Not Your Everyday Banana

by Bart Arondson

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I've been lucky on a few occasions, but I often struggle with capturing awesome sunsets. What can I do to remove the element of luck and get more consistent results?

Additionally, is it possible to tell if a sunset set is going to be particularly striking far enough in advance to plan to get to an awesome location in time?

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Trial and error:) Seriously –  RCProgramming Nov 16 '10 at 0:37
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@RCProgamming — the point of a Q/A is to benefit from other people's trials, hopefully reducing errors. –  mattdm Mar 25 '11 at 23:21
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11 Answers 11

up vote 11 down vote accepted

I've done well with the exposure rules from "Understanding Exposure" by Bryan Peterson.

Basically, use manual exposure. You probably want everything in focus, so a high f/stop number (ie small aperture) will help you achieve that. That may mean you need a long-ish exposure, so a tripod would help (and will be essential if you want to use HDR techniques).

To set the exposure, choose spot metering mode, point the camera up at the sky, and set the aperture and time so that the sky is correctly exposed. Then recompose and take the photo. Review the picture and adjust the exposure if it is too dark or light for the effect you want. This photo was exposed for the sky:

Sunset exposed for sky

Alternatively, if there is a lot of water in the picture you may want to expose for that. Water will be darker than the sky, even with the reflected sunlight. So do the same as above, but point the camera at the water to set the exposure. This photo was exposed for the water in the foreground:

Sunset exposed for water

Which you prefer is up to personal preference and the objects you have to work with in the composition. On the non-exposure parts, I've nothing to add to what the others answers say.

Edit: I've decided there is one more thing to say. The light can change very fast, so if it looks beautiful take a picture now. Then recompose and take another, or play around with your metering and take another. Or wait a bit and see how the light develops. But only after you've got at least one shot of it - the light can go from stunning to boring in 30 seconds or less sometimes, so it's better to end up with a shot of the beautiful light caught in an OK way than a technically perfect shot after the light has died.

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Can't stress the point about taking the photo now enough. I was on a tropical island in Indonesia a few months ago, beautiful view, boring sunset... then suddenly in a matter of seconds half the sky went red just as the sun was passing out of view. In the 10 seconds it took me to grab my camera and move to a better vantage point it was half gone... I've not seen anything like it before, and only got a tiny portion of the effect. –  drfrogsplat Nov 24 '10 at 6:37
    
@Hamish: Do you think overexposure for sunrise photography can damage the sensor? –  Programming Enthusiast Dec 18 '11 at 10:43
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To make the most stunning sunset/sunrise photos you need at least some post production. Be this in camera via picture styles, during raw conversion or in Photoshop (or its cousins). You also need the most stunning scenery/lighting - that should go without saying.

However the thing most often missing when I see people compare their work to others online is post production to push the image to it's limits, people often don't realise how much goes into to a typical sunset image. Check out the 28 most "interesting" sunset images on Flickr. Pretty much all of them display signs of editing that go beyond what you can achieve in camera.

Taking multiple exposures to maximise the dynamic range of your camera, and give you the best raw materials to work with when producing a sunset/sunrise image. Also it doesn't even have to be sunset or sunrise, this was shot in the middle of the afternoon, just after a particularly heavy storm. Lots of post processing in Photoshop yeided this "sunset":

Besides that, all the standard rules of composition apply, and there's a lot to be said for picking the right subject. Atmospheric conditions play a large part but that's not really in your hands.

There's no secret to it, really, you just press the shutter button and provided you have composed and set the exposure correctly there's nothing more you could have done once you've maximised the scenery/lighting. Post production is where you have the greatest input. Yes luck is involved (with the weather etc.) but as a wise man said, the harder I work the luckier I get! Be tenacious and stick at it!

edit:

To answer your second question, yes there are indications in the weather, basically you want the opposite conditions to when you're trying to avoid haze. You want a lot of particulates in the sky to shift the colours as much as possible, so you want the end of a high pressure system with low wind. Thin cloud low in the sky also looks very good in sunset/sunrise shots. Any extreme or unusual conditions are worth exploring, see the following link:

Volcano's Eruption Colors World's Sunsets

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Why the downvote? The mention of Photoshop? I'm afraid it pays a very large part in producing landscape images these days (replacing the very large part that good darkroom work, dodging and burning played in the film era). –  Matt Grum Nov 13 '10 at 17:31
    
@Matt well, the downvote wasn't me, if that's any consolation. Do you have any suggestions on choosing white balance for sunsets? –  Rowland Shaw Nov 13 '10 at 18:21
    
I don't mind a downvote it's just with an explanation it's constructive criticism otherwise it's just criticism. –  Matt Grum Nov 13 '10 at 20:18
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As for white balance, in most cases you're going to want to go with something pretty warm, unless you want to emphasise the contrast between the warm tones of the sunset vs. a cooler foreground. Shifting toward magenta can help bring out the purples of stratus clouds if you have any in shot. Basically the rule is whatever looks good! –  Matt Grum Nov 13 '10 at 21:06
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The title asked how to "make", but the actual question body stated "capture", which I believe means "on scene with a camera". Answer is a little better, but it still makes it sound like it is not really possible without some hefty Photoshoping. I spend a lot of time capturing sunsets, as I have never much been a morning person. Outside of exposure correction for ETTR, I rarely do anything else to mine. It most definitely is possible to capture a great sunset without a lot of post processing...it just requires a lot of patience and a visionary eye. –  jrista Nov 16 '10 at 0:44
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It may be obvious, but you need think about where the sun's going to be and how you're going to shoot it.

I remember standing in Bryce canyon waiting for the sun to rise, and noticing a crowd of people away up on the canyon rim. The sun was going to come up behind me, and all the people were over there in front of me (probably within meters of their cars). So they'd maybe get something out of that, but they'd not see the colours of the sun on the canyon itself as they were on the side for the light.

I don't really do sunsets/ rises, but here's a rise from monument valley. This time I wanted a silhouette, hence the positioning. Photoshop: no pixels harmed with that, this is how it looks (in the rain, and 04:30).

Monument Valley

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Mother of God! I cant stop looking at this pic! Beautiful! –  user1266515 Feb 21 '13 at 16:19
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Well part of sunset photography IS luck with the elements. But once you have a stunning sunset in front of you, it should NOT be luck from there.

Things to consider:

  • Go manual or bracket your shots: Exposure is tricky depending on which part of the frame the sun appears in, you're going to have a very different reading.
  • Bias towards darker exposures because that makes colors appear more saturated.
  • Use a long lens if you want the sun not to be an insignificant part of the frame.
  • Include a foreground that is typical of the place where you are (think palm trees for the topics), otherwise it will look like a sunset anywhere.
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When it comes to sunrise/sunset shots, a significant part of it is indeed the luck of the draw. It is possible to get just the right kind of lighting...if you have the patience. Many of the best landscape photographers will, quite literally, spend days, even weeks simply waiting for the light they need/want/envision to occur. (A truly fantastic book about landscape photography and lighting is "Photography Essentials: Waiting for the Light" by David Noton. David notes several times in his book how he would spend days or weeks camped in front of a landscape he KNEW had potential, waiting for the right kind of lighting that he envisioned to occur. The results are usually nothing short of stunning.) If you have the time to spend, it is usually worth it, however most of us do not.

Getting a great sunset/sunrise shot when you can't wait around for days for it to occur requires a good visionary eye. You need to have the ability to "see" as the camera sees, and be able to envision what a particular vista may look like under better or even ideal lighting. That in turn requires that you find interesting vistas. A sad little fact that I am still trying to come to terms with myself is that a Landscape photographer spends far less time actually hauling out the camera and taking a photograph, than spending time driving around looking for interesting landscapes and trying to see them photographically. If you really want to get a stunning sunset, make sure you have the ideal setting, and can be there when there might be ideal lighting. The former can be controlled, the latter is up to nature.

Being at a good location when ideal light hits is often just luck, but you can be intelligent about choosing when you visit the location(s) you wish to photograph. A key factor in capturing good light is being prepared for it. You can't, for example, wait until sunrise to get a good shhot...you must be preemptive. Watch the weather forcast and be awake, geared up, caffeined-up, and ON SITE well before the sunrise hits. You will need time to find your perfect vantage point, set up your camera, finger on the cable release before sunrise hits. All too often, the best lighting doesn't last more than a few minutes, and sometimes a mere 30 seconds before that amazing beauty you set out to capture has faded. Sunsets can be easier in some sense, as you have existing light to find your viewpoint, set up, and focus.

Sunrises and sunsets are the type of scene that just SCREAMS for Graduated Neutral Density filters. Depending on where you are in relation to the sun, your landscape may simply be a black silhouette, and if that is what you want, then you are good to go. In the event that you want to capture landscape lit by ambient light, GND filters to balance out the contrast in your scene will be essential. Not only are GND filters useful for balancing out contrast, they can help bring out subtle details in the bright sky that are otherwise not visible (such as small wisps of cloud that blend easily into the amber sky.) The worst thing that can happen after spending a lot of time scouting out landscape vistas, envisioning how they may look under ideal lighting, and getting out there in time to capture the shot...is not having the tools to capture the beauty that occurs. Always pack some filtration, and a broad set of hard and soft GND filters, as well as some tinted graduated filters (such as coral or "sunset" grads), only enhance your chances of capturing those awesome sunsets.

Regarding knowing ahead of time when to be where, thats a difficult call. It depends on what you've envisioned, and what you hope to capture. As a general guideline, a solid sky, especially a solid blue sky, makes for a difficult "sunrise/sunset" composition. They do happen, but they are not the most interesting. An interesting sky is often a complex sky. Lighter cloud cover often makes for some of the best sky, as they capture the rays of light at a different angle than the rest of the sky or the landscape, adding alternative hues to an otherwise monochromatic orangeish/reddish sky. If you want to capture sun rays, haze, fog, mist, etc. are usually essential. Sometimes, capturing the sun a few minutes after it has set can produce some of the most amazing rays in a hazy sky that you've ever seen. Sunrises and sunsets can be captures at almost any time, in a variety of weather. Even in a thick storm, the moment when the sun creeps over the horizon, or the moment it crawls back over it, can produce some of the most amazing sunsets you've ever seen, as the whole underbelly of the storm can light up like fire. The only real time when the weather won't permit a great sunrise/sunset shot is when clouds quite literally cover the sky from horizon to horizon, leaving no room for sunlight to penetrate.

Planning and preparation aside, it is possible to find and capture a beautiful sunset on the spur of the moment. Only two days ago, while hiking around the (absolutely FREEZING) Indian Peaks Wilderness in the Colorado Rockies, I came across this vista:

alt text

Not the most stunning sunset vista ever captured. The foreground is very shaded, as the sun set behind the peaks, leaving little light to work with. The saving grace was the frozen (and rather intriguing) lake in the foreground that reflected the post-sunset glow in snow clouds from a brewing storm. Sometimes you just have to be in the right place at the right time, with your gear, to capture something amazing. If you wish to capture better sunsets, I wouldn't rely on the chancy nature of such lucky captures, and it is always better to know your vistas and be ready, camera on tripod, cable release in hand, waiting to snap a photo when good light occurs.

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An awesome sunset means different things to different people, but for me, I have always found the sunset (or sunrise) itself boring without extra elements in the picture, so I usually compose with a striking element in the foreground, or at least a striking foreground. That way the sunset itself provides the context.

Two things I usually do:

  1. Get a silhouette of a foreground element against the sunset: alt text

  2. Use a GND filter to balance both sunset and a strong foreground (linked because the picture isn't mine): http://www.nikonians.org/dcfp/user_files/91748.jpg

Of course, the sunset must be great to begin with, or it's an exercise in futility (and frustration!).

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It's that last point I struggle with -- knowing when it is going to be a great sunset to begin with, and capturing the colours in it accurately –  Rowland Shaw Nov 13 '10 at 16:29
    
Some areas are renowned for good sunsets (I believe Turner painted a lot of his famous sunsets from Whitstable on the south coast of England). Parts of Arizona are also famous. I would look through the Geotagged sunset images on Flickr for inspiration! Provided you don't over/underexpose you will capture all the colours accurately no matter what you do! Then it's a matter of developing the image. –  Matt Grum Nov 13 '10 at 17:30
    
Apparently the recent Icelandic volcanic eruption and resulting ash cloud lead to some spectacular sunsets over Europe, so there are times when you get a tip off ahead of time! –  Matt Grum Nov 13 '10 at 17:37
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Regarding your edited question - is the sunset in a particular location going to be good?

For the day itself, use weather forecasts and/or look at the sky - clear skies are interesting but certain types of cloud that catch the colours of the sun are often better.

However, for longer-term planning, you can use a tool like The Photographer's Ephemeris which allows you to choose a geographic location, and it will tell you where the sun (and moon) will rise and set. You can also get it to find when the sun will rise from a particular angle from your viewpoint, which is useful to line it up with certain geographical features (or buildings).

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While I still think that a truly stunning sunset/sunrise photo is based on a lot of "luck" - there are things I've found that help improve your chances:

  • Carry a camera everywhere. As many times as I've seen a stunning sunset/sunrise, there are times I wish I had my camera handy. Without a camera, you can't capture the scene. :)

  • Start tracking or checking the sunset/sunrise times either where you are (for local shots) or where you want to capture a scene. Get there early, about an hour (for sunrises, sometimes more) or so, and track the color changes as you enter the sunset/sunrise. You might be surprised at what you'll see outside of the actual moment-of-sunset.

  • Mapping tools / The Photographer's Ephemeris are great for finding locations and directions-of-sunlight, etc. Sometimes you have to find the right time-of-year, not just time-of-day for the sun to align correctly (Yosemite's Upper Falls come to mind).

  • Check the sky. You need something for the sun to reflect off, otherwise there's not much to see. Often, I've wondered about a possible good sunset, just to find out that there's nary a cloud in the sky - and the resulting sunset wasn't much to capture.

  • Speaking to post-processing, I think that the proper application of post-work can in cases help, but I don't think it's a requirement, as evidenced by the following shot, which is SOOC:Sunset, Walburg, TX

Sometimes nature just cooperates more than others - the last few years have had more gorgeous sunsets than I can remember having seen before.

Good luck!

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Something no one seems to have mentioned is to shoot sunsets in RAW.

One of the biggest advantages of RAW is the extra dynamic range you get over the 8-bit JPEG, and a sunset will almost always go way outside even the RAW dynamic range (hence why you may want to step it up to HDR with exposure bracketing).

RAW (and some fairly simple post processing in LR/Aperture) can save you from the sun looking like a big white blob even if you've got the surrounding colours looking good, and of course if the sunset is changing rapidly then it gives you a bit of extra room to make exposure mistakes (whether its you in M/spot or your camera in an auto mode, it's not trivial to get it just right when you're staring into the sun).

Oh and you might do well to use LiveView so you're not actually staring into the sun... (though staring at the sun can be bad for sensors as well, so best to give your eye/sensor regular breaks when shooting sunsets).

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I found fantastic tool for your purpose. It will allow you to find out where and how sun / moon will perform. Taking into account heights of mountains and so on. Check it out!

http://stephentrainor.com/tools

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Thats a great tool. –  rfusca Nov 25 '10 at 6:14
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  • Winter stormy skies
  • Interesting foreground
  • Keep it simple
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