Outdoor Photography

Capturing the Elusive Sunset: Tips for Digital Photographers

This sunset photography article is a real eye opener and will leave you with at least one clue to try yourself the next time you get an opportunity to photograph a sunset. Why not photograph tomorrows sunset in fact. Make a plan to do it soon…

beach-sunset-palm.jpgConsidering the admiration everyone feels upon witnessing beautiful sunsets, it is no surprise that everyone wants to photograph them! Well-captured sunset images are sure to be pleasing and memorable.

At the same time, sunset photographs offer enough challenges that they are daunting to some novice photographers. But don’t let this put you off; capturing the perfect end of the day may take some patience, but it is an excellent and rewarding learning experience. So do not delay; make a beautiful sunset scene the next item on your list of scenes for your digital photography pieces.

Autumn sunsets have a unique, particular grace. As the warmth of day comes to a close, the warmth of summer is also ending. The sun spreads its last rays on a beautiful canopy of trees that are very colorfully and slowly losing their leaves, allowing the occasional bare branch to show. The clean, crisp air is often paired with a clear or softly clouded sky. In this time of year the sun seems to take on a more burnt, golden orange glow, as if to match the color of the trees and pumpkins around.

If you’ve made a short, quick attempt to capture this marvelous moment on film, you’re not alone. Many photographers hastily try to shoot this image, and many fail on this first try. A scene that looked fiery and awe-inspiring at the time may look like a long smear of faded color when viewed later on our digital media. The vivid oranges and pinks show up as faint shadows of their original forms. Maybe the picture was taken too quickly as the sun struck us, and we didn’t have time to properly compose the image. Maybe we took too much time setting it up and missed the glorious peak of the event. Or perhaps the place we were in was not the right one to get the full effect.

Do we give up, then? Are sunsets just too elusive? Certainly not! Since we can see it with our eyes we know the image is out there. Then, it is only a matter of carefully choosing our scene and camera settings to trap the image forever on our digital photograph. To be sure, there is some luck involved, but there are some photographers who have the skills honed so well that almost every sunset photograph they take turns out stunning.

So how do those “sunset photographers” consistently capture their renowned images? They start by planning far in advance. A sunset happens every day, but it’s a limited-time- only event, and most of the preparation needs to be done days before the event begins. In fact, this will give you the best choice; which days will be clear, or just a little cloudy? (A partly cloudy day can greatly augment the beauty of a sunset.) Will a moon be visible? Any planets in the sky?

Now that you’ve been a weather man and an astronomer, it’s time to use your geography skills. What is the ideal location to capture this consistent, yet always breathtaking, moment? Get out a map and find a few options: a beach on the western shore, a mountain top with fields below, or one of those fields looking across that mountain. Now go and scout out each of the locations you’ve considered. Bring a compass so you can locate the point where the sun will go down, keeping in mind how far north or south you are. Walk around the entire region, taking notes of the most promising sites you see.

The issue is not only how well you can see the sun from your potential site. An equally important question is, what else can you see? A picture that only includes the sun lacks a sense of scale and comparison. A more dramatic effect can be obtained by making the giant, colorful sun a background for a close, prominent object. This is a great opportunity to create a silhouette of a lonely autumn tree giving up its last leaves as the sun sets, or a shot of a figure contemplating the vast colors of the fading sun. Be creative, and don’t be afraid to ask for help! Chasing the perfect sunset shot is a worthy goal, and friends and passers-by are usually happy to help you by being stand-ins, the subjects of the pieces, or helping you to lift that fallen traffic sign out of the way so you have a clear view of the western horizon. Remember that including a foreground figure in a silhouette will add to the complexity of the photograph; getting the exposure right may be more difficult, but the result will be spectacular.

Another thing to keep in mind is how quickly this all happens. While the start of a sunrise is drawn out and subtle, those last few moments of the sun peeking over the western horizon are actually quite fast. I always forget how quickly the sun finally goes to bed once it has finally made up its mind to do so. This is yet another reason to prepare in advance and plan on a few tries so you can be sure to be ready for the ideal moment.

Next let’s consider how to manage the magnificent colors that will be dancing so elusively in the sky. These are what make the sunset truly awe-inspiring; the fantastic wheel of color is different every time we see it. But this is often the aspect in which sunset images disappoint; the diverse panorama you saw in the sky just doesn’t show up in the final, printed version. And it never will, if you simply point and shoot. The right exposure, however, can seal in those vivid colors in just the right way.

Let’s start with a good practice for getting the exposure right. Lock in the exposure while metering a little away from the sun. (The spot meter and center-weighted meter modes work well for this.) Focus manually with the focal ring set to infinity. Meter the chosen area of the sky (remember, NOT the sun, but close to it), and lock in the setting. Now you can readjust to center the field on the sun, and you’re ready to shoot! This is a tried-and-true technique that will do wonders for catching and trapping sunset colors.

But this is not the only way to do it. If you prefer a good measure of uncertainty and chance, then meter while you’re pointed at the sun, then open it up a stop or two. This is not as consistent a technique as the one just mentioned, but it can produce good results. Another method is to bracket. But don’t forget that your time is limited! Not only will the sunset be over soon, but the light is continually changing while the sun is on its way down. You will have to be fast to make this one work.

Now that you’ve adjusted your exposure and taken your grand sunset photograph, you’re not done yet! Why not? You probably won’t be happy with the shot you’ve taken and will have to give it a try another day. Again, you are at the mercy of nature and chance as to whether the perfect shot is there. And even if you encounter the perfect scene you may need a few tries to get the exposure correct. Take a minute to think about what went wrong. Was it the exposure? Perhaps the colors were there but the landscape you’ve chosen isn’t as dramatic as you thought it would be. Pull out that list of location notes again and get to work on a second choice!

Of course, this is just touching the surface. There are more interesting and even more exciting things to learn on photography tips and techniques, many of which I’ve learned from this guide. You should take a look just in case you miss something that is more valuable than you think.