How to Photograph Reflections During the Afterglow

Tree branches breaking through the water line at Barkers Creek Reservoir near Harcourt in Central Victoria, Australia.

What’s your favorite time of the day? Whether I’m out and about photographing the landscape or just wandering around town it’s during the afterglow that I’m most at peace.

The above photo was made from the edge of the Barkers Creek Reservoir in Central Victoria. I made this photo, a few years back, towards the end of a prolonged drought throughout much of Australia. Decent rains had begun to fall and the reservoir was beginning to spread outwards, reclaiming some of its former size. The newly submerged soil responded with a sprouting of vegetation.  

All Praise the Glorious Sunset

Sunsets can be spectacular. They can be life affirming and exhilarating and can provide inspiration for the artist and a sense of comfort for the weary body or the troubled mind. But, for me, my favorite time of day is, more often than not, during the afterglow.

The Afterglow: A Definition

The afterglow is a phenomena that occurs after the sun has set. It can follow the sunset quite quickly yet, other times, you may have to wait twenty or thirty minutes for it to occur. Most often the light transits, far too quickly, from daylight to twilight and into night. To be able to make great photos at this time of day we photographers need to be tuned in and organized.

Experience Tells

While you can neither expect nor plan for an afterglow, there are conditions under which it’s more likely to occur.

The word afterglow literally refers to warm, soft light, from an already set sun that finds it’s way back over the horizon, up into the sky and, when we’re lucky, reflected off the clouds back down onto the earth.

Remember the sun doesn’t switch off when it sinks below the horizon. It just illuminates a different part of the world, as our earth spins on its axis while it revolves around the sun.

To be able to photograph during the afterglow you’ll need several things to work in your favor. Let’s explore them now.

A Clear Horizon 

An area on the horizon, directly above where the sun has set, that is free of cloud cover. Otherwise, as is so often the case, that cloud cover will create a barrier to stop the light getting through.

Low Lying Clouds Above

We want the light from the sun to find it’s way, from below the horizon, up into the sky and then be reflected back down from the clouds above. Low lying clouds will work, in much the same way that a reflector does. Those clouds will be illuminated with the warm afterglow and will reflect/bounce a good deal of that light back down onto the landscape below.

Perfect Subject Matter

Ideally you’ll be photographing a landscape containing reflective surfaces (e.g., sand, snow or water), as is evidenced in the photograph above. The sun had probably set a good twenty minutes before I made this photo. It's a nature study that explores light, color and composition (i.e., line).

A more dramatic image can result when clouds above, in addition to the landscape below, are illuminated. The lesson, when working under such quickly changing light, is to be continually looking up, down and around for new opportunities.

While the photos we make at this time of day may appear to be tranquil in nature, it’s often a rush to actually make them before night descends. Be organized, be ready and, when the conditions are in your favor, truly beautiful photos await. Just make sure you have a decent flashlight to help you find your way back to the car afterwards.

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Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru