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Home > Photography Tips, Videos & More > Photography Tips & Tutorials > Lighting > One, Two, Three Twilights

One, Two, Three Twilights

by Tam Murphy

Posted: August 11th, 2011 @ 1:45pm

Lighting is a critical consideration when setting up any shot. The right lighting can give depth and warmth to an image that would be otherwise unremarkable.
Twilight, the delicious waxing and waning of the day, has long been the darling of photographers. Officially this time is measured in three parts: astronomical, nautical and civil. The timing and duration of each of these twilight periods varies depending on season and the latitude of your location. There are a variety of resources available on the web to help you determine twilight for your location. You’ll find links to two of them at the end of this article.

Astronomical twilight is defined to be when the center of the sun is between 12° and 18° below the horizon. As its name suggests, this is the time of day when astronomical observations of the dimmest objects in the night sky begin to be hampered. Ideal conditions allow the possibility of significant color in the sky at this time and long exposures can create dramatic landscape shots.  Brighter stars and planets are still visible in the night of the sky and can sometimes be captured in the growing (or fading) light with stunning results.

Nautical twilight is defined to be when the center of the sun is between 6° and 12° below the horizon. Once again the name is related to the lighting. Beginning in the morning, daybreak or first light, and at its end, dusk or nightfall, it is at this time that the horizon becomes (or remains) perceptible enough to navigate at sea. For photographers this is the time that visible light begins to come up in the eastern sky and will bring the horizon from just perceptible to distinct (vice versa at the end of the day). The right conditions will fill the sky with color and long exposures can create dramatic landscape shots. The brightest stars and planets are still visible in the night of the sky and can sometimes be captured in the growing light with stunning results.*

Morning civil twilight is defined as beginning when the geometric center of the sun is 6° below the horizon and ends at sunrise. Evening civil twilight begins at sunset and ends when the geometric center of the sun reaches 6° below the horizon. Objects on the ground are clearly visible now, there is enough light to work by and all but the brightest of celestial objects have gone from view. The light changes quickly through this period and requires that exposures be adjusted accordingly.

If you have a favorite place(s) to shoot for sunrise/sunset, you will find that different locations will have their own patterns of how the light moves across a given terrain. Experiment with different f-stops and exposure times. A smaller f-stop and longer exposure can bring a different quality to the light available. With patient observation each location will reveal the lighting that can make it shine. 
Twilight Calculators

The Three Twilights image by


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