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Shooting Sunsets/Sunrises

October 13, 2009 - Dave Hecei
While we may not have an abundance of wildlife, rocky mountains, or grand canyons, we do have some great scenery in Western New York. There are plenty of creeks, rivers, and lakes, plus in the autumn our hills are ablaze with fall colors. We also have great rock formations, an abundance of wildflowers, and insects to photograph. We also have everyone’s favorite subject, great sunsets.

I know, we didn’t seem to have much sun here this non-summer (2009). When we do have sun, we do have some nice sunsets and sunrises. To get your best shot takes a bit of time and practice, plus a little bit of luck. Here are some tips to help you get great sunset shots; you’ll have to provide the luck.

When I shoot any landscape I always try to use a tripod. If you are using a small point-and-shoot type camera this is not quite as necessary. When shooting any type of landscape with a DSLR, a tripod helps get the sharpest picture possible, plus it allows you to slow down and work a scene.

The first thing you will want to do is be safe. When shooting into the sun you have to use your head. The sun is very bright and if you are using a telephoto lens you are magnifying this power. This could ruin your camera but worse, it could ruin your eyesight – even leading to blindness. As the sun gets very low to the horizon it is passing through much more of our atmosphere, which lowers the intensity. Just make sure you shoot carefully. If necessary, use polarizing or neutral density filters to cut the sun’s intensity.

Having your camera on a tripod allows you to make sure the shot is level and try not to have the horizon cut right through the middle of the frame – remember the rule-of-thirds. I like to have a grid screen in my DSLR to allow me lineup the horizon properly.

Next is exposure. If the sun is visible in the frame when you take an exposure reading the scene will likely come out too dark. This does make for some nice deep colors, but there is a better way to get a proper exposure. If you have manual exposure capabilities then pan the camera to the right or left so that the sun just leaves the frame. Set your exposure to what you read here and then reframe the photo. If you can not shoot manually then check to see if your camera has an exposure lock feature. If it does, do the same move to the side, take an exposure reading and lock it in. Reframe the scene and take your shot.

When shooting sunsets I normally use a wide-angle lens. On a small sensor DSLR this is something in the 10-20mm range. On full sensor models you can use something in the 18-28mm range. Another type of sunset shot I like to take is with a large telephoto lens. As I stated back a bit you do have to be careful shooting telephoto shots of the sun. Wait for a very hot and hazy day and don’t shoot until the sun is just about to set on the horizon. Shooting with a telephoto lens, in the 300 to 600mm range, will make the sun look very big. Sometimes you get a nice deep red color and even some heat wave distortion on those hot hazy days.

Another tip for shooting sunsets is to look for foreground objects to silhouette. This can give the image more depth to go along with all the added color. When the sky has nice colors but little else, try keeping the horizon higher in the image.

Cloud formations can be very interesting during a sunset, along with water elements like ponds, lakes, and oceans. If you have something interesting in the foreground then place the horizon higher up in the image, to put more emphasis on it. If the foreground is quiet, or there are some great cloud formations, then place the horizon low in the image. This puts more emphasis on the sky.

When shooting sunsets you will want to get out there ahead of time to be ready. When you are racing to get to that perfect spot you’d be amazed at how fast the sun seems to set. During a nice sunset there is usually just a minute or two when the scene peaks and you will want to be ready.

Shoot plenty of images. The one thing that digital has brought us is the ability to shoot hundreds of photographs instead of dozens. If you are unsure of exposure then bracket the image – shoot at different exposure settings above and below what the camera is telling you to do. Also, don’t just stick your camera on a tripod and fire away, shoot some vertically too.


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