For some reason I've had several inquires lately about how I do Twilight and/or Night Photography. Perhaps it's all the colorful Christmas lighting and decorations, which do add a lot interest.Most of the questions have been coming from Realtors and homeowners wanting something special and different to market their homes. Last year I even had a real estate virtual tour company out of Los Angeles contact me asking how I produce my twilight shots. I was a little surprised since this was a rather large company already providing that same service (among many others) to their clients. After I related my work flow, he responded with "that's not at all how we've been doing it, but I like your results better." I never did find out how he was doing it, but I thought I'd share how I do it.
First of all when it comes to commercial twilight photography of homes, shopping centers, resorts, etc. I keep it as fast and as simple as possible; for two reasons. First, I generally don't get paid enough to have assistants and special lighting to move around. Secondly, the window of opportunity for the best light of the evening is very brief. If I'm going to get more than a couple of unique shots from different viewpoint locations, I have to work very fast. I've read the steps other photographers take and most get outstanding, perhaps superior results, but the time it takes is far too long and it can take multiple nights to get the assignment done. That's okay for a lot of them as they can often command large fees for their services. The most common question is "when is the best time;" meaning how dark out should it be. And the answer is, like so many things--that depends! It depends on the season, clouds, weather conditions like fog, environmental conditions like pollution, your compass direction relative to the Sun, and more. It's nearly impossible to predict where and when the sweetest light will occur but you'll know it when you see it. I've been hired to do dusk shots only to have the client select the sunset shots because of the color in the sky. We should probably define a few words like what exactly is twilight and dusk. Dusk occurs after Twilight and is the beginning of darkness in the evening but before the blue disappears. Long exposures at this time can produce beautiful deep indigo blue. Twilight is the time between Sunset and Dusk (or between dawn and sunrise) where sunlight is scattering in the upper atmosphere and illuminating the lower atmosphere and land features. The sky can be too bright during early twilight, especially if there are few or no clouds, in which case I often use a Graduated Neutral Density Filter. In addition to the occasional use of a GND or polarizer filters, a tripod is an absolute must since this is low-light photography. Its also a good idea to have a shutter release cable. There is one other piece of equipment I find essential for dusk and night photography and that is a high power flashlight, preferably one with a warm or yellow hue to "paint with light." I like to use Surefire flashlights as they are lightweight, small and put out a lot of candle power. Since we're on the subject of equipment, I'll also mention that its quite helpful to have a camera with a large, sensitive sensor which can keep the noise down with high ISO settings. Quality glass is also important, but that's generally true in any light condition. I use a Nikon D700 for most of my low light photography projects and I always shoot in RAW as I'll need as much leeway as I can get for color balance and other post production. Here is the basic workflow I use for twilight, dusk and night photography:
A one evening commercial photography session of a home, complete with post-production editing, will take me about 4 to 5 hours and produce about six unique images for delivery to the client. Inset-Left. If the landscape includes the night sky I use a shutter speed as long as possible without creating star trails, unless of course I want star trails. How long that is depends on the focal length being used. Some time ago I came across a helpful formula to determine what that was. You take the number 700 (I don't know why) and divide into it by the focal length of the lens. Don't forget to take the crop factor into consideration. You want to use the effective focal length. For example, an 18mm lens mounted to a DSLR with a typical APS-C sized sensor and a crop factor of 1.5 would have an effective focal length of 27mm. 700 divided by 27 equals approximately 26 seconds. This is the maximum amount of time the shutter can be open without clearly discernible star trails. This is obviously a big advantage for wide angle lenses. Telephotos and telescopes will require a mechanism to compensate for the Earth's rotation. If more light is needed, raising the ISO or increasing the aperture size will be necessary. Although HDR in night photography can further extend the dynamic range in a scene, it is not a realistic solution when movement, including Earth rotation, is present.