Wednesday, June 6, 2012

What I Know About Sunsets...

"At Evening's Bay"

Photographing in sunset light will always make you a better photographer. That is not disputed. That magic golden hour will challenge you, motivate you, excite you, and work you hard. Now that my little family is growing up, I'm finding I have more time for sunsets and I thought I'd share what this means in the camera and to a photographer for those of you just getting started working around sunsets or have been struggling with understanding it's rapidly changing light.

  1. You think you know your camera! Photographing at the pace it takes to catch all the different light in the sky from the setting sun means over time you'll be forced to instinctively know where everything is on your camera without checking. Obviously this frees you to concentrate on being creative and frees you to notice the light on your surroundings or subjects instead of fiddling with the camera. And this skill is needed in many types of photography. Just yesterday I photographed some rescued birds... I had to move quickly with them, and never once looked down at my dials and settings. And I believe your manual setting is the way to go. You'll have total control over what the camera records and forcing yourself to use it means you'll understand your camera that much faster, especially if you make a practice of reviewing your results.
  2. Your meter isn't always your best friend. Or at least that's what I always thought when shooting sunsets till I realized I just needed to understand it's function. And again, this really applies across the photography gamut. But the low light and direction you decide to photograph in during sunset can really mess with your meter. Facing the sun's light, no matter how low will mean straying from 0 on the meter... I find I need to bracket my exposures and have some underexposure so there's color in the brightest sections of the sky but loosing detail in shadow, then swinging the exposure the other way and overexposing to keep shadow areas a little brighter and allow the sky to be blown out slightly. I place them all in processing as layers and pull sections from each to blend the exposures. Even when I'm facing away from the sunset to catch light on certain subjects behind me, I may start at zero but have soon strayed from it into slight underexposure/overexposure to get drama in the colors, rich dark tones and highlights that don't disappear. Know whether you need matrix or spot metering too. Your meter probably won't sync up with your vision at this point and you need to understand how to make it work to your advantage. 
  3. You can plan all you want, but be prepared to go with the flow! If you shoot outside for anything then you know this. The sky and the weather will do their own thing. And over extremely short periods of time. You can hop in your car with great bodies of clouds to filter the sun, then get to your destination 5 minutes later and by then the clouds have gone completely and a haze has set in. Or rain has begun. Or the Extreme Kite Flyers Association has taken over the location and the sky is filled with random shapes instead of the setting sun... in which case GET PHOTOGRAPHING. 
  4. Give your sensor enough time to get it all! Have a tripod please. Have a remote shutter release (or use your timer) for zero camera shake. And get comfortable with long exposures. All these things alone or together give you the means to get the beautiful light lingering in the sky... especially the light still there when the sun is gone.
  5. Know that some locations are more logical than others. We have a wonderful beach not far from our house, but I'll never really have the setting sun in those photos ever... simply because the shoreline faces east. What I can get on that shoreline is the glinting waves from the sun opposite, or the trees on the shore with a sunburst through them if I stand in the water a bit. Or sunrises... and sunrises are for another day. The location seen above however is one I frequent because no matter where I stand in it's open spaces I can get great light. Either the actual setting sun, or the light from it cast across the park and marina behind.
This is just skimming the surface, but for those who have been wanting to photograph a sunset it's about trial and error, and becoming familiar with your personal style, and knowing how to begin approaching the rapidly changing and beautiful light that is a sunset. And with anything, the more you do it, the better you become.

Thanks for the ramble! I know how many of you are beginners, and are frustrated with this topic... I hope this will allow you to dig further into this area of landscape photography.

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