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That Perfect Sunset Shot

Crescent Beach, Olympic National ParkThere are sunsets, and then there are sunsets. Those times when your view is filled with glorious, warm shades of color that spread upward from the darkening horizon and reach forward to blanket everything in front of you. But doing justice to such an "golden" opportunity with your camera can be harder than it looks.

When you think about it, it actually makes sense. The very reason you were drawn to that sunset is precisely the reason why your camera has such a hard time with it. Camera meters and programs are designed to work on the "average" scene and "normal" exposure. But a good sunset is anything but average. If it were, you wouldn't be that interested in it. Average? Eh... better to photograph something glorious. So, cameras tend to like average scenes whereas we humans tend to like more exceptional scenes. What to do?

There are things that cameras can do so well it can almost seem like magic. But there are some things that you are better off taking at least some control of yourself. If you're thinking that sounds a tad scary, don't worry. Your camera's sensors and electronics will still be there to guide you. You just need to pay more attention to what they are saying so you can make informed decisions.

Let's start off with a consideration of exposure. Light levels at sunsets range from very dark to very bright, depending on where you look. Deep shadows across the land, yet bright sunlight near the ... well, they do call it "sunset" for a reason. Exactly what proportion you have of any particular brightness can vary quite widely based on how you frame your shot. Perhaps more interesting though is that exposure also varies based on what you think that sunset is supposed to look like. If you want the area near the sun to come out bright orange but not burned out, its up to you to meter for that. If you're worried that doing so will leave all that wonderful foreground detail lost in the shadows, you can find out by swinging the spot meter point down to that area and check.

Driftwood and sunburstYes, I'm talking spot metering here. But thankfully the setting sun moves at a predictable pace, giving you time to do some prep work in between shots. Towards the very end, that pace does accelerate (or it sure seems like it does), but you may as well use the time you do have wisely, in the interest of taking better images. Too often I see photographers just killing time between shutter presses. You should be checking and double-checking things before it's too late. Thankfully, digital cameras let us see each shot just after taking it, but I would personally prefer being proactive rather than reactive when possible.

Keep in mind that there are no "right" exposures for sunset. You can shoot the same sunset with a range of exposures to create equally valid interpretations, each one with a progressively different feel from the others in the series. You get to decide. Your camera can't possibly know on its own what looks best.

It's not uncommon for sunset exposure to verge into the impossible considering the range a single shot can record. Something would have to be sacrificed. The old-school answer was to use graduated neutral density filters (GND) in front of the lens to balance out the brighter sky with the less well-lit foreground. Today, it is possible to get better results digitally with exposure blending or high dynamic range (HDR) techniques. If you plan to go this route, I'd recommend being proactive here too. Planning is key.

Lake Quinault, Olympic National ParkWhite balance can be another problem area. For "normal" scenes, automatic white balance tends to work fairly well for neutralizing unwanted color casts. But as with exposure, sunsets are anything but "average" or "normal" in their use of color. If you are shooting indoors, lit only with a warm-light bulb, you'll be glad that your camera got rid of that ugly orange tint automatically. But if you are shooting a sunset, it's precisely that same orange color temperature light that you came for. If you've ever had a sunset photo look pale in comparison to how you remember it when you shot it, this is a large part of the reason.

Turn off the automatic white balance. In fact, if you want your sunsets to look even more radiant, lie to your camera and set it on a cooler white balance such as "cloudy." Doing so will cause it to think the light is on the cooler side, and it will add warmth to compensate. It is possible to have too much of a good thing, but a bit of creative white balance tweaking may just save a sunset that didn't quite live up to expectations. Remember that you can always adjust the white balance further, after the fact in Lightroom, to make any given image look its best. But I still prefer to use camera white balance in the field since it will affect the camera back LCD image. It's nice to see things at least close to their potential while you're still there and can make any needed adjustments to your plans.

And while you're making plans, don't take subject matter for granted. Don't just take pictures of a sunset. Look for ways to take pictures of other subjects lit by the sunset. Or perhaps silhouetted by the sun. In the heat of the moment, it can be easy to just fire away, leaving everything other than the sun to fend for itself. It's only later, when you take time to really look at your results, that you realize you could have done more.

Planning can help in other ways too. There are numerous programs for Android and iOS that can tell you precisely when and where the sun will set from your current location or for any place and time in the future. Once you know, you can make plans to be there, camera set up and image composed, with the foreground of your choice. The sun and weather may have other plans for the evening, but you may end up with a killer shot not otherwise easy to achieve. And bad weather can sometimes make for great images, if the light bursts through at just the perfect moment. The only way to find out is to be there and see what happens. Keep your personal safety in mind when dealing with potential lightning, tornadoes and such or course.

If you're wanting to capture a huge sun that fills a good chunk of the frame, realize this will take some respectable focal length. Anything shy of 200mm won't cut it. Really big suns start close to 1000mm. The alternative (and generally my favorite) approach is to shoot wide angle and look for ways to use the position and streaming rays of the sun as design elements. Sunset reflections are always fun.

And remember that sunset doesn't end when the sun goes down. Plan to stick around for at least an hour or so past the official time of sunset for some great image possibilities. But remember your tripod because exposure times will increase as light levels fade away into night. And you did remember your flashlight, too, so you can find your way back to your car, right?

Date posted: December 9, 2018


Copyright © 2018 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Related articles:
The Zen of White Balance
Why I Don't Like Sunset Filters
Great Android (and iOS) Tools for Sunrise and Sunset
Sunrise versus Sunset
Auto White Balance Versus the Sunset

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