The twilight edge

Gary Hart Photography: Moonlight on the Water, Garrapata Beach, Big Sur

Moonlight on the Water, Garrapata Beach, Big Sur
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
6 seconds
F/11
ISO 100

I sometimes hear comments and questions that make me think people believe pro photographers have “secrets” that enable us to photograph things the amateur public can’t. Let me assure you that this is not true. What is true is that successful landscape photographers have an understanding of the natural world that helps us know where and when to look for our images, and we know that often the best pictures aren’t in the same place as the best view.

For example, it’s hard to deny the beauty of a sunrise or sunset. But it seems that most people are so mesmerized by the scene facing the sun that they miss exquisite beauty in the other direction. The next time you find yourself out photographing (or simply enjoying) a sunrise or sunset, do yourself a favor and check out the world behind you. Beneath clear skies you’ll see the earth’s shadow, often called the “twilight wedge,” overlaid by the pink “Belt of Venus.” I call the sky in this direction the “twilight edge,” not only because it’s found at the day’s leading or trailing edge, but also for the advantage it gives photographers who understand how easy this under-appreciated (and oft missed) perspective is to photograph.

Unlike the view toward the rising or setting sun, where cameras struggle to expose the full range of shaded subjects against a bright sky, the scene opposite the sun is bathed light that has been bent, scattered, colored, and subdued by its long trip through the atmosphere. While not as dramatic to the eye as an electric crimson sky or throbbing orange sun, a camera loves the long shadows and warm tones away from the sun.

But the great light doesn’t begin at sunrise, or end at sunset. When the sun is about ten degrees or closer to the horizon, the sky in the opposite direction is bright enough to fill the landscape with soft, shadowless light that makes photography a breeze. And while the scene may appear quite dark to the eye, a long exposure and/or slightly higher ISO (like 400 or 800) will reveal the world in a way that’s impossible in daylight. Case in point:

Before Sunrise, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, California

Before Sunrise, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, California
This is a 30 second exposure at ISO 400, captured about 30 minutes before sunrise on a windy Eastern Sierra winter morning, when the world was still dark enough to require a flashlight to maneuver.

Twilight components

Above the shadowless pre-sunrise/post-sunset landscape, when the sun is around six degrees or closer to the horizon (civil twilight), soft bands of color stacked like pastel pillows materialize. The blue-gray band earth’s shadow directly above the horizon earned its “twilight wedge” designation because you can sometimes see the earth’s curve in the shadow, giving it something of a wedge shape. At sunset, the gradual upward motion of the shadow gives the appearance of a wedge being driven into the darkening sky.

Above the earth’s shadow, but not quite high enough to receive the full complement of solar wavelengths, the atmosphere basks in the slightly brighter pink glow of scattered sunlight. In this region the shorter wavelengths have been dispersed, leaving only the longest, red wavelengths—the Belt of Venus. You’ll first see its pink stripe high in the pre-sunrise sky, descending and brightening as the sun rises, until the pink is finally overcome by the first rays of sunrise; after sunset the pink band starts low, climbing skyward and darkening, eventually blending into the oncoming night.

Alpenglow

A particularly striking sunrise/sunset phenomenon is the “alpenglow” that spreads atop mountaintops that rise so far above the surrounding terrain that they jut into the BoV, assuming its pink glow. My favorite place to photograph alpenglow is the Alabama Hills, 10,000 vertical feet below Mt. Whitney and the Sierra crest, but alpenglow paints peaks throughout the world.

Alpenglow, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, Eastern Sierra

Alpenglow, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, Eastern Sierra
From my vantage point the sun was still well below the horizon, but Mt. Whitney, 10,000 feet above me jutted into the scattered pink rays of the rising sun.

Moonrise, moonset

Quite conveniently, the earth shadow and Belt of Venus also happen to be where you’ll find a setting (at sunrise) and rising (at sunset) full moon. If you’ve been paying attention, you know that the full moon (more or less) rises in the east at sunset, and sets in the west at sunrise. Many of my favorite images use just such a moonrise or moonset to accent an empty but colorful sky.

The image at the top of this post is a recent attempt at a sunrise moonset. I was in Big Sur last week to help my good friend Don Smith with his Big Sur winter workshop. Don and I guided the group down to the beach much too early to photograph the moon, but the extra time allowed everyone to search for a suitable foreground.

With the tide quite high, many of the beach’s most photogenic rocks were partially or completely submerged, but we certainly weren’t lacking for subjects. Don helped half of the group work the rocks along the south part of the beach, while the other half followed me north. Just a couple of hundred yards up the beach we found a pair of boulders amidst the crashing surf. Taking care not to scar the pristine sand with footprints, we spent the rest of the sunrise moving around, framing the setting moon with these and a couple of other nearby boulders.

I clicked the frame here extremely early in the window of usable light, when the foreground was just bright enough that capturing usable detail didn’t require overexposing the moon (remember, if I can’t capture the entire scene with one click, I won’t shoot it). Vanquishing this extreme dynamic range was aided by the amazing sensor of my new Sony a7R (thank you very much), combined with my trusty Singh-Ray 3-stop hard graduated neutral density filter.

Even with those advantages, I still needed to massage the shadows up and highlights (the moon only) down in Lightroom and Photoshop. The advantage of photographing the scene this early was the ability to capture the moonlight reflected on the ocean, something I’d have lost if I’d waited for the foreground to brighten.

A Gallery of the View Opposite the Sun

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh your screen to reorder the display.


 Photo Workshops

Gary Hart Photography Death Valley Photo Workshop Group

Learn more and photograph these scenes yourself in a photo workshop

17 Comments on “The twilight edge

    • Haven’t heard of it but I’m dubious. I mean seriously, wouldn’t it be better to just walk outside and look at the sky? And I certainly wouldn’t rely on something like this to travel any distance. But give it a shot and let me know what you think.

      • I’ll hook you up with an account Gary and you can try it out. It comes down to physics and meteorology after all, so if we can send people to the moon and spacecraft to land on a comet sunsets are surely within our grasp 😉

  1. great words of wisdom, beautiful photographs, this takes me the most “remember, if I can’t capture the entire scene with one click, I won’t shoot it)

    • Thanks, Patsy. And just because I’m a one-click photographer, I don’t expect others to turn their back on the blending opportunities digital offers (even others in my workshops). 🙂 The goal is to enjoy photography!

  2. Very interesting post, Gary. There are so many phases of twilight and you’ve explained beautifully how to capture details and find a unique shot. Your twilight gallery is a creative feast. Thank you so much.

  3. Hi Gary……and Your image “Moonlight on the Water” Beautifully illustrates and supports your description of what we see at this time of day.

  4. Really beautiful images Gary. How do you just bring down highlights in the moon and not the rest of the image? And I am in the dark what the twilight wedge in Twilight Edge means…….:)

    • Thanks, Rhonda. In Lightroom just dragging down the Highlights slider will affect the moon much more than the rest of the image. And if you don’t want to turn down highlights throughout the image, you can be more selective with the Graduated Filter or Adjustment Brush (each has a Highlights adjustment). In Photoshop, the Burn tool set to Highlights will usually help.

      The “twilight wedge” is a non-scientific term photographers use to describe the earth’s shadow. With a clear enough view of the horizon, you can start to see a bit of the earth’s curve in the shadow, giving it something of a wedge shape. And at sunset, the upward motion of the shadow might be analogous to driving a wedge into the sky (just guessing on that one). (You’ve inspired me to add this description to the blog.) 🙂

  5. Related to this, does the moon have its own twilight “series”? For example, in a couple weeks an 89% waxing gibbous moon will set at 4:27, and the sun’s astronomical twilight will begin about an hour later at 5:33. Will that be an hour of darkness, or will the moon cast its own “twilight” after it has sunk below the horizon?
    Thanks so much! Your site is immensely useful!

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