If there is one thing I don’t photograph much, it’s sunsets.
Don’t get me wrong, I have seen and enjoyed some stunning sunsets in my time, it is the boring uninteresting ones I see displayed on various photographic sites, magazines or newspapers — the total lack of imagination — that really irks me.
There will be the sun going down over the sea and it is titled, ‘Sunset, Bloubergstrand». Good grief, it’s the sun going down over a blank sea and a featureless horizon (oh, and it’s skew!) — I’ll have to take their word for it that it’s Bloubergstrand, as it could be anywhere in the world that has a sunset on their western seaboard. Or a strip of flat featureless Karoo sunset entitled, ‘Sonop, Poepolfonten». I would imagine the scrubland of America or somewhere in Gobi or the Outback of Australia would look much the same. I digress — naff titles are not my beef, naff, unimaginative sunsets (and sunrises) are.
What turns my head to look at a sunset is its character. A clear featureless sky with the sun rising or setting is a ho-hum moment for me. Throw in a bank of clouds beautifully underlit and then it becomes interesting. Include some silhouetted trees, a fishing boat drawn up onto the beach or a group of people sipping sundowners. That makes a sunset. That defines a sunset. That makes a sunset all the more worthwhile.
This article is not so much about the technical nitty-gritty of how to take the photo of a sunset or sunrise, but how to make it more appealing. That is your intention, isn’t it ? You’ve all heard of the Wow Factor — that is what we should strive for here. If the sunset is just that — the … sun… setting… over… the… sea. then don’t take it. You’ve seen it once; you are likely to see it again. And again — often. With a little imagination and a some time spent making the photograph, not merely snapping away, a scene of significance can be forged from a sun going down for the day, an horizon (sea, veld, mountain or Karoo) and that ‘something extra». But above all, take your time to compose. Don’t be hasty or satisfied with the first scene that presents itself. There will always be an interesting element that can be incorporated to enhance and add another dimension — some depth, scale — to the scene.
When I get up mornings, the first thing I look at is the sky. If it is that featureless, empty blue ceiling overhead, unless I have other plans, like mowing the lawn or clearing the roof gutters, watching paint dry or some other mundane task, I climb back into bed. If I am greeted with an array of dark threatening clouds or some wispy ones and the promise of a spectacular sunrise then I am up and out in a flash. Winter is especially a good time for sunrises. Aside from the sun peeping o’er the mountains more than an hour later than summer — more sleeptime — the early morning mists, mixing with hearth fires, makes for beautiful ethereal images.
ADDING ELEMENTS TO YOUR IMAGES.
What makes that sunrise or sunset all the more interesting is if an added element is present. If you are down on the beach having a few sundowners, then look for something that will enhance the scene. That will tell a story; that will make it into that head-turner. That will move from the, ‘I was at the beach, saw a pretty sunset and I photographed it», to one that will stop you in you tracks and really take note.
Grass-fringed dunes, rocks, sea-weed or old tattered mooring rope washed up on the beach, ripples on the sand at the water’s edge — the list of props as extra elements, is long and so under-used. They all add a little depth to an otherwise two-dimensional scene. Inland, there will be trees silhouetted, farm implements, tractor, animal or a river meandering by (reflections). Use’em !
Your better half will always enhance a sunset — incorporate him/her. All that is needed is your flash — on-board or a speedlight — and pop a little fill light. There is a setting on most cameras for such a situation — my wife’s little Canon point and shoot has a ‘Night Scene» mode, my Olympus DSLR has ‘Sunset» mode. Depending how much light is around, a tripod may be necessary. The alternative method (preferable) would be to use the First Curtain/ Slow flash — the camera sets the flash off but then keeps the shutter open a little longer to capture the background setting sun. So, here again, a tripod will be needed to steady your camera to prevent a blurred picture.
If you are on a cliff top overlooking the sea, the reflection of that setting sun will be nice and long, so use a vertical format to capture it. Don’t necessarily have the sun slap bang in the middle of the frame, vertically or horizontally, make the image a little more interesting by shifting it a little off-centre. Yes, make use of the Rule of Thirds, if you must, just be a bit more creative than making a perfectly balanced, indecisive and static picture.
Unless you have used your flash on nearby elements, silhouettes are all you will have of those things set against that setting or rising sun. But put them to good use — be selective and make sure that they are identifiable. A square building will be nothing more than a great big black block, but the Pyramids you will recognize. A rock outcrop will be an amorphous splodge, but the outline of a well-known mountain range will only enhance that sundowner moment.
Trees, whether clothed in their leaves or standing starkers against the Winter setting sun are wonderful accessories to the occasion. Tastefully drape them over the orange orb or set to one side of the frame, they always go down well. Remember, your eyes may still be able to discern a little detail in the surroundings, but your camera will not — they will be black, so try not to include too much foreground in those circumstances. If the sky is filled with beautifully lit cloud, with beams of sunlight shafting through, what need is there of a black foreground, hey ?
If you are going to go for that featureless sky over the sea, at least try to find a ship, boat, yacht sailing into your sunset.
It makes the scene so much more appealing, complimenting an already beautifully coloured scene. That extra element adds a bit of depth to the scene and gives it a little energy and dynamism, not the lifeless flat expanse of sea ‘n sky with some redness.
Those shots from the hip of a bird or an airplane flying past at the right moment would really be a bonus. We can’t always plan them but if you know the daily pattern of birds it is possible. On the coast, long skeins of sea birds flying to and from their roosts are fairly predictable.
You do not really need a flat horizon like the sea or Karoo flatlands to set the scene — hills, mountains or a cityscape will do equally well.
In sunsets or sunrises the sun does not necessarily have to be present. The first blush, the hint of the rising sun is all that is needed to set the scene. It will be light enough to you and you camera to discern the surroundings so make use of that brief time.
Right about here HDR proponents will have something to say, but I if you want to lose that wonderful light, that great mood then, like me, sunsets really aren’t you.
By using a longer focal length you will make the sun appear much larger than when using a smaller focal length. The sun will be bigger in the frame and you’ll have more control over the shapes and silhouettes appearing in your sunset image.
Adjust your White Balance settings to further emphasise the hues in a scene. If you use the Direct Sunlight White Balance preset, your results will be very similar to the actual scene. For deeper, warmer colours, try the Cloudy setting instead.
Try using centre-weighted metering. This is less sophisticated than matrix metering, and more easily influenced by very bright areas, but that’s exactly what we want for sunset shots. It’s the colour in the sky that’s important, and objects in the foreground should just be silhouettes.
If you have a smartphone you can use a ‘sunset calculator», which will tell you what time the sun will go down, and at what angle, for any date and location. LightTrac for iOS and for Android devices is a great application that will help you to be in the right place at the right time.