At the beginning of civil twilight, just after sunset, the colors of the sky change most rapidly. Clouds in the west are illuminated by orange-red sunlight, while the ones in the east remain blue and indigo. Generally speaking, civil twilight lasts for about 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the season and latitude.
While Civil Twilight is technically 20 to 30 minutes, the best possible moment to get that perfect balance of the city lights with the night sky is more of a “Twinkling of the Eye.”
As you can see, back to even biblical times, people understood that some of those things we see are like a shooting star and happen so briefly that if you are not paying attention, they will disappear.
I believe that the Civil Twilight is the best time to photograph architecture. The second best time is “Civil Dawn,” which happens at Sunrise.
What you quickly realize is that during these few minutes of Civil Twilight, the light values that are artificial come into the same exposure range as the sky. Anything that doesn’t have a light will slowly go to a silhouette.
To get the best photos of Civil Twilight requires a tripod. The best photos are generally taken with the lowest ISO. This makes your exposure time for the shutter speed take seconds, not a few seconds as you can during daylight.
When you use these longer exposure times of like 30 seconds, as I did photograph the Pier at Ocean Isle Beach, the water turns into a foam.
What happens as the light from the sky becomes darker? The light fixtures are no longer distinguishable; you see the light emitting from the institution.
The other popular thing to photograph is fireworks, which always happen after Civil Twilight. They want the fireworks to stand out in the night sky.
Most everything becomes, at best, a silhouette, and challenging to make out what is on the ground.
I worked on this photo in Lightroom to open up the shadows to reveal some of the nighttime skies, but it introduces a lot of noise in the process.
Tips for Twilight Photography
Sunrise or Sunset ~ Before even thinking of going, try and determine if this is better as a photo. Do I want the sun shining on the front or back as it sets? In some locations, the sun will be to the side, not in front or back.
Pack Tripod & Bug Spray ~ My friend Morris Abernathy and I went one evening to capture the Fort Worth Skyline, and the best location was where mosquitos ate us up. It would help if you had a sturdy tripod for the camera and lens you plan to use.
Arrive Early ~ Civil dawn is when the sun’s geometric center is 6 degrees below the horizon in the morning, and Civil dusk is the moment when the geometrical center of the sun is 6 degrees below the horizon in the evening. That is 20 minutes after sunset and 20 minutes before sunset. So whatever the time is for Sunrise or Sunset, you need to be in place with your tripod and camera setup at least 15 to 30 minutes prior.
Stay Late ~ I recommend planning for about 45 minutes past the time of Sunrise or Sunset.
Take lots of photos ~ don’t just shoot those few minutes of the best light. Shoot some with the sun still up and when it is pitch black sky. Sometimes these are also great photos.
Second or Third Camera ~ Some locations you may want to compose differently. Rather than miss a great shot, if you have extra cameras, tripods, and lenses, make use of them.
Cable Release or Radio Transmitter ~ To get the sharpest photos, use a cable release. If you are shooting on a DSLR, locking up the mirror will help sell. If you are using multiple cameras, using a radio transmitter can help you trigger numerous cameras simultaneously.
There are many times that daylight will reveal things like mountains in the distance that dusk or dawn can hide.