Friday, February 13, 2009

How to Photograph a Sunset (or Sunrise)

This gorgeous sunset photo from Carrie was the inspiration for this week's lesson (which I realize is late - I apologize). Believe it or not, there is more to photographing a sunset than simply finding a nice spot to wait for the sun to set. There are many articles on the topic, but I found this one the most descriptive:

Composing your shot is probably more important than the sunset itself. If I'm honest, I have hundreds of sunset photos that are just ho-hum. Here's an example:

Bor-ing, if I say so myself. Before you decide to take a sunset photograph, you actually need to do some homework:

  • check the weather report
  • investigate where you will be taking your sunset shot
  • know when the sun is actually setting that day
  • look at the sky 20-30 minutes beforehand
  • consider photographing AFTER the sun has set, for more intense colors
In my opinion, the biggest problem with my sunset shot is that the composition is boring - no clouds in the sky, nothing in the shot is interesting (no silouettes of a sailboat or a pier). By doing a little thinking beforehand, your sunset photo will be much more interesting.

You also want to decide the focal length of your lens (for those of you using a SLR) - a long focal length (read: telephoto) will produce an image that highlights the sun:

A shorter focal length (read: wide angle) highlights the colors in the sky, and the sun itself is very small (or not even there):

Photo credits: Roie Galitz

Now for some logistics:

  1. Don't forget the rule of thirds (click here for my previous lesson) - what makes Carrie's sunset photograph so interesting (among other reasons) is that the sky is the focal point, and is not centered in the photograph (the horizon line is in the lower third of the photo). Whether you want to highlight the sky or the sea/land below it, make sure you use the rule of thirds to create an interesting look.
  2. Make sure you are in focus: it is difficult for your autofocus to focus on the sky (lack of contrast) - set your camera to manual focus and set the focus distance to infinity.
  3. If you're using a SLR, use manual or aperture priority setting to set the lowest number, to ensure the greatest depth of field (the portion of the scene in your photograph that appears sharp - don't worry this is an upcoming lesson).
  4. Again, for the more experienced SLR users, adjust your exposure meter to purposefully underexpose your photograph, which will result in even more vivid colors. On my camera, the exposure reading is right on top, and it acts like a level - the photo is exposed properly if there are no bars showing, and it's underexposed if there are bars to the right of middle. If this doesn't make sense, leave me a comment and I'll post a picture of my exposure meter.
Now go out and enjoy a beautiful sunset! Wintertime sunsets at the beach are some of the most beautiful...