It's Not About the Sunset
"Hold it a second. I thought this post was about sunsets!"
Well, it is and it isn't.
Gorgeous sunset colours 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 colours is the important thing. Let's look at an example.
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.
I find photography to be a very thoughtful process. Good photographs don't just happen. They are a combination of four things,
- Camera Settings
As I drive around my local area I am constantly on the lookout for places that might make for good sunset shots. I file these away in my brain for future reference and then wait for the conditions to be right. 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 I may take over the course of the evening,
- get my camera and tripod set up properly
- clean lenses and filters (because I was probably too lazy earlier)
Composition is Key
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.
The Rule of Thirds
This blog post is not about all of the elements of design and how they apply to photography, but one of those principles needs highlighting - the rule of thirds. According to the rule, your horizon should be in the bottom third or top third of the frame, not right in the centre. As well, avoid the centre of the frame for any point of interest that you are including. As a compositional strategy, this usually works really well. If you look back at the license plate photo you will see that the horizon is in the top third and the license plate is close to the bottom third. This forces the viewer to scan around the image and keeps their attention for a longer period of time.
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.
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.
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 (and I have held them steady for longer than that). But even so, I still use a tripod. 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 colours 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.
Let's Get Specific
This is the equipment that I shoot with and the settings I typically use.
- Olympus OMD E-M1 or E-M5 Mark II Camera
- Olympus 12-40mm PRO 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 (see the photo below).
- Manfrotto 190CXPRO4 carbon fibre tripod
Sometimes the situation can change and you may have to make some quick adjustments. The photo below helps illustrate that.
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 (or at least parts of them are out of focus). Follow these steps to help avoid that disappointment. (I'm keeping this part brief. This section is worthy of an entire post on its own).
- Focus on your point of interest. Usually it is fairly close to you. In the photo above I focused on the reeds in the water. You will notice that the geese and the far shoreline are still quite clear. If you have a subject that is fairly close (within about 3 m) focus on that. (The general rule is to focus on the first third of your scene and the farther two thirds will be in focus.)
- 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. Enough said.
- Use a shutter release cable, wireless Smartphone app (like OI.Share for Olympus cameras) 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. I have to admit I don't always do this, especially if I am using a wide-angle lens. However, a larger telephoto lens will amplify any movement and create unintended blurring of your image.
"My camera doesn't take good sunset shots."
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. I have yet to invest in one of those.
Let's Tweak It
I regularly get asked, "Do you Photoshop your work?"
The short answer is "Yes". The longer answer is...
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 (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.
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, as the photo below illustrates.
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.
(Boy, that last line sounded cheesy!)