There are a few experiences that are common to pretty much every photographer. One of those experiences is photographing sunsets. Now, depending on where you are on the learning curve, you may find photographing sunsets to be intensely rewarding, or you may find it to be hugely frustrating. Just about every beginning photographer has had the experience of standing in front of the most beautiful sunset ever, taking a photo, and then being completely underwhelmed by the results.
It seems like it really should be the easiest thing in the world to point a camera at a beautiful sunset and get a fabulous picture. But it doesn't work that way. Read on to find out why.
Untitled by Flickr user guochai
You've set your white balance to "auto"
One of the problems with modern cameras is that, in their fully automatic mode, they are just not equipped to capture good images of sunsets. That's because a camera in its fully automatic mode wants to normalize everything it sees. Those beautiful reds and oranges that are so stunning in a sunset, to a camera are things to be corrected. So if you have your camera in auto mode, and more importantly, if you have your white balance in auto mode, it may strip out those reds and oranges in the interest of creating a more daylight-balanced photograph.
So the first thing you need to do when photographing a sunset is switch off auto white balance. In fact, I recommended you do something radical—switch over to "cloudy" white balance instead. Now I know what you're thinking, isn't cloudy white balance the setting you use on an overcast day? Yes, it is. And the reason why it works great for photographing sunsets is because on a cloudy day the light tends to have a blue cast. So when you set your camera to the cloudy white balance setting, it compensates for that blue cast by adding reds. And what happens when you add reds to a sunset? If you get a redder sunset.
You're in automatic exposure mode
Another problem you may encounter when shooting sunsets has to do with the way your camera meters the light. The built-in meters in modern digital cameras are designed to assume that everything in any given scene averages out to roughly middle gray in tone. So depending on how much sky is in the scene, and how many other elements are in the scene, you're likely to get a sunset photograph that's underexposed. But if you try to adjust for this by adding exposure compensation, you may find that you get a nicely exposed foreground and a completely burned-out sky that lacks most of that sunset brilliance.
There are a couple of ways that you can handle this problem. First, you can simply allow the image to become underexposed. Underexposure will often create beautiful detail in the sky, while allowing foreground elements to fall into silhouette. If you go this route, remember that good silhouettes need to be identifiable—if it's a person, make sure that person’s profile is visible because a person who is facing the camera will just render as a black, featureless blob. The same is true for buildings—include interesting buildings with identifiable shapes such as windmills, and avoid blocky structures like barns.
Now let's say that you want the opposite—you'd like the foreground to be very well exposed and detailed, but you still want to maintain detail in that sky. This is difficult to do with your camera alone, especially when you’ve included the sun in the frame. The reason that this is a problem is because there's a lot of dynamic range in that scene, which means there are many levels of brightness between the brightest part of the sky and the darkest part of the foreground. Some cameras simply can't capture all of those tones with a single exposure, which is why you'll often end up with silhouetted objects in the foreground. But there are a couple of ways around this. First, shoot in RAW if your camera offers that feature. A RAW file captures a much broader range of tones then a JPEG does, so you may be able to pull some detail out of the shadows in post-processing if you're shooting in RAW.
But by far the most reliable way to capture detail in both the sky and the landscape is to use a graduated neutral density filter. This is a filter that has one dark part and one clear part, with a graduated transition between (hence the name). To use one of these filters, simply place the dark part over the sky and the clear part over the ground and you will get good exposure in both places—a richly detailed, colorful sky and a detailed foreground as well.
Graduated neutral density filters come in various strengths, so depending on how much light is remaining in the sky you may need a stronger one or a weaker one. It's worth having a few on hand so you can get a number of shots to choose from. And remember that with or without that neutral density filter you should be bracketing your shots anyway—that is, shooting at different exposures so you can increase your chances of getting a photo that looks exactly the way you want it to.
sunset by Flickr user davidyuweb
The skies are clear
Sunsets are beautiful even in the summer, but skies that have no clouds in them tend to produce more boring sunsets than skies that do. It's a good idea to wait for a day when it is partly cloudy. If it's too overcast, the sun may never break through the clouds to give you that stunning photograph, and if there are no clouds at all you'll just get a boring pink sky. But a thin or broken layer of clouds reflects light from the sunset, creating beautiful texture and a range of different colors.
Water on Fire by Flickr user Srini Sundarrajan
Nothing but the sun
You may also have some trouble seeing the big picture, which is pretty easy to do when you’re in the presence of a beautiful sunset. Sometimes we get tunnel vision when we look at the sunset and we think that that sun and the sky just around it are enough to carry an entire image. And that may be true if the clouds are spectacular enough, but most of the time there are going to be other elements in the frame that can really help add a little extra punch to your scene. Zoom out a little and show the reflection of the sunset in water, include trees, rocks, people, animals—in other words, be aware of your surroundings and try to find elements in it that will support that beautiful sunset. And remember your rule of thirds—except in occasional cases (scenes that have near-prefect symmetry, for example), it's usually a good idea to place your horizon either on the top one third divider or the bottom one. Choose the top one if there are more interesting elements in the landscape than there are in the sky, such as when you're shooting a sunset on a clear day. Choose the bottom one if the sky is big and dramatic and full of a lot of texture, the way it is on a partly cloudy day.
You didn’t post-process
Now, not all sunset photos need post-processing to be brilliant. But don’t be afraid to post-process either, especially if your final image lacks that wow factor. There’s really nothing wrong with a little saturation tweak to really make those colors pop, and it’s fairly simple to do in post-processing—just go to Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation and move the saturation slider to the right until you see the colors deepen. I do want to caution you to make this change at 100 percent magnification—you can create visual anomalies like noise or an unnatural transition between colors when you over-saturate, and that’s going to be obvious first at the pixel-level. So don’t be afraid to add a little color saturation, but be conservative and make sure you stop before you see any problems start to crop up.
"Bankset" by Flickr user photojaker00
If you follow these tips, I can guarantee you that your sunset photography will improve almost overnight. There really is a very short learning curve to capturing amazing sunset photos, and when you know the secrets the images really do almost shoot themselves. Just give yourself plenty of time to get set up and try to shoot the entire event, from those first sunset colors in the sky to those moments just after the sun vanishes behind the horizon. And always be on the lookout for opportunities to shoot the sunset, whenever you are out with your camera at the right time of the day. After just a few photo sessions, I think beautiful sunset photos will suddenly become so easy, you’ll wonder that you ever had to ask why your sunset photos were boring.
- Set your white balance to cloudy
- Use a graduated neutral density filter
- Choose a partly cloudy day
- Include interesting landscape elements
- Add saturation in post-processing
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