This article was written by the New
York Institute of Photography, America’s
oldest and largest photography school. NYI provides professional-level training
via home study for photographers who want to give their images a professional
look, and perhaps earn extra income with their camera.
HOW TO TAKE GREAT PHOTOGRAPHS OF SUNSETS WITH A FILM OR DIGITAL CAMERA
"Ah, Krakatoa, now those were sunsets! If only we had color
film back then!"
-Quote from the old, old, old photographer.
We know a photographer
who visited Hawaii exactly once, and then only for two hours while changing
airplanes for a flight to Japan. He had time to take a few pictures right
around the airport, including a photograph of that evening's dramatic
sunset with a palm tree in the foreground. He sold that image over and
over again through his stock photo agency and made a total of $17,000.
Not bad for a two-hour layover in Hawaii. Sunsets sell!
We get a lot of questions at the Institute about how to take great photographs
of sunsets. The truth is, it's easy. The hard part is finding a great
sunset and being ready at the right time. We promise that if you follow
the tips in this article, you'll be ready when you find the perfect sunset.
The sun sets every day, but to get a perfect sunset picture you need the
right conditions of dust and clouds.
The dusky-red of the setting sun is the result of dust in
the air. Where does it come from? Wind blows lots of dust from the ground
up into the air. And smoke and industrial pollution provide dust too (it's
one of the few benefits of air pollution). So do forest fires. Perhaps
the biggest contributor of all is volcanic eruptions. There's nothing
like a volcano to launch a huge payload of dust and smoke into the upper
atmosphere from which it circles the globe.
When the old, old, old photographer stopped by the office last month,
he reminded us that the eruption of Mount Krakatoa in 1883 is said to
have produced beautiful sunsets for over a year around the entire world!
In recent years, beautiful sunsets have been credited to the eruption
of Mount St.Helens in Washington, Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, and
most recently, Mt. Etna in Italy.
Clouds help too. Whether it is thick clouds that obscure portions of the
sky or wispy clouds that take on colors of their own, the most dramatic
sunset pictures almost always include clouds.
We usually think of sunsets in conjunction with beaches and islands. Why?
Does humidity and water have something to do with sunsets? The answer
is yes...and no. Large masses of water and a hot sun do combine to produce
But that's not the main reason we usually see the most dramatic sunsets
from a beach. The reason is more subtle.
The main reason we associate beaches with sunsets is that they give us
an unobstructed view of the setting sun on the horizon. No mountains in
the way. No buildings. No city lights. Just a flat horizon and the setting
sun. Plus a smooth expanse of water to reflect the colors!
Plus, if you're hanging around on the beach, you're probably relaxed and
in the mood to enjoy a great sunset. You have time to watch the sun go
down and savor the changes that take place over time.
Before we turn to photography, one other question: Why are sunsets more
often dramatic than sunrises? Assuming you're the type who gets up early
enough to even see the sunrise, the polluting smokestacks usually aren't
as active at night, and the cool air of nighttime is less likely to be
as windy as the hot air of late afternoon. So, when it comes to exciting
skies to photograph when the sun crosses the horizon, the sunset is king!
Turn your camera to the west.
Now, what's the best way to photograph the sunset?
The questions we hear most often involve what exposure to use. The answer
is that there are a range of correct exposures. If you use your camera's
built-in meter, you will usually be way off because the sky is still relatively
bright, and the meter will underexpose the image. If you have a separate
light meter, your best approach is to try to meter the ambient level of
light. To do this either take an incident-light reading, or take a gray-card
reading. Either approach will usually give a proper exposure. However,
to be on the safe side, we suggest you take a number of bracketed shots.
Bracketing is a technique used by professional photographers to get the
best exposure, which sometimes isn't the exposure the meter claims is
the right exposure. To bracket, if your meter tells you to expose the
scene at 1/60 of a second at f/8, then make the photograph and then take
another frame at 1/60th at f/5.6 (one stop more exposure)and another at
1/60th at f/11 (one stop less exposure). This way, you have taken frames
with more and less exposure than that which the meter indicates. The photos
below were taken with a one stop difference in exposure. You may find
that a slightly lighter or darker version of the scene may give a more
pleasing overall exposure.
What if you don't have a separate meter or a way to control your camera's
aperture and shutter speed? As long as your camera has auto-exposure lock,
you can still bracket...only you'll do so by "fooling" the camera.
Here's how... First, point your camera at the sunset and take the indicated
exposure. Second, point your camera at the ground where it's darker, lock
the exposure, recompose on the sunset, and take another exposure. Third,
turn around and point the camera at the sky, lock the exposure, turn around,
recompose on the sunset, and take another photograph. You should now have
three different exposure settings for the sunset!
There's another aspect of exposure for a sunset - timing. Sunsets aren't
static. They happen over time. When you prepare to take those sunset pictures,
plan to spend at least half an hour, so you can photograph the scene every
five minutes or so. Clouds move, colors deepen and change, and the image
you record a little later as the sunset unfolds may have more drama and
richer colors than you saw fifteen minutes before. Take lots of pictures,
and choose the best of them later when you see the results.
What about composition?
Even the most spectacular sunset will look like abstract
wallpaper if you don't provide some context. Silhouetted trees or other
objects in the foreground give a sense of scale and location to the scene.
A great sunset will have a different feeling if it's taken at the beach
with a few palm trees in the foreground. (Don't forget our friend who
sold $17,000 of such an image!)
Of course, dramatic sunsets, despite what we've said about beaches and
islands, can be seen in other places too. Wherever, see if you can place
an interesting object in the foreground - for example, a Civil War monument
in the foreground of a sunset at Gettysburg. What about mountains? They
make wonderful images, but they often present a problem when it comes
to sunsets. If the mountain is tall, the sun will set behind it while
still glowing a bright yellow. The mountain may rise too far above the
dust-laden horizon for you to see the deep red hue of the setting sun.
What focal length should you use for a great sunset? Figure it this way.
The longer the lens, the larger the sun will appear in the picture. The
surprising fact is that the sun in reality is only one-half a degree in
diameter. What this means is that, if you shoot with a "normal"
lens - say a 50mm - the sun will be less than 1/80th the width of the
frame! You want the red globe of the sun to be a lot more significant
than this. To achieve this, use a very long lens - 200mm is the minimum...400mm
or longer is even better. One point, however: With such long lenses, be
sure to support the camera on a tripod, monopod, or convenient flat surface
since the exposure will be relatively long and you want to prevent camera
WARNING: It is dangerous
to your eyes to look directly at the shining yellow sun. Don't look directly
at it until it is low enough in the sky to have turned red. If you're
using a long lens, this is especially important. The lens is like a telescope.
It magnifies the intensity of the sunlight. Don't look at the sun through
the lens until the flaming yellow glow has turned a dark red.
What film should you use for sunset photos? Almost any film will do. Some
pros want the "grainless" look of Kodachrome. Others will use their regular
ISO 800 film, and see no difference. Our recommendation: ISO 200 or 400
will be fine.
Here's a subject where slide film may record subtle differences in bracketed
exposure better than color-negative film. Each slide provides you with
an image that precisely reflects the exposure you gave the film. With
color negative film, your efforts at giving more and less exposure through
bracketing will often be minimized because the automatic printing machines
will guess at the exposure you "meant to" give. If you have "custom" prints
made by a lab, be sure to tell the technician you want to preserve the
different exposures of your bracketing.
There are a few things that are different about shooting sunsets with
a digital camera. We asked our digital ace Jim Barthman to summarize the
key points. As you'll read, there are a number of things that Jim recommends
that are the same with either type of camera. But, as he makes clear,
there are some extra points to take into consideration.
Shooting Sunsets With a Digital Camera
Sometimes life can seem overwhelming. There's just never
enough time to relax and enjoy the stuff that really matters. What with
the job, mortgage and car payments, soccer practice, doctor's appointments,
(whew!) seemingly important responsibilities always take precedent. Sure,
these obligations are important, but we must not forget to take some time
for ourselves to enjoy what life has to offer.
No, I am not suggesting that you ignore the children or your financial
responsibilities, I am suggesting, however, that you find some time to
take a retreat from the pressures of life every now and again.
I accomplish this essential task by grabbing my camera and taking a hike
in the woods or on the beach. Photography for me becomes meditation. Forced
to look at the world differently, allows me to temporarily forget about
the pressures of everyday life.
A favorite subject of mine is the sunrise/sunset. They occur daily, like
clockwork (check your newspaper for arrival times), and it doesn't matter
where you are in the world, you can always find one.
Whether you are using a film or digital camera in order to photograph
a sunset you must follow some common rules. Let's look at some of the
similarities as well as the distinct differences too.
White balance refers to the correctness of color in a photographic scene.
The white balance feature in most digital cameras ensures that color appears
correct regardless of the lighting conditions. Theoretically, if white
balance is correct, all other colors in the scene are correct too. It's
great when shooting general subject matter, as it frees the photographer
from having to worry about unknown light sources such as florescent lamps.
Unfortunately, dramatic sunsets, by nature, are comprised of exaggerated
yellows, oranges, blues, and even magentas. Using the White Balance feature
will inevitably cause the camera to "compensate" for the brilliant
saturated colors and yield pale, washed-out hues. Turn off the White Balance
feature when photographing sunsets.
Sun Can Damage CCDs
Its never a good idea to point a digital camera directly at any
intensely bright light-source. Direct exposure to the sun while it is
high in the sky can damage the delicate image sensor found in most digital
cameras, the CCD. Fortunately as the sun approaches the sunset its intensity
will diminish greatly. That's primarily because the light rays become
scattered as they pass through atmospheric haze and pollutants that surrounds
the earth. The closer the sun gets to the horizon, the safer it will be
to point a digital camera at it. Never stare at the sun. You will cause
damage to your eyes.
Very bright objects in the center of the frame can confuse the Auto-Focus
feature found on most digital cameras. You can avoid the problem altogether
by switching to Landscape mode. Landscape mode sets the camera lens to
Infinity ensuring sharply focused sunsets.
Many times we get so caught up in photographing the sunset
itself that we forget about the beautiful light that is being produced
by this modified light source. Turn around and take notice of the golden
light a sunset provides.
Dont stop shooting after the sun has dropped below the horizon.
The light levels may be low but the quality of the light is pure beauty.
Try shooting a portrait in this light and you'll be amazed at the rich
golden tones you'll get.
Why is the quality of light so special? With the sun below the horizon,
the sky essentially becomes a huge soft box, spreading reflected light
through the atmosphere without the harshness and shadows of a point source
such as the direct light of the sun.
The bottom line is digital cameras will perform better under soft reflected
light conditions. Take advantage of this golden light, it doesn't last
Use a Tripod
Because of low light levels, shooting sunsets
will require long exposure times, so you'll need a tripod. Exposure times
of one or two seconds are common when shooting sunsets. Many digital cameras
have replaced the cable release with a remote control. If your camera
has one, bring it. This will reduce the possibility of camera shake during
Include Foreground elements
Consider including foreground elements such as an interesting a tree or
house into your scene. Just because you are shooting a sunset doesn't
mean you only have to include the sun. Because of the direction of the
light, foreground elements will almost assuredly be reproduced as silhouette,
which can help to build visual drama in a sunset image.
A sunset is one of those moments in life that is often overlooked. Despite
their regularity, each and every sunset is unique and anything but common.
Perhaps that is what spurs us to grab our cameras and start shooting like
today's sunset is the first one we have ever seen. In a way, it is.
If you follow these simple procedures, you're sure to get great sunset
pictures. As we said at the head of this article, the problem is to get
to a place that has great sunsets. The rest is easy!