Take Better Photos With Your Digital Camera

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Three Ways to Take Photos at Twilight

Whenever photographers talk about the best time of day to take photos, they invariably bring up the "magic hour"--a brief window in time when the sun is low in the sky and positioned perfectly for dramatic lighting effects, while casting a warm glow on your subject. I've mentioned this before in "Take Good Photos in Bad Lighting" and "Use the Best Light for Awesome Photos." This week, let's look at a few ways to take advantage of the magic hour.

Pick the Right Time of Day

Ready to give this a shot? Start by setting your alarm so you don't miss the right time. In general, we're talking about the first and last hour of sunlight each day, so you don't have a huge margin for error when planning your photo exploits. Depending upon where you live and the time of year, you'll have somewhat more or less time.

It's somewhat relative in any event. I will sometimes start shooting a bit early in the afternoon, and as the sun goes down, the photos will, in almost imperceptibly small increments, get better and better--until the sun truly drops below the horizon and I abruptly lose the golden light that was giving me such awesome results. At that point, I'm done for the day.

Shoot Silhouettes

The most forgiving magic-hour photos to practice on are silhouettes. In these photos, you can let the setting sun do most of the work for you; when you point the camera at the lighted horizon, the camera will do its best to expose for the sky and underexpose your subject, resulting in a silhouette. Take a test photo and inspect the result; you can use the exposure compensation dial to underexpose or overexpose the scene a bit until you get results you like.

If you want to try your hand at a manual exposure, set the shutter speed to about 4 seconds and the aperture to f/16. Take a test shot and see if you like the results. If the first shot came out too dark, open up the aperture to f/8. If you happen to be shooting around water, such as at the beach, the long exposure will give the water a dreamy, blurry effect as the waves lap up on shore throughout the exposure.

Mix Artificial Light and the Sunset

Another cool effect: You can find a subject that has its own lighting, and combine it with the warm, glowing light in the sky in the background by using a longer shutter speed, which allows both light sources to influence the photo. This is one of my favorite ways to use sunset lighting. Check out my shot of a ferry at Blake Island in Washington state; the artificial lighting is a nice contrast to the warm, dusky sky.

The exposure settings in this photo are very similar to what I used in the silhouette example; I used 4 seconds, but you can try as much as 8 seconds with a fairly small aperture, like f/16.You can make the sky (and overall picture) brighter by increasing the shutter speed, and make the points of artificial light brighter and larger by opening up the aperture.

Take a Portrait at Sunset

Those are fun ways to capture landscapes, but what if you want to put someone in the shot? If you take an ordinary photo late in the day, the flash will fire, but the brief exposure will render the background dark and muddy--you'll lose the gorgeous colors of sunset.

You can solve that problem using the technique I discussed recently in "Two Ways to Freeze Action With Your Flash."

The easiest approach is to put your camera in its slow-sync mode, in which the flash fires, but leaves the shutter open longer than usual. (Check your camera's user guide to see if it has this mode and how to use it.)

You can get better results by putting the camera in manual mode and dialing in the shutter speed of your choice. In this photo, for example, I used a shutter speed of 1 second and an aperture of f/4, and I let the flash fire to exposure the subject.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "Shoot the Moon" by Lee Tenneboe, Edmonds, Washington

Lee says: "This is a photo that I have always wanted to capture but never really knew how. A friend suggested a shutter speed of 1/200 at ISO 400 with f/8. I would not have thought of that, but it worked great! I'm really proud of this shot. I shot this last week during the full moon with my Canon Xsi on a tripod, then pulled out more detail with HDR toning."

This week's runner up: "Long Tall Cool" by Kristin Cooper, Oneida, Tennessee

Kristin says: "I took this in my backyard. I know: How lucky can one get to have their own waterfall in the backyard? I used my Nikon D90."

To see all of last month's winners, visit the October Hot Pics slide show. Visit the Hot Pics Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? E-mail me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus e-mailed to you each week.

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