Last Light: Taking Advantage of the Last Vestiges of Daylight

Venice Beach at twilight (1-minute exposure).
Venice Beach at twilight (1-minute exposure).

Story & photos by F. M. Kearney

She snapped a photo of him each time he jumped in the air over an incoming wave.

A family the size of a small wedding party took turns photographing each other along the numerous rocks lining the shoreline.

He spent a lot of time capturing his better half in the evening light as she posed on a sand dune.

A day at the beach can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Photography has always been a popular pastime – especially toward the end of the day. If the beach is westward-facing, the sunsets are often truly amazing. This is usually the time when everyone’s attention turns to the sun (instead of each other) as it begins its descent below the horizon. The problem is that most people will pack up and leave immediately after it sets. It’s sort of like leaving the theater before the final credits finish rolling. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve hung around after the movie, only to be treated to some of the funniest outtakes and/or entire scenes that would have otherwise gone completely unseen had I left with the masses.

My wife and I recently went on a short vacation to Venice, FL. We were there the week before Hurricane Dorian hit, but since Venice is on the west coast of the state, we probably wouldn’t have experienced anything more than a bad stormy day. As it was, it rained every day we were there, but it always cleared up (as if on cue) just prior to sunset.

After shooting the standard sunset photos, I stuck around for a while as the light began to fade. The beach tends to take on a more somber mood at this time, because most of the casual shooters have left. This is a good time to experiment with long exposures. If the sun is still visible, a long exposure will distort its shape. The opening photo was shot on Venice Beach several minutes after sunset. To soften the look of the surf, I used a Little Stopper neutral density filter. Unlike the more popular Big Stopper, which blocks 10 stops of light, the Little Stopper only blocks 6 stops. It lengthened my exposure to one full minute – smoothing out the waves and showing a little movement in the clouds.

Caspersen Beach at twilight (4-second exposure).
Caspersen Beach at twilight (4-second exposure).

A few miles south of Venice Beach is Caspersen Beach (see above). Its rocky shoreline makes it a really great spot for photos. A few days later, I used the Little Stopper here as well. Because it was still fairly bright my exposure was only 4 seconds. This worked out perfectly. Since the waves were a bit more active than they were at Venice Beach, they were rendered very similarly. The clouds even showed more movement. We left this location much earlier than planned because threatening storm clouds were rapidly moving in from the east. After hearing a couple of rumbles of thunder, we thought it best to leave at that time. I had nothing with which to cover the camera, and based on the previous rainstorms we had experienced, it was most likely going to come down in buckets. After packing up everything, the most impressive God’s rays broke through the clouds. These are long streaks of light that radiate from the sun, hidden behind clouds, just before or after sunset. I was torn between risking a good soaking, or setting everything back up to get the shot. I decided that it just wasn’t worth it. When I travel, I carry a much smaller camera bag that requires the complete disassembly of my system. To save space, I remove accessories that are usually attached to my camera. There was no way I would have been able to put it all back together again and get into the right position before that unique light was gone. No matter how much you try to be prepared, sometimes you just have to let the “big one” get away.

I find shooting at this time of day to be very relaxing. Since most of the crowds have gone, you pretty much have the whole place to yourself. This is even more evident when shooting twilight shots of city scenes. However, unlike cityscapes which come alive with various types of artificial lighting, natural landscapes just get darker and darker. It’s a race against time to get the shot before the scene is totally enveloped in darkness. Because of that, you might want to consider turning off your camera’s noise reduction feature. Leaving it on will literally double your exposure times – drastically cutting down on the number of shots you will be able to capture within this limited timeframe. Unless my exposures are measuring in the seconds, I’d rather deal with the noise and clean it up afterwards in post.

When I was shooting the sunsets, I used a graduated neutral density filter to better balance out the light. This filter becomes less necessary at twilight because the light will begin to naturally balance out. However, a feature that I do find quite handy is Active-D Lighting – exclusive to Nikon. Canon has a similar feature, known as Auto Lighting Optimizer. They basically aid in coaxing more details out of the shadows and highlights. In situations like this, I set my Active-D Lighting to “Extra-High,” and I’m able to prevent all but the darkest shadows from blocking up. When I made the switch from film to digital, I found this improvement in dynamic range to be the most notable difference between the two mediums.

So, the next time you’re at the beach after sunset, don’t be too quick to leave. Just because the sun has gone down, doesn’t mean the curtain has as well. The real show might be just about to start.

F. M. Kearney began his photography career as a photojournalist for New York City newspapers. His focus soon shifted to capturing the beauty of the natural world. As an award-winning nature photographer, Kearney’s images have been widely published. A slight departure from photography, his recently published horror novel, “They Only Come Out at Night,” about supernatural happenings in the New York City subway (partially inspired by his travels as a photojournalist), is available on Amazon. To see more of Kearney’s work, visit http://www.starlitecollection.com.