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This article was written by the New York Institute of Photography, America’s oldest and largest photography school. NYI provides professional-level training via home study for photographers who want to give their images a professional look, and perhaps earn extra income with their camera.

Now, that you've got all the equipment you need for low-light photography, it's time to bring to light the shimmering, mystical, beautiful night just beyond your front door. Let's start with the most accessible subjects. The most traditional and loved form of available-light photography is just before sunrises and just after sunsets. The effect of minimal light upon these settings can be very dramatic. With each moment, the view before you changes; with different lens length, shutter speed and f-stop, you can greatly manipulate the appearance of the natural world. If you're anxious to begin photographing the reverent glow inside a church, the spotlighted moves of football players, or the silhouette of a friend, we suggest holding off. First getting a grasp on the most traditional form of low-light photography will prepare you for more demanding settings.

Walking down a city street or driving home from work, you happen to glance up and see a beautiful pink and gold tinted sunset. It may only last a short while. You may try to follow it with your eyes before it's vanished behind a building or the tops of trees.

The trick is to place your photograph. The first step is to find the perfect location. That is of key importance. The place may be your backyard, on the side of the road, on a rooftop or if you're lucky, by the beach. Find a view that can be easily simplified. If you're going to photograph from your backyard, you don't want to include too much in the photo. Nothing should interfere with the camera and the sunset or sunrise, unless it draws greater attention to your subject, such as a silhouette of a lone tree against the horizon.

Often, people associate the magnificent views of a sunset with the beach because the horizon is entirely unobstructed. It appears infinite, resting at the end of the earth and so creates an ideal setting. Most of us don't have immediate access to an attractive beach. Fear not, and find that special place where the entire landscape draws attention to the vibrant sky. City lights, trees, a mountain, or bridge can complement the horizon perfectly.

Once you've identified that perfect location, get there a half an hour before the sun is to rise or sink into the horizon. Remember that you'll need to organize your equipment in advance so that when the sun rises or falls to the perfect angle, you only need worry about photographing it. The setting will change appearance from minute to minute so it's important to take a bunch of pictures, capturing this kaleidoscope of colors before you.

To get the best exposure use a separate light meter for measuring the ambient level of light. Either take an incident-light reading, or take a gray-card reading. To be on the safe side, take a number of bracketed shots at different exposures. Bracketing can create a more interesting and imaginative photo. To do so, if your meter tells you to expose the scene at 1/60 of a second at f/8, then make the photograph and then take another frame at 1/60th at f/5.6 and another at 1/60th at f/11. This way, you have taken frames with more and less exposure than that which the meter indicates. Experimenting with different f-stops will possibly give you dazzling results, using your camera to alter the actual landscape and creating something truly dream-like.

If your camera doesn't have a separate meter or a way to control the aperture and shutter speed, it's still possible to get different exposure settings using a little ingenuity. First, point your camera at the sunset and take the indicated exposure, and then, point it at the ground where it's darker. Lock the exposure, recompose on the sunset, and take another exposure. Now, turn around and point the camera at the sky, lock the exposure, turn around, recompose on the sunset, and take another photograph.This is an easy way to get one photo with more exposure and one photo with less. It's an easy, somewhat casual way of bracketing, but it works.

Remember that when photographing the sun, you'll need to use a 200mm to 400mm or longer lens to produce a large, glowing orb. With this understood, don't look directly into your lens until the sun is low enough to have turned red. Otherwise, the sun's beauty may backfire right into your eyes - ouch!

Almost any film will do. We recommend ISO 200 or 400.

What will your composition look like? Remember the rule of thirds. When looking through your camera, visually divide the picture area into thirds both horizontally and vertically. The intersection of these imaginary lines creates a guideline for the placement of your subjects. Putting the horizon in the middle makes for a boring landscape. This photo by NYI student Diane Lynch of Mount Ranier is great example of well-executed positioning. Over two-thirds of the photo is shared by the light blue sky and mountain. The shadowed foreground occupies just enough space to create a contrast to the snow-covered mountain and sky. The clouds and the mountain are the focus, and gain greater attention due to the simplified background and foreground.
With sunrises and sunsets, you are the designer to interpret nature in your own way. A perfect way to do so is by using one or a few subjects, such as a rock, driftwood, or a tree, against the horizon. This can create an eerie or magical effect, as in "Silhouette Vista" by Mark L. Walker. Imagine this photograph without the trees. While it would remain an attractive image, it would lose much of its uniqueness that makes it so sublime. Mark's photo nicely balances the dark sky with the dark foreground, highlighting the vista of red, blue, and gold colors.
Now, you should be well on your way to photographing the beautiful, always changing, mystical sunsets and sunrises. Not only do these scenes make for enjoyable and rewarding work, but also they can be wonderfully lucrative. This genre will always be in demand. On the cover of greeting cards, calendars, postcards, the mysterious look and majestic colors of a sunset or sunrise will never grow tired.

© 2003 |New York Institute of Photography | 211 East 43rd Street, Dept. WWW | New York, NY 10017 U.S.A. |

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