When the Light Gets Low: embracing dusk and beyond

  • low light outdoor photography by Sarah Vaughn

When the Light Gets Low: embracing dusk and beyond

As the days get shorter and the light turns low, photographers who value the light above all else, often find it hard to maintain photography momentum. Busy days and early nights means that many days I’m just finishing up homework with the kids when I look out the window and realize that I’ve missed the sunset. Yet again.

But just because the light is waning does not mean we have to forgo our photography fix. Many of us have learned to embrace the low light and soulful shadows while indoors. I love the moody atmosphere of shooting in a darkening room. Yet so often when we are shooting outside we turn toward home at the first sign of the golden hour sinking to sunset. But we don’t have to: we are leaving behind some of my favorite light in which to shoot.

low light outdoor photography by Sarah Vaughn

I fell in love with the photography opportunities after sunset purely by happenstance. We were living on the beach and every night my family’s ritual was to wander to the water and toast the sunset with our little ones (and my camera) in tow. The first few nights I lamented the fact that I’d missed the golden hour. But soon I was looking at the post sunset glow from the sea and sky and found something that was just as special: dusk. Oh-so-soft directional light bouncing subtle highlights and deep shadows across my subjects and the land. The high ISOs and wide open apertures needed to capture that light imbued the images with grainy texture, rich yet muted tones, and moody softness. It is a look I keep coming back to again and again, even now that we have just left the beach. So whether you live by the sea or in a snow-covered town, don’t let the low light and passing of the golden hour stop you. Here are a few tips to help you keep shooting, even as the shadows darken.

low light outdoor photography by Sarah Vaughn

1. Embrace the soft light and colors of dusk or daybreak.

At these times the the sky acts as a giant soft box. The intense light is gone leaving you with a low glow. There is a freedom when you don’t have to worry about harsh shadows, hotspots, or your subjects moving in and out of the open shade. The colors and quality of the light change quickly, from luminous soft pastels of sunrise to the deep, muted tones of dusk and the rich bold color of twilight.

low light outdoor photography by Sarah Vaughn

2. Because of the rapidly falling light you will need to change your settings.

Often. Sometimes I get caught up in the moment and keep shooting, forgetting to continuously re-meter and chimp. When that happens, I often have a segment of images that are underexposed with white balance that is off. Unlike other times of the day, even five minutes can make a huge difference in brightness. So keep checking that exposure and bumping up the ISO. I might start at ISO 400 just as the sun sets and within a span of about 20 minutes will quickly progress to ISO 3200 or ISO 6400 with my settings wide open and shutter speed moving slower and slower.

low light outdoor photography by Sarah Vaughn

3.  Forget the “correct” exposure.

The creatively correct exposure is the one that best reveals your subject and background and expresses your vision of the scene. I love to expose to the right to provide beautiful skin tones and less noise. But when shooting in low light, I often want to preserve the atmosphere of my outdoor setting – those subtle details of my surroundings and sky. If I meter skin for zero or +1 I might lose the rich feel and deep shadows that is inherent to this time of day. So don’t be afraid to underexpose the skin a touch – or maybe even a lot – if your goal is to add a low-light ambiance to your image, especially if you are not taking a close-up portrait. This is also a great time to do side profiles, partial silhouettes or shooting your subject from behind. You can expose for the background while worrying less about getting that creamy skin.

low light outdoor photography by Sarah Vaughn

low light outdoor photography by Sarah Vaughn

4. Shoot RAW.

There are times, however, when we do want to take a standard portrait with great skin, yet still preserving the feeling of dusk. And that’s when I love the power of shooting RAW. When taking a portrait in bright light, JPEG can be enough. But for low light conditions, using RAW with its greater image data is a huge benefit – it will help you preserve highlights, bring back too-dark shadows, and nail skin tones in post processing. This is especially important when your white balance is off due to rapidly changing light.

low light outdoor photography by Sarah Vaughn

low light outdoor photography by Sarah Vaughn

5. Pay attention to the direction of the setting or rising sun.

Just because there isn’t as much of it, doesn’t mean it can’t be directional. You can still backlight, side light, or front light at this time of day, especially if you are in a location that is blocking or directing the path the light takes. Watch how it molds your subject.

low light outdoor photography by Sarah Vaughn

6. Embrace low light – and the grain – throughout the day.

Though this is article is primarily about shooting at dusk, dim conditions occur outdoors at other times as well. I recently moved to a hilly region in California where the golden hour never quite reaches. The sun sets behind a hill very early in the afternoon, so I need to bump up my ISO or open my aperture wide to capture the scenery well before the sun goes down. Though I sometimes mourn the loss of that golden light in my neighborhood, there is still a romance in a dimmer glow – you get deep shadows and subtle highlights that can be used to create moody, texture-filled images with the noise adding grain-like texture to the image. Another favorite is to shoot in a forest setting. There, the light is low and often magical throughout much of the day.

low light outdoor photography by Sarah Vaughn

low light outdoor photography by Sarah Vaughn

7. Use a slower shutter speed.

How low can you go – with your shutter speed, that is? You might surprise yourself. If my subject isn’t moving and I brace myself well, hold my breath, and click gently, I can get away with a shutter speed of 1/60. And if there is a little motion blur – I often don’t mind. Sometimes it can yield intriguing results.

low light outdoor photography by Sarah Vaughn

low light outdoor photography by Sarah Vaughn

8. Find another light source.

There is a point when you can’t bump up your ISO anymore and your lens won’t open wider. You still have options. In fact, this is when the real fun begins. One option is to add a little more light to illuminate just your subject. Lamps, lanterns, flash, sparkly lights, flashlights: any light that is available to you at your location is fun to play with.

low light outdoor photography by Sarah Vaughn

9. Use Kelvin color temperature to showcase the rich colors, especially at “the blue hour.”

Twilight is a special time when the world is not quite light nor dark, but a brilliant combination of the two, and it has inspired many great artists throughout history. Think of Van Gogh and his famous Starry Night painting. It’s essential to get the color right to truly set the mood of a dusky or indigo glow. That’s why Kelvin is perfect as you can change the temperature easily and quickly. Refer to a color temperature chart for a general idea of your starting settings, but don’t rely on it. Chimp and use live view. Colors vary hugely depending on your location, and often I like to use color more creatively, for example emphasizing the blue in the blue hour rather than color correcting for it and rendering it neutral.

low light outdoor photography by Sarah Vaughn

10. Break out the tripod.

And finally, I come to the hero of low light shooting: the humble tripod. I’ve come to this last, because, I admit, I use it far less than I should. But when I do, I have fun with it – whether it’s shooting my town at night, or recording my husband’s deft hand with a martini (on our porch using a tripod and a flashlight). Use a long shutter time (perhaps 30 seconds) and a narrow aperture such as f/16 to record starbursts, especially when shooting at light sources. There are many fun creative options to explore – from using your interval timer to record star trails to dragging your shutter to emphasize light and motion.

So bump that ISO, set that Kelvin, open that aperture, and grab that tripod. Low light is no excuse to stay inside, all you have to do is embrace the shadows, texture, and  romance of light beyond the golden hour.

low light outdoor photography by Sarah Vaughn

About the Author:

Nikon D700 and prime lens photographer Sarah lives in San Francisco with her husband and two children, one boy and one girl where she loves to shoot single subjects outdoors in natural light. Her obsession began in high school and although she started her college days at an art school, she eventually transferred and received a master’s degree in writing in publishing. Visit Sarah Vaughn online.


  1. Melina Jan 03 2014 at 12:32 pm - Reply

    Absolutely stunning images!!!! <3

  2. Samantha Covert Jan 03 2014 at 12:54 pm - Reply

    Thank you so much for this, Sarah!! So very helpful during these short days this Winter. What gorgeous images!!! <3

  3. Kristy Jan 03 2014 at 8:09 pm - Reply

    So many helpful tips Sarah! Thank you! Gorgeous work as always…

  4. Lisa Benemelis Jan 03 2014 at 8:43 pm - Reply

    I loved this article, Sarah!! So many great reminders on how we can embrace this time of year and still create gorgeous images. It is always a treat to see your work all together. <3

  5. Megan Jan 04 2014 at 2:48 pm - Reply

    So many wonderful tips in this article– and amazing work <3 Loved this Sarah!

  6. sarah carlson Jan 04 2014 at 3:13 pm - Reply

    Wonderful article, Sarah!

  7. Sarah Vaughn Jan 06 2014 at 2:06 am - Reply

    Thank you so much for the lovely words! <3

  8. Kristen Ryan Jan 23 2014 at 5:49 pm - Reply

    Gorgeous images, Sarah! Wonderful tips 🙂

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