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Dusk & Dawn

Updated: Nov 1, 2023

Making magical images during early and late hours of the day.

Photography is all about light, and its best when the natural light is magical that is during dusk and dawn when the sun fills its radiance around the sky. Although the images here are from Masai Mara the concepts of shooting at these hours are applicable to any other place. Mara with its vast savannah and conducive horizons and subjects provides ample opportunities to experience and create stunning frames.

Opportunity - Silhouettes

Silhouettes are a familiar concept where the subject is devoid of details but when it stands against a well lit background the overall scene becomes appealing. See the image below - a cheetah walking through the grasslands on a horizon that exposes the evening sky so well. The camera was set to capture the details in the sky and exclude it off the cheetah. In the next section we see how.

Configuration - Camera Settings

There are 3 steps I follow to make silhouettes. These concepts are applicable to all DSLR and mirrorless camera bodies. Please refer to the terms and approaches in your camera's manual.

STEP 1. Metering

Metering or calculating the amount of light required is critical from an exposure point of view. In a silhouette opportunity, the metering is done to expose the sky and not the body of the subject as it needs to be rendered dark (for that matter anything that is not bright will become even more darker - see the grassland in the above image). To meter the sky there are 2 options.

Spot metering - Meter a bright part of the sky (please be careful not to point it to the sun as it may damage your eyes). If you meter a bright portion of the sky the camera reads off that specific light intensity and it darkens the overall scene to expose that part correctly (a concept known as 18% grey). By darkening the rest of the image automatically becomes darker and the desired silhouette is achieved.

Evaluative metering - Evaluative metering takes data for exposure across the frame in order to try and balance the overall light available. This approach may result in a lesser darker image (again depends on how much of sky and dark areas is available in your frame). If there is a lot of sky then more points of brightness is evaluated resulting in a more darker image. In an image like the above where there is about 30% darkness the resulting image may not be dark enough to render a silhouette. So what do you do? Take a shot and if you are not happy with the darkness, use exposure compensation and drop it by a stop or lesser till you achieve the desired result.

Once you have the desired exposure set, then lock the exposure using your Exposure lock button (Exposure Lock hold is also available in some models). Once the sky is metered you want it to stay the same, so locking the exposure is required. Learn more about exposure locking here. Refer to your own camera manuals for the same - that is the best source.

STEP 2. Subject Focus

Once the exposure is arrived at, it is important to have a well focussed silhouette. A blurry one is going to remove all the effect from the frame. So focus on subject. But the subject moves and/or half pressing shutter may refocus something else ! How do we tackle this? I solve this with the concept of back-button focussing to ensure the plane of the subject movement is always kept in focus and removes the half shutter functionality from the shutter so that the shutter is used only to capture the image.

In case you do not use back button focus then after locking the focus, ensure you press the Focus lock button on your camera.

Learn more about back-button focussing here. Refer to your camera manuals for the same - that is the best source.

STEP 3. Recompose the scene

With the exposure and the plane of focus set, you may now recompose the scene based on where you want to place the subject. Now press the shutter and frame the scene.

Below are some examples to review the opportunities I had on field. Do pay attention to the following aspects that are worth pondering over - When you have a scene there are options to explore from a composition point of view.

- Placing the subject (closer the the viewer, far away on the horizon)

- Placing the subject with respect to an element (in front of the sun, relative to another element like a tree, left-center-right positioning)

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