Mastering the Sunset Shot

Sunset photograph and advice on how to get the best low light sky shot, from photographer Mark Laurie

Sunsets are magical images. They have such rich romantic colors. They are perfect for wall decor and computer desktops. Here are some tricks to get the most out of them…

These are low light shooting situations so using a tripod or resting the camera on something solid will make a huge difference to your image. While you can just increase your ISO, this also increases the grain or noise that destroys the delicate feel of the sunset image.

If you use a tripod, remember to turn your image stabilizer off – left on it actually makes your image worse. If you are like me, you may need to leave a reminder note to turn it back on.

For composition, the rule of thirds is still king here. Have the foreground in the bottom third of the image or less. You can even have no foreground at all.

If you do have a foreground, pay attention to it. It needs to have no distracting elements; watch for poles, scraggy trees, people walking, and so on. Anything that disrupted the horizon line that does not support your sunset shot needs to be eliminated by moving, waiting or cropping.

If there is a strong silhouetted foreground option, pay attention to its compositional location.

Sunsets usually have a high in contrast, the difference between the sunlight and the shadows. This is where the bright sections burn out the midrange sections. Take an over and under exposure then in Photoshop or your imaging program blend the two together.

Be ready, not all sunsets are slow, some happen very fast. On a Windjammer cruise I saw the perfect sunset, went to get my camera, chatted briefly with someone on the way and came back to dark night. I was used to our long and lingering sunsets in Calgary.

As the sun gets lower, the colors get richer. You can increase saturation with your exposure. Under exposure yields stronger colors. You can darken down overexposed or correctly exposed images in postproduction. It will not look as good in the camera, but in post production you will find all that color richness as you adjust the exposure.

Exposure is tricky since the sensor is seeing two extremes. The black shadows and the bright sun. To get closer to a good exposure, aim the camera so it just sees sky – no foreground, put the sun just out of frame. Note the exposure settings and start with that on manual.

You cannot control exposure on automatic or in a preferred mode. As the sun sets, you will find the exposure changing rapidly. With the sun coming in and out of shadows, slight re-compositions, all can radically change the camera’s auto adjustments. Start with your settings so you have the room to adjust to the darkening scene.

Postproduction is where magic really happens. Your sky and clouds will be rich with subtle tones and colors. By playing with the saturation you will find the whole range.

You can also utilize third party plugins or standalones that can do amazing things. They have a series of crazy algorithms that brings out detail, enriches colours and more. Some do over 37 adjustments at the same time.

Oh, and watch your horizon lines, because often in the excitement and rush to get that sunset shot, this is forgotten. Cropping it back to straight can destroy your composition.

All the practices of sunset photography also work for sunrise, but in reverse. Your exposure rapidly gets overexposed, with the delicate tones vanishing into the harsh break of day.

One last thing, sunsets will have the most interesting clouds on stormy days, or just after/before the storm.

Have a great time creating your masterpiece.

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