Sunset Photography Can Be Challenging

By Ron and Sharon McConathy
EVERYONE who owns a camera sooner or later will want to take a picture of a gorgeous sunset.

Successfully capturing a sunset, however, involves a number of steps: choosing a location, being available at the right time, looking for the best conditions, using appropriate equipment, determining the proper technique and exposure, composing the image to show the emotion of the moment, and being a little lucky. The accompanying sunset image was recently made near Crystal River, Florida (a great location!).

  • Choose an appropriate location. Obviously, on earth sunsets occur in the west. Scout areas and talk with local people (especially photographers) about good sunset locations in advance. You can also look at maps to find possible locations. Once you have found a potential location, look for foreground objects such as trees or ridge lines to add interest and depth. Keep in mind that these objects will probably be in silhouette in your image.

  • Be available at the right time. Determining the time of sunset for your location is important. Sunset is typically the time when the sun’s orb drops below the horizon. This time is published in almanacs, local newspapers, and on websites (e.g., http://www.sunrisesunset.com , http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/RS_OneDay.html, http://www.almanac.com/rise/ ). Some information sources also give a compass bearing that will allow you to pinpoint in advance where the sun will touch the horizon.
  • Effective sunset photos can be made both before and after sunset, so plan to arrive at least a half hour early and stay at least a half hour past the published sunset time. Don’t give up too quickly on a specific sunset since one that starts out on the bland side can become spectacular once the sun drops below the horizon. I can remember being disappointed to look in the rear view mirror to see a grey sky sunset I just abandoned turn magnificent with color. Similarly, some sunsets produce the best color early and fizzle out as the sun drops.
  • Look for the best conditions. The color of a sunset is determined by Rayleigh scattering and atmospheric conditions such as haze, dust particles, and clouds. When color blazes across the sky, clouds provide the canvas on which that color is painted. Middle- or high-level clouds are best. Cloudless skies can also produce interesting sunsets, but the color will likely be more muted and subtle. Check out http://www.spc.noaa.gov/publications/corfidi/sunset / for a more scholarly discussion of sunset color. Sunsets with blazing colored clouds can stand alone photographically, but cloudless sky sunsets show off best with interesting subjects in the foreground.
  • Use appropriate equipment. An important piece of equipment for sunset photography is a tripod or some other way to steady the camera during the long exposures needed at this time of day. It is often necessary to use a camera cable release or the camera’s delayed shutter release function to avoid camera shake. Your camera should be able to center-weight or spot meter to determine exposure, and being able to manually set exposure values is a plus. Select a film or digital camera ISO that is around 100 to 400 for best quality. Some digital cameras might not give a quality image at higher ISOs, so know what your camera capabilities are and what quality you are willing to accept.

  • Determine proper technique and exposure. Exposure determination for sunsets can be tricky. Using the camera’s automatic exposure reading without adjustment will usually give disappointing results. The bright sunlight will be interpreted by the camera to produce an 18% equivalent sky, and this will underexpose the image by several f-stops.
  • The exposure meter reading needs to be made from areas of sky away from the brightest parts. Choose an area of sky that you want to be 18% in the final image and meter it. Hold this exposure setting in the camera by partially depressing the shutter release or manually setting the f-stop and shutter speed. When in doubt about the exposure, bracket the exposure by one or two f-stops. Experiment to find the exposure you like best.
  • Compose to show the emotion of the moment. Once you have completed the previous steps, the final decision is how to compose the picture. Your composition will be determined by the location, the foreground, and the extent and intensity of the sky’s color. If you have a selection of lens focal lengths, make wide angle and telephoto images of each sunset. This will maximize your interpretation of the event.
  • Be aware that sunsets transition quickly, so be ready to shoot fast. Try placing the sun’s orb or the brightest part of the sky at different parts of the frame (center, intersection of thirds, corners, edges) to see what speaks to you. Position foreground objects differently in relation to the sunset. With a telephoto lens, explore different areas of the sky color and cloud formations. (Caution: looking at the sun’s orb with a telephoto lens can damage your retina!) Re-evaluate exposure when changing compositions. Also, periodically look around and behind you to see what is happening; the best picture is often directly opposite where the sun drops below the horizon.

Good luck and good night. Good sunset pictures reward the photographer who plans ahead. Being prepared and being lucky can result in fabulous sunset images. For the early risers, much of this advice also applies to sunrises. Best of luck in finding and capturing your glorious sunset images. Packing up your gear after a particularly spectacular (and lucky) evening of shooting will have you whispering to nature’s artist  “thank you for a good night!”