Five Tips on Photographing Sunsets
Everyone loves a good sunset
There’s something evocative that draws the eye of every photographer when the sun sinks down low on the horizon and the sky turns red. The lower it sinks, the more the atmospheric particles disperse light’s blue wavelengths and red takes over. Red skies can be totally awesome.
I’m sure that sunsets (and sunrises) get their fair number of Facebook likes, right up there with images of puppies and kittens. A good sunset, with rich reds, bright oranges and the occasional silhouetted figure might even go viral.
But the need to photograph a sunset is more than just about getting Facebook likes. When we see a good one, we know we just have to snap it. Everyone does. Whenever I’ve been fortunate enough to capture one with my camera, I am usually surrounded by a zillion other onlookers, all holding up their camera phones.
It’s as if there is a primaeval calling, something written in our DNA going back to the dawn of time, forcing us to stop, to pause and to immerse ourselves in the moment.
Gosh, I went all existential there for a moment. Mustn’t let that happen too often or my street cred will go right out of the window.
Let’s get back to the photography
Photographers call those wonderful moments, shortly after sunrise or just before sunset the Golden Hour. Serious landscape photographers only ever take photographs at these times of the day. Some of them wouldn’t dream of shooting their images at any other time. The quality of light during the golden hour can be spectacular and if you want your landscape images to rock, you should aim to work within these times.
Of the two times, sunrise is often favoured because there tends to be fewer people around at that time of day and sometimes, if you are lucky, there will be some early morning mist floating around. Great for added atmosphere.
So what’s the best way to photograph a sunset?
Well, like most cases in photography, there are no rules. I tend to use most of the five techniques listed below as I find they are practical and uncomplicated, and more importantly… they work. If you want to pimp your sunsets, give them a shot (no pun intended).
1. Live View (on DSLRs)
Using live view on your DSLR (viewing the image live from the rear screen on the camera) is really helpful in evaluating what the final image is going to look like. You get an idea of not only the exposure but also what the colours look like (I will talk more about colour in the next bit). It’s probably easier to work with a tripod if you need to frequently check the screen, although you can do this hand-held, it’s just a bit more awkward.
If you’re shooting with a mirrorless camera you are at an advantage because when you look through the electronic viewfinder, you are already seeing exactly what the final image will be like. It’s like having live view on all the time and of course, this is one of the biggest selling points of mirrorless cameras.
2. Colour Temperature
Most photographers have their camera’s white balance set to Auto White Balance (AWB) for the majority of the time. This is probably the right move, cameras these days do a remarkably good job of automatically getting your whites to look white.
If colour temperature is a mystery to you, let me try and explain.
Very simply put, different light sources (eg. the sun, candles, bedside lamps, etc) are seen by your camera with a range of different colour casts. So tungsten light bulbs for instance, can look very orange, candles more so. Cloudy daylight and even shady sunlight can look blue-ish. The camera detects these colours and digitally adds corrective filters to balance them out, so whites look white, regardless of the light source.
If you shoot your sunsets, which are rich in reds and orange, with your white balance set to AWB, you might find that the camera will try to neutralise them, to make whites look white. This could reduce the intensity of the colours and consequently your sunset photos won’t carry the same impact as you saw with your naked eyes.
Change your colour balance to cloudy or shade (some cameras have both of these options, others only one).
By doing this, you are telling the camera that you are shooting in conditions where the light is relatively blue (a lie). The camera reacts by adding some digital orange to balance it out. Adding orange to your sunset will make it really pop and restore the impact to the shot.
I always make adjustments to my white balance when I shoot sunsets.
Additional note: If you shoot in raw, you can, of course, change the colour temperature in post if you wish
Occasionally I like to use graduated filters to transform the impact of my skies.
If you’ve never used filters before, they attach to the front of the lens, either by screwing directly to the lens or by sliding into a mount, as part of a filter system. The two most popular filter systems in the UK are probably Cokin and Lee.
Filters can be used for a wide range of techniques from darkening clouds to reducing reflections. I see I’m going to have to do a post on filters now(!)
A grad (as it’s usually known), has a colour at one end and is clear at the other. You put the coloured end at the top, to cover the sky and the clear end at the button, to cover the land. When shooting sunsets the graduated orange (colour temperature orange, also called CTO) can transform an average sunset into one that looks truly spectacular.
The photo below shows an orange grad mounted on a Fuji X-T1 mirrorless camera. (Cokin system)
Purists might frown on this technique, but here’s the thing. Photography is an art form, consequently, it is subjective.
As in all forms of art, some people will like it and some people won’t. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, there is only ‘opinion’. As the photographer (and artist), you are allowed to creatively interpret the scene before you in any way you want. And if that means adding colour or colour intensity for artistic/creative effect, then that is your right.
Simple rule this one. Slightly under-expose. It will intensify your colours
Oh yeah, silhouettes. Sunsets and silhouettes are a winning combination.
If you’re shooting into the sun at sunrise or sunset and you’ve deliberately darkened the image down (as previously mentioned), all you then need is someone to walk into shot, so you can capture them as a silhouette. If you’re with a friend, you could ask them to play the part of your passing stranger.
In the image above, I was shooting sunrise on Charmouth beach in Dorset. Having got myself in a position with the river running into the sea right in front of me, I waited for a couple of complete strangers to enter the shot from my right. I took a number of pictures to make sure I got the best positioning of the figures in relation to the rising sun.
This is where ‘live view’ on a DSLR or the electronic viewfinder on a mirrorless camera can be a real help. Seeing the digital image live will help you adjust the exposure sufficient to create the perfect silhouette. This shot was taken hand-held with a Fuji X-H1 fitted with a 10-24mm wide-angle lens.
Everyone enjoys shooting sunsets, I hope these simple techniques help you to pimp yours up. Let me know how you get on, I’d love to hear.
As always, if you have any questions or comments please post them below and I will do my best to answer them.
If you’re looking for photography workshops, photography courses or photography lessons, check out our website at Hampshire School of Photography or call Tuesday – Friday 01252 643143