The farther the Sun is below the horizon, the dimmer the twilight (other things such as atmospheric conditions being equal). When the Sun reaches 18° below the horizon, the twilight's brightness is nearly zero, and evening twilight becomes nighttime. When the Sun again reaches 18° below the horizon, nighttime becomes morning twilight. Owing to its distinctive quality, primarily the absence of shadows and the appearance of objects silhouetted against the lit sky, twilight has long been popular with photographers, who sometimes refer to it as "sweet light", and painters, who often refer to it as the blue hour, after the French expression l'heure bleue.
Twilight should not be confused with auroras, which can have a similar appearance in the night sky at high latitudes. By analogy with evening twilight, the word twilight is also sometimes used metaphorically, to imply that something is losing strength and approaching its end. For example, very old people may be said to be "in the twilight of their lives". The collateral adjective for twilight is crepuscular, which may be used to describe the behavior of insects, fish, and mammals that are most active during this period.
Twilight is defined according to the solar elevation angle θs, which is the position of the geometric center of the sun relative to the horizon. There are three established and widely accepted subcategories of twilight: civil twilight (nearest the horizon), nautical twilight, and astronomical twilight (farthest from the horizon).
Morning civil twilight begins when the geometric center of the sun is 6° below the horizon and ends at sunrise. Evening civil twilight begins at sunset and ends when the geometric center of the sun reaches 6° below the horizon. In the United States' military, the initialisms BMCT (begin morning civil twilight, i.e. civil dawn) and EECT (end evening civil twilight, i.e. civil dusk) are used to refer to the start of morning civil twilight and the end of evening civil twilight, respectively. Civil dawn is preceded by morning nautical twilight and civil dusk is followed by evening nautical twilight.
Under clear weather conditions, civil twilight approximates the limit at which solar illumination suffices for the human eye to clearly distinguish terrestrial objects. Enough illumination renders artificial sources unnecessary for most outdoor activities. At civil dawn and at civil dusk sunlight clearly defines the horizon while the brightest stars and planets can appear. As observed from the Earth (see apparent magnitude), sky-gazers know Venus, the brightest planet, as the "morning star" or "evening star” because they can see it during civil twilight.
Lawmakers have enshrined the concept of civil twilight. Such statutes typically use a fixed period after sunset or before sunrise (most commonly 20–30 minutes), rather than how many degrees the sun is below the horizon. Examples include the following periods: when drivers of automobiles must turn on their headlights (called lighting-up time in the UK); when hunting is restricted; when the crime of burglary is to be treated as nighttime burglary, which carries stiffer penalties in some jurisdictions.