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The changing light at sunset – photographing buildings

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The changing light at sunset – buildings photographed as the sun goes down

Why a few minutes makes all the difference for photos

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Last night, the sky was clear and Keith happened to be in Leicester city centre, on his way back to the car park at the Highcross shopping centre.

Noticing the interesting light, Keith took a series of photos just around the car park, on the city’s inner ring road.

The lighting of buildings changes quite rapidly after sunset – the best way to get a feel for this is just to go out and take a series of photos.

Sunset in Leicester (52.6 degrees North) was at 19:47 BST (summer time UT+1) [TimeandDate]

Photos along the ring road

This first photo, of the Showcase Cinema is just a few minutes before sunset (19:40) and the last glint of sunlight is catching the metal cladding.

The Moon is visible – reminding me just how small it actually is in the sky, especially with a 17mm lens (all shots with the TS-E17mm lens – review)

[with all the photos here, click on the image to open to a larger size]

showcase moonrise

Still light enough for 1/80 second exposure at f/6.3 (Canon 5Ds @ 100 ISO)

Six minutes after sunset the light hits that awkward spot where I’ve had to move to 1/20s exposure, but with no other lighting, the scene looks dark (all RAW camera images have been adjusted for contrast and lighting in Camera RAW for processing in Photoshop)

ring road

At 16 minutes, I’m down to 1/5 second and the relative intensity of the building lighting and sky lighting is more even – note too how some street lights have come on

car park - highcross

It’s now 19 minutes after sunset and the lighting is now quite well balanced (still 1/5 second).

JL at dusk

I’ve actually lots of versions of the images with moving traffic, since with the camera set to a 1/2 second mirror lock up delay (to minimise camera shake) judging the right point to get good looking car light trails is a bit hit and miss.

At 22 minutes, parts of the buildings lit from only the sky are getting rather dark and in processing the files I’m having to open up the shadows quite a bit.

more leicester ring road

It’s now about 30 minutes after sunset and with half a second exposure, I can still get a good sky in the west, and the light from street lamps is enough to illuminate more evenly.

st Margarets, Leicester dusk

At 35 minutes, and looking west, there’s still colour in the sky but showing it starts to push other colours and contrast to the point where I’m thinking it should be a bit darker.

highcross car park

Finally, it’s nearly 40 minutes past sunset, and at half a second exposure, there is only a small amount of colour in the sky (looking southeast).

Almost all the lighting you can see now is artificial, so care is required with white balance as well as contrast and levels.

JL dark sky

Go on try it yourself…

The best way for getting a feel for how rapidly lighting changes is to just go out and try it.

All my shots are taken with the camera set to fully manual – camera metering is far too easily fooled at this time of the day.

As an architectural photographer I know how to work out the best times for shots, but I still start early and take lots of shots.

During the session I’ve shown here, I took over 140 photos. If this seems excessive, it’s part of learning to trust your instincts of what will work as a shot and when you’ve got one that works. Oh, that and getting good looking headlamp streaks…

If I only need one shot of a building I can bracket my shots over time. If I need two, I can set up another camera and work with an assistant – more than that and it can get tricky, since I only have one wife and two spare cameras…

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