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“The best way out is always through.”

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Illuminate Night Shots with a Twilight Sky

Apologies once again for being away from the blog for a week, but I've been on the road (in New York and New Jersey) shooting for the revision of The Joy of Digital Photography and for another brand new book. I much prefer shooting pictures to sitting at a computer writing (though I like both) but photography is incredibly demanding, both physically and mentally. The reward, of course, is coming home with fun new pictures.

One of the things I wanted to photograph on this trip was the Manhattan skyline at twilight. I've always wanted to shoot it from the New Jersey shore along the edge of the Hudson River and as you can see, the view from Jersey City is quite an amazing view. (There is a beautiful boardwalk that runs along the entire waterfront in Jersey City that makes a perfect shooting location--it's a devastatingly beautiful vantage point.)

The trick to getting a good photo of the night skyline is not to shoot it at night, but rather at twilight. Depending on which direction the skyline faces (and where you're shooting it from) you can often get a beautiful mix of sunset colors, twilight sky and city lights all mixed together. It's incredible. Probably the very best time to shoot is just after the sunset and during a very brief magic window of opportunity when the twilight sky glows an almost turquoise blue and the city lights are beginning to come alive. The shot here was made a few minutes past the peak of the sunset and honestly I should have begun shooting about 10 minutes before, but even as the sun was setting there was a driving rain falling--it was a wild mixture of light and weather. In fact, ten minutes before I shot this the rain was pounding so hard that I almost abandoned the shot!

Even on the best weather days, this beautiful twilight/sunset light only lasts about 15-25 minutes, so you really have to be in place with your tripod set up and your camera all ready to shoot. Once the sun starts to set the buildings (at least with west-facing buildings like these) take on some spectacular colors and as the sky darkens a bit the city lights get brighter and brighter. If you can capture the exact moment when all of the lighting conditions are peaking, you'll get some fantastic shots.

You'll need to use a tripod to get shots like this because you're going to need a relatively small aperture and a correspondingly long shutter speed (this shot was made at f/10 at 2.5 seconds). At such long shutter speeds, I also suggest using either a remote control (wireless) or the self timer, and possibly also locking up the mirror. Even though this shot is pretty sharp, I'm not totally satisfied with the sharpness and I'm not sure if the softness came from the lens I was using (a Nikkor 24-120mm lens, which is not a particularly sharp lens unfortunately) or lack of depth of field. I'm going to go back and re-shoot this with a different lens and I'll probably begin shooting a bit earlier and also using a smaller aperture (probably f/22) to get even more depth.

You can, of course, continue to shoot after the blue has faded from the sky, but somehow skylines just aren't as pretty with a black sky as they are with that nice blue glow. Also, if you shoot much after dark you'll be using much longer exposures which causes the lights in scene to blur together and create pockets of bright glare.

Twilight is the primo time, so just get to your location well before sunset, choose your shots and then be ready when the worlds of sunset, twilight and city lights begin to collide--it's an absolutely stunning mix!


Michelle Frick said...

Incredible twilight image Jeff! I hope to make it up to your part of the country one of these days! I haven't been to the NYC since I was 13 (long time ago!). Thanks for sharing. And, of course, I can't wait for the new book*s*!

Rodney said...

Jeff, Here's my attempt, following your advice. Brisbane is not as spectacular as New York, but I think the resulting panorama is not too shabby.