sunrise and after sunset for some great color opportunities.

Learning to Use Natural Light in Travel Photography; The Golden Hour

Light is one of the most important elements of photography. When working in a studio, you can control the temperature, luminosity and position of lighting to achieve the perfect balance for your shot. Unfortunately, natural light isn’t so flexible or accommodating

The Golden Hour (aka, Magic Hour, Blue Hour or Sweet Hour) is loosely defined as the first and last hour of sunlight each day. This time frame can vary greatly depending on the time of year, location and other factors. During the Golden Hour, the sun is near or even below the horizon, causing it’s light to be diffused in the atmosphere. The result is a very soft, warm light, that is ambient without a direct source. Blue light is also scattered, resulting in deeper and more brilliant reds. Painters, photographers, filmmakers and other visual artists have taken advantage of this natural light effect for centuries.

20111121-0207The image shown is an example of shooting during the Golden Hour. It was taken at approximately 3:05 pm on 11/21/2011. While this might seem a bit early in the day for the Golden Hour, there are other factors that have to be considered. This image was taken just north of London, England at a latitude of about 51 degrees. The solar noon on this day was 11:46 am and sunset was at 4:04 pm. At high noon, the sun was at an altitude of only about 18.7 degrees. What does all this mean? On this day, the sun stayed just above the horizon all day, extending the Golden Hour effect long past normal time frames. There was also a light cloud cover that further diffused the light, producing really nice conditions for photography.

When planning your travel photography outings, you’ll need to do a little homework if you want to take advantage of the Golden Hour effect. Research the estimated sunrise and sunset times for the location you plan to visit, as well as the weather forecasts. Check out the terrain and type of area you want to photograph. For example, if you’re shooting around Denver, Colorado, you’ll need to factor in how the surrounding mountains might affect the light.

To help with your travel photography planning, check out Its a great resource for information on locations around the world. The Golden Hour Calculator is pretty cool too.