Travel Architecture at Dusk

July 2, 2013

Travel photographers are always looking for a striking image that instantly defines an area. It often requires interesting architecture painted with artificial light and backed by a dark blue sky found at the very end of the day.

Guanajuato Bascilica in Mexico at nightBalancing the exposure of artificial lighting on a building with the ambient exposure of the blue sky behind it is a little like juggling a bowling ball and a feather. The lighting on the building remains constant while the blue sky drifts into total darkness.

There is a formula, however, that makes this balance foolproof. Zoom your lens to its longest focal length and take a reading off of the building. Avoid any hot spots created by the building’s lighting. Next, shift your lens sideways until you fill most of the frame with sky and take another reading. When the sky is one stop darker than the lit building, you have achieved the correct balance and should start shooting.

Bracket your building exposure 2/3 over and 2/3 under your normal exposure. Wait a few minutes and shoot the same three bracketed exposures again. Wait another few minutes, as the sky gets darker, and shoot another set. One of those exposures will have the exact balance of perfectly exposed building with just the right dusk sky. Some buildings look better with a light blue sky, others look better with a dark blue sky.

This balance is achieved about twenty minutes after sunset, but that will change depending on whether you are facing East or West. This technique also works on overcast or rainy days. In any case, don’t settle for a beautifully lit building against a black sky. Borrrrring! Give up the dark cave look for a delicate balance of building and sky photographed precisely at the perfect moment during dusk.