Magazine Article


The Magic of Dusk/Night Photography
Shooting in the sweet light

Test your exposures, since shooting in the “sweet light” can be tricky.
© Tony L. Corbell

Time is of the essence, so bring extra cameras to keep up with the rapidly changing light.
© Tony L. Corbell

Sweet light. Magic light. Whatever name you give it, we all know it's that time of day when the light level drops and the night starts to "rise." The evening lights are beginning to come on in buildings, and it can be a spectacular time to take pictures. It requires patience and an eye for detail, but when you balance everything just right, the pictures come to life.

The light in the sky at times like this will drop dramatically fast over a period of just a few short minutes, and before you know it, your session is over and the night has fallen. The desired time for many is when the time between light and dark is equally split. Since time is of the essence, it's a good idea to take extra cameras in order to keep up with the rapid changes.

Scouting the Location

Make sure you have scouted your location and that there are no annoying bright lights that will be in your frame. A bright security light aimed at your camera can take an otherwise really great view and turn a nice picture into an average one. Also, be aware of people in your pictures. Some exposures will be long, and people in the pictures will likely have movement. Of course, that swirling motion effect of people moving during a long exposure can also be an exciting effect.


Shooting at this time of day can be tricky in terms of exposures, and everyone will have their own style. It's always a good idea to test your exposures and vary any brightness differences at the time of exposure as opposed to the variations you might create in post-capture editing. Always remember it's best to get it the way you want when you capture the image-at least as close as you can. However, keep in mind anything you think you may want to enhance later (in fact, taking notes in the field is very helpful). There are several different ways to measure the exposure for this type of picture.

  • In-camera meter: Consider using the meter in your camera set to spot. Measure the light in an area in the sky that appears as a middle gray or 18% gray.
  • Hand-held meter: Almost impossible in incident mode, but it works in this situation in the spot mode.
  • Standard "non-measured" exposure: Try what my friend Bob Gallagher once taught me as "the rule of ones": try f/11, ISO 100, one second. It's a good place to start.

Camera Technique

Remember the basic techniques we all learned when we started out. A sturdy tripod is essential. Personally, I love to work with a quality ballhead outfitted with a spirit level. Also, a locking cable release will come in handy when the shutter speed is set to bulb. In addition, try to remember the basics of composition. Keep horizon lines straight, especially for bodies of water.

Color Balance

Personal taste is a big part of this type of work. For a picture that looks true and correct, try using a daylight color balance. This will make the sky look normal and might warm up the buildings and foreground. However, to more creatively stylize the picture, set the color balance on tungsten and look at the blue or cool look to the overall picture. This can be a very powerful tool for creating drama.

There are so many variations and styles of working in this beautiful light. I recommend lots of tests and taking lots of pictures. When I say the time goes by very quickly, there are times when the light is gone after only three or four minutes. This requires that special attention be paid to all of the details such as focus, camera movement, etc. After all, your next shot at a picture like this won't happen until tomorrow.

Always a teacher and student of his craft, Tony L. Corbell's ( love for photographic education led to his Basic Studio Lighting book from publisher Amphoto. He has written articles in every major photographic magazine in the U.S., Japan, the U.K., and China. He is currently one of a select few Approved Photographic Instructors from the PP of A and is the recipient of the WPPI Lifetime Achievement Award. Tony is also a member of the elite Camera Craftsmen of America, as well as the biggest Beatles fan alive. Currently, Tony is the senior manager of product education for Nik Software, Inc. (