I can't resist a great sunrise or sunset. I'm a real sucker for those amazing colors at the bookends of the day. But the reality is that sunset shots are a dime a dozen. So how do you get yours to stand out from the rest of the crowd? Here are some tips that work for me.
IT'S NOT ABOUT THE SUNSET
Gorgeous sunset colors are certainly appealing, but they are definitely not enough to maintain your viewer's interest. Think of the sunset as the backdrop to your photograph. What you place in front of those colors is the important thing.
Good photographs don't just happen. They are a combination of four things:
- Camera Settings
Over the years I have gotten pretty good at reading the sky. If I see high, whispy cirrus clouds in the late afternoon, it usually means a good sunset is on its way. I will also check the weather forecast and view satellite images to see the sky cover that might arrive in the next hour or so. This may seem like overkill, but if I am investing my time (and gas money) to drive to a location then I would like to improve my chances of success.
When you are ready to capture that amazing sunset, arrive early to the location you plan on shooting at. I usually try to get there at least an hour before the sun sets. This allows me ample time to:
- Scout around for the ideal spot
- Check out any points of interest I may want to include
- Plan out a set of shots
- Get my camera and tripod set up properly
- Clean lenses and filters
POINT OF INTEREST & AVOIDING DISTRACTIONS
Being in a great spot doesn't mean you will get a great photo. Put twenty photographers on a sunset beach and you will get at least twenty different variations of the day's end - some good, others not. A good photograph takes time, an understanding of composition, and a creative spark.
Having a great point of interest is what will set your sunset shot apart from everyone else's. The concept is pretty simple - include something in your photograph that attracts the viewer's attention and keeps it there for a while. I couldn't even begin to list all of the points of interest you might include but for most photos it will be something already present in that location - a piece of driftwood, an interesting rock, the silhouette of a tree or building, people walking on a beach...I think you get the idea.
One of the things that I love most about being a photographer is the power to control what other people see. As I compose my next shot I decide what to include in the frame and what to leave out. At times this is easier said than done, but if I can't eliminate a distracting element I won't take the shot. The worst distraction for me is power lines, but there can be many others - a parked car, people where you don't want them, branches in the way, and the list goes on. Arriving early can give you the time to adjust your vantage point and hopefully eliminate these unwanted elements.
FRAMING YOUR SHOT
Including a natural frame in your image can add depth to the photograph and anchor your main subject. The examples below help illustrate ways of including a frame.
Get creative. The reflection of the sunrise on this old window adds an interesting perspective and a very different way to frame the shot.
STEADY AS SHE GOES
Once the sun goes down it is time to pull out the tripod. You are now entering the territory of slower shutter speeds. My Olympus cameras have excellent image stabilization capabilities and can cope with being hand-held at speeds as slow as 1/2 second. I trust my camera to deliver good results hand held, but the real reason I use the tripod is to force me to slow down and focus on composition. That's what really matters.
Of course some of the best colors occur 15 - 20 minutes after the sun has set when the sky has noticeably darkened. Now you might be using shutter speeds as slow as 30 seconds or a minute. There is no camera that can be hand-held for that length of time. I also use a shutter release cable or if you have a wireless camera you can trigger your shot using your smart phone. This helps to avoid camera shake when you take the shot and ensures better clarity.
Generally, I am not nearly as interested in going out to shoot a sunset when the skies are clear. For me a sunset is all about the clouds. Of course, there are always exceptions.
LET'S GET SPECIFIC
This is the equipment that I shoot with and the settings I typically use:
- OM-D E-M1 Series or E-M5 Series camera
- M.Zuiko Digital Lens
- Aperture Priority Mode
- RAW and jpeg file format
- ISO 200 (a low ISO produces a cleaner image with less noise than a higher ISO setting)
- Aperture f/8 to f/22 depending on how much depth of field I want
- Shutter Speed - In Aperture Priority the camera chooses the shutter speed. Since I am using a tripod for most shots the actual shutter speed doesn't matter much unless I need to freeze some action.
If the settings I've mentioned in the above section make you break into a cold sweat, don't worry about it. Every camera has a Sunset Scene Mode that will do all the thinking for you. When I purchased my first digital camera I regularly relied on this auto mode and got some great results. As a matter of fact if you are new to landscape photography generally, I urge you to focus on the composition and let the camera worry about the exposure. Just don't use it as a crutch for too long. Push yourself to learn how to control the exposure.
GET IT IN FOCUS
Nothing is more disappointing than spending your evening shooting that amazing sunset, and then, upon uploading you discover that they are all out of focus. Follow these steps to help avoid that disappointment.
- Focus on your point of interest. Usually it is fairly close to you.
- Use a fairly small aperture (f/11 to f/18). Aperture helps control your depth of field (how much of your image is in focus).
- Typically we want our landscape shots to be in focus throughout the image. A smaller aperture can help guarantee that.
- Be warned however, smaller apertures mean longer shutter speeds, but more importantly can lead to diffraction of the light.
- Use a tripod.
- Use a shutter release cable, wireless Smartphone app (like OI.Share) or a 2-second time delay. As you press the shutter release there is a good chance that the camera will move slightly, even if it is solidly attached to a tripod.
TRICKING THE LIGHT
We have all seen photos (and probably taken a few) where the foreground subject is too dark or the sky turns out much too bright. This is fairly typical for photos taken at the beginning or end of the day. The camera's sensor has a hard time adjusting for the difference in light between the sky and the ground. To help compensate for this difference use a graduated neutral density filter (GND). It is a thin piece of resin that transitions from neutral grey at the top to clear at the bottom. It helps to darken the sky and lighten the foreground giving you a much more realistic and pleasing image. There are also GND filters that are grey in the middle and clear at the top and bottom that are specifically designed to work with the challenging light conditions of sunsets.
LET'S GET CLOSER
Landscape photography is the easiest style of photography to get into. You really only need a camera and wide-angle lens. Throw in a tripod and perhaps a GND filter and you can capture some great landscape scenes. Although we typically want to capture a fairly wide expanse in our sunset shots, don't overlook the usefulness of a good telephoto lens (35mm equivalent of 300mm or more) in your camera bag.
Telephoto lenses are usually used for wildlife or sports photography. The ability of these lenses to compress space and enlarge features can also make them a useful option for sunset shooting.
I regularly get asked, "Do you Photoshop your work?" The short answer is "Yes." The longer answer is: I use Adobe Lightroom more than Photoshop for adjusting an image. Typically I will only work with overall exposure by adjusting the 'Curves' in order to improve the overall contrast in the image. This helps brighten the colors of the sky.
Like many things in life, a good end result is dependent on how much work you put into the front end of the project. A bit of planning and a good understanding of compositional techniques will go a long way to producing photos you will be happy with and that will attract the attention of others.
Over the years I have produced far more poor sunrise or sunset shots than good ones. It is my passion for the craft and my love of the outdoors that keeps me looking for that next great shot. After all, the sun will rise (and set) again.
Republished with permission from Peter's Creative Island Photography blog. Visit the original article for more photos and to leave comments.
ABOUT PETER BAUMGARTEN
Peter has been a dedicated Olympus shooter for over 30 years, and he has found a way to combine his passion for photography with his love of teaching to develop photography and graphic design courses at the high school level.