by ʇolɐǝz ǝɥʇ qoq

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I can never get nice silhouettes and appropriate exposures for sunrise and sunset. How should I meter for this?

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up vote 11 down vote accepted

Its near impossible to balance the foreground and the horizon/ambient when shooting into the sun without lighting modifiers, so you have to pick a target.

If your target is to expose the sunset correctly, then expose for the sky - a non-white, non sun patch close to your composition, and recompose using those settings.

If your target is to expose the foreground correctly, well, thats easy, expose the foreground as normal :)

If your target is to create a silhouette in the foreground, then you might try exposing for the sky, taking a test shot, and using your view/histogram controls to ensure you have a large chunk of black in the photo (tall peak on the left side). Alternatively, you could set your exposure points to center point, expose on the foreground silhouette, then close down the shutter until your light meter is buried, -2 or better.

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I also have a hard time with sunrise/sunset scenes. I am still working on improving my skill here, but here are some of the things I've learned recently that have begun to help:

  • When metering at the extremes of the day, meter both the darkest part of the scene and the brightest part. Camera sensors have a limited range of contrast that they can capture, around 5-6 stops. If the difference in exposure value between the darkest and brightest part of a scene is greater than 5-6 stops, you need to compensate.
  • Use graduated neutral density (ND) filters to compensate when contrast range is too great for your sensor. Lee makes EXCELLENT ND Grad filters and holders, in a wide variety of stops (1, 1.5, 2, 2.5, 3).
  • Don't be afraid to stack ND filters, and always have a set of filters at your disposal. I've learned that at least one NDG .6 soft, NDG .6 hard, and solid ND .6, are some of the most useful tools you can have in your nature photography toolbelt.
  • Meter without a filter to determine the true contrast range of your scene, and remember the exposure settings. Once applying filtration, manually adjust your camera by however many stops worth of filtration you have added, and ignore the meter.
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If you want to get silhouettes you should use spot metering on the sky around the sun. If you have time the definite way is to switch to manual, look on histogram and adjust until it looks the way you want.

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Also consider bracketing, which is a good thing to try in any difficult exposure situation.

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