We now move away from the daytime and start to take a look at the types of light we see from late in the day until darkness falls.
Taking Photographs in the Evening Golden Hour Light
Just like the period just after sunrise, the time just before sunset is an excellent time for outdoor photography. As is the case during the morning golden hour, the sunlight has a warm, golden quality during its evening counterpart.
Notre Dame Cathedral seems to glow during the evening golden hour in this photo. The term “golden hour” is again misleading. On the evening I took this photo, the golden hour light only lasted about 30 minutes. The long days of mid-summer provide the longest golden “hour” whereas, in the depths of winter, the golden hour light may only last a few minutes.
My own frequently overcast country of Ireland often gets no golden hour at all such is the cloud cover! It’s useful to keep a close eye on weather reports to increase your chances of being in location when the light is likely to enhance your photos. Sometimes it works out and at other times it doesn’t. When it doesn’t work out, put the camera away and simply enjoy the location. As photographers we sometimes forget to put the camera away from time to time and take in our surroundings with our own eyes and ears rather than through a lens.
The evening golden hour light casts a warm glow on the Mauritsuis Museum in The Hague. This superb little museum contains masterpieces such as “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” by Vermeer as well as works by Rembrandt and Rubens.
My sister lived in The Hague at the time and lent me a bicycle to get around this very pleasant city. Unfortunately, it was designed for a 6 foot 5 Dutchman not a 5 foot 5 Irishman. I struggled to keep it under control at the best of times never mind on the cobbled streets that are criss-crossed with tram tracks. I managed to get the wheels stuck in these tracks more than once. When this happens, you have a simple choice to make: Do I fall to the left or to the right? I tried both.
The elegant Doge’s Palace in Venice looks even more stunning than usual when its facade is painted with the golden light of the evening time. The wide angle lens has exaggerated the perspective and angles. It can be tricky to keep the verticals actually vertical with such lenses.
If you are very lucky, you might be able to capture a golden hour sunburst in the evening. The photo above is a prime example of being in the right place at the right time. I was having a drink at the café at the top of the Montparnasse Tower in Paris when I noticed a beautiful golden hour sunburst over the city outside. I knew this light wouldn’t last long so I had to run up two flights of stairs with tripod legs flailing in all directions, throwing several small children out of my way as I did so. Thankfully, I just about made it in time to capture the last of the sunburst as it bathed the city below in its golden light.
Natural scenery also looks particularly beautiful during the golden hour especially in the moments just before sunset. The very last light of the day has illuminated the rocks in the foreground with a soft warm light. A few seconds later, the sun disappeared beneath the horizon and the light was gone. It had only lasted a few seconds like this.
Taking Photographs at Sunset
The few minutes just before the sun disappears below the horizon is a fantastic time to capture something special. Often, there will be a sunburst on the horizon at this time. It usually only lasts a few seconds though so it’s important to have your shot set up in advance and be ready to go at the “decisive moment”.
This photo was taken among the fishing boats by the Kasbah in Hammamet, Tunisia. Sunny Tunisia has some wonderful golden hour light almost every single day. As at sunrise, a little cloud is always welcome at sunset as the low sun illuminates the undersides of the clouds in a variety of warm tones. The colours in the sky on this particular evening were absolutely spectacular.
Taking Photographs in the Dusk Light
Dusk is the period just after the sun has set but there is still some colour left in the sky especially on the horizon where the sun has just set. Often, we get an attractive orange afterglow and some stunning colours in the clouds at this time. The tones tend to be little more vivid at dusk than at dawn.
The next photograph is a perfect example of how cloud can add interest to a dusk scene. This image would not have nearly the same impact if the sky had been clear. I took this shot near the Ponte Romana just after the sun had set. The sun, though below the horizon by now had painted the underside of the clouds above in with a slight orange tint. There is also a lovely balance between the light left in the sky and the street lights and illuminations on buildings such as the church on top of the hill in the distance.
Don’t despair however if you are greeted with a clear sky in the evening. The following shots from Place de la Concorde and the Louvre Pyramid in Paris were both taken on clear evenings as dusk was descending on the city. Despite the lack of clouds, they both work in their own way.
Like at dawn, dusk is a perfect time to capture silhouettes. This photo of one of the fountains on Place de la Concorde was taken against the coral tones of the post-sunset sky. The silhouette of the Eiffel Tower in the distance seems closer than in reality. This is due to the effects of using a relatively longer focal length of 70 mm. We learnt about how zooming in on a scene like this compresses perspective in the tutorial on focal length.
The afterglow of the setting sun is clear in the above photo. The sun had just set behind the famous glass pyramid at the Louvre Museum creating a pleasing silhouette against the warm orange glow of the sky just above the horizon. By now, the city lights were beginning to switch on and dusk was beginning to gradually transition into the blue hour phase of the evening.
On the evening I took the above photograph, I had taken a series of golden hour photographs at the Ponte dell’Accademia over the Grand Canal in Venice but was a little disappointed with the results. The lack of cloud in the sky meant that the images were a little lacking in drama. They were fine but nothing particularly special.
I spent some time sitting on the steps of the bridge deleting images from the camera to make space and was about to head back to my rented apartment when I noticed that the sky had turned to a very delicate pastel tone of apricot. The scene had been completely transformed once the sun had dipped below the horizon. I went back on to the bridge and took the shot above. It goes to show once again that patience is so important in photography. Just because the light is not good right not does not mean it won’t improve in even a few minutes.
One of my favourite landscape photographers David Noton often speaks about the importance of “waiting for the light”. In fact it’s the title of his first book. I’d highly recommend that you check out his photography and books. They certainly had a big influence on my own photography.
Taking Photographs during the Evening Blue Hour Light
The evening blue hour is, without doubt, the best time for capturing cityscapes. Although the morning blue hour is also a fantastic time for urban photography, often the lights that illuminate the city’s landmarks have been switched off by then.
As during the morning blue hour, there is still enough ambient light to create a nice balance between the sky above and the buildings below. As mentioned earlier, the deep blue sky at this time is arguably more attractive than the pure black sky we see later in the night.
Earlier, we saw a photograph of the area around the Ponte Romana in Tavira at Dusk. About twenty minutes later, the blue hour was just beginning to descend on the scene. Take a look at how the scene has changed. I used a wider angle lens this time to capture the drama of the scattered clouds in the sky.
By now, the sky has begun to turn to a deep shade of blue. There is a still a little light left from the setting sun to give a pinkish tint to the undersides of the clouds.
I first visited Tavira a few years ago with a group of photographer friends. Our first night was spent in a convivial local tavern were we sampled a range of local Portuguese drinks purely in the name of cultural discovery you understand. It was all very civilised and only one of our party suffered any injuries of note after tumbling on the way home. Thankfully, her nose broke her fall. I promise we didn’t nickname her “Potato Nose” for the rest of the trip.
Architecture looks fantastic at blue hour. The contrast between the building interior lights and the dark blue of the sky is very pleasing. The Bord Gais Energy Theatre is one of the latest additions to Dublin’s cultural life.
The next photograph has already been featured in the tutorial on focal length. It was taken in Venice and depicts a row of the famous city gondolas with the island and church of San Giorgio Maggiore in the distance.
This well-photographed location in Venice is frequently captured in the morning with the sun rising in the background with stunning results. My trip here at morning time didn’t really work out due to a cloudy sky so I returned to try something a little different at blue hour. The low light of blue hour allows for longer shutter speeds. I used this to my advantage in the above photo to set a 30 second exposure time. This allowed me to capture the motion blur of the gondolas as they bobbed up and down in the water.
I took this shot of Belfast City Hall on a freezing February evening. Every time I look at this photograph I can still feel the cold that I felt while out with my camera that evening.
Blue Hour vs Dark Night Sky
I mentioned earlier that the tones of blue hour tend to make for more attractive photographs than are possible later in the night when the sky has turned to pure black. Take a look at the two photos on the next page. They were both taken at the same location in Bruges. One was taken when the sky had turned black while the second was taken at blue hour.
Notice the relative lack of detail in the buildings in the first photo compared to the second one. There are a lot of overexposed areas too, especially in the bright windows. This is due to the high contrast between the dark sky and brightly illuminated buildings. The camera can struggle to capture the full range of tones in this instance.
There is more ambient light left over in the sky in the second shot making the scene easier to expose for and allowing me to capture more detail in the architecture. In the second image, we can clearly see the variety of textures and colours on the building. In the late night image, the building appears a uniform shade of yellow from the artificial light illuminating the facade. I also think that the deep blue sky of blue hour makes for a far more attractive backdrop than the solid black sky of late night.
Taking Photographs after Night has Fallen
I’ve been telling how the black night sky is not particularly attractive for capturing urban landscapes. This does not mean you should put your camera away as the night gets darker. As usual, I am about to tell you to do the complete opposite of what I just said. There are still plenty of photography opportunities at this time. As was the case with strong sunlight, the pure black of the late night sky often looks better in black and white photographs than in their colour counterparts.
The next photograph was taken on a narrow street in Prague looking toward the tower of the town hall.
In this case, the contrast of the illuminated buildings contrasts well with the dark night sky. Exposure can still be tricky at this time. I took 3 bracketed exposures to make this photo. The second photo was also taken after nightfall with a black sky. The black and white version worked a lot better than the same photo in colour.
In this photograph of the Samuel Beckett Bridge and National Conference Centre in Dublin, the strong geometric shapes of the bridge really pop against the dark night sky. The colour version of this shot does not work as well.
Colour photography is also a possibility at this time. Often however, I tend to shoot at street level in order to completely leave out dark sky entirely. The next photograph was taken in Venice outside one of the fanciest restaurants in the city.
For this shot, I decided to focus in on a couple who were watching a mini orchestra performing outside the famous Ristorante Quadri. Dining at this particular opulent eatery will require you re-mortgage your home and sell your first born child. Two coffees alone will set you back about €30!
A shutter speed of 1.3 seconds helped create some motion blur as the violinist played. It also makes it look as if he has two heads. After taking this shot, I discretely listened in on the couple’s conversation as they debated which of their children they would sell to pay for their meal. Personally, I’d go by future earning potential.
This being the city of Antonio Vivaldi, I expected to hear the melodious refrains of “The Four Seasons” filling the night air. Instead, they appeared to be playing “Radio Gaga” by the genius that is Freddie Mercury and Queen. I do wonder what Vivaldi’s opinion of “Fat Bottomed Girls” would have been though.
Leaving out the sky completely and focusing on subjects at street level is a good option for night photography. I really liked the warm glow from the fire heater at this café in The Hague.
Only including a little of the dark night sky in the frame avoids the issue of exposure difficulties caused by too much contrast between the sky and the scene above. This next photo of taken in Belfast is an example of this. I loved the red glow from the lights above this street in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter.
In our next tutorial on light, we will take a look at taking photographs in challenging light and weather conditions.
Improve your Photography Skills
The full collection of my photography tutorials covering exposure, camera settings, composition and light can be found in my Kindle e-book: Outdoor Photography Essentials. This e-book can be read on most Kindles or any tablet or smart phone with the Kindle app installed (€7.06 / $7.00 / £6.34).