Of all the things we photographers take pictures of, few are as beautiful and romantic as the setting sun. And unlike some things you can photograph--beaches, wild animals, and skyscrapers, say--sunsets are ubiquitous. No matter where you live, you get one every day.
Timing Is Everything
In theory, sunsets should be easy to photograph for one very simple reason: We always know exactly what time they will occur. That lets you plan ahead, get there early, and capture the magic moment. And if at first you don't succeed, you can always go back and try again the next day.
There are two things about timing to consider when planning your sunset photo. First, the exact time the sun sets, the moment that the sun drops below the horizon, depends upon your local landscape. In other words, sunset might come earlier than the published time if the sun is blocked by mountains before it has a chance to reach the horizon. Second, you have a quite generous time period in which to take sunset photos. The sky starts looking interesting as the sun approaches the horizon, and continues to look pretty cool for a short time after the sun goes down. In practice, I've found that this adds up to a half hour or so of usable shooting time.
Notice that the sky is far more dramatically red in the second photo, where the sun has reached the horizon. So here's a plan for your next sunset photography session: Relax, enjoy the scenery, and take a couple of pictures every few minutes so you can capture the changing light over the course of 15 or 30 minutes. Sunsets change quickly, and you are sure to get some very different results by continuing to take pictures.
In fact, waiting can make all the difference in the world, as the sun drops through the sky and peeks through different clouds. Consider Angelic Sunset by Wes Singletary. Wes managed to capture not only some gorgeous light rays piercing the clouds, but also a lone bird flying through the scene. Getting a shot like this no doubt took some patience.
Choose Your Camera Settings
If you saw some of the gorgeous sunsets in last weeks' edition, you're no doubt wondering what the right camera settings to use for a sunset might be. Although you can get good results with automatic settings, sunsets are very confusing subjects for many digital cameras. A camera's automatic white balance will often try to shift all the brilliant reds, oranges, and purples to a more uniform white, which tends to wash out the picture and make it a lot less interesting. So the first thing you should do is find out if your camera has a "sunset" mode among its various programmed exposure or scene settings. If it does, great--use it!
If not, you might want to set the white balance manually. Bring a white sheet of paper with you and have someone hold it in the air in front of the camera right before you start shooting. Use the white balance control to set the white point while you focus on the paper. And if you plan to shoot pictures for a while in the fast-changing lighting conditions, reset the white balance between each set of pictures you take.
We all know that unless you're a Vulcan, you shouldn't stare directly into the sun. (Star Trek's Vulcans, you see, have double eyelids that protect them from extremely intense light. I offer this bit of geek knowledge at no extra charge.)
But what of your digital camera itself?
I have posed this question to a number of experts, and the answer is somewhat mixed. Most tell me that there's no danger in pointing a camera directly into the sun; but some tell me not to do it for too long, because prolonged exposure to direct sunlight might eventually damage the camera's sensor.
The sun conveys far less light when it's on the horizon than when it's overhead. I have never had a problem taking sunset photos, and I've never heard of anyone damaging their camera by pointing it at the sun. That said, I would still avoid pointing the camera directly at the sun and leaving the shutter open for a multi-second long exposure. Bracket for Success
Since cameras are so easily confused by sunsets, you might also want to bracket your exposures. By that I mean you can take multiple photos of each scene with slightly different exposure settings.
For example, you might find that the camera's automatic exposure was kind of blah, but underexposing it a little really brings out the bright reds. Some cameras can be automatically set to bracket. Check your manual; if yours doesn't have this setting, then use the exposure compensation dial to take one normal (automatic) photo, and then a second with the exposure compensation set to -1 and another set to +1. Another trick: If your camera has an exposure lock button, lock the exposure on the sky, compose your photo, and press the shutter release. Then take the picture again, this time locking exposure on the much darker landscape.
What Makes a Good Photo?
Some sunset photos are so animated and dramatic that they look otherworldly, others are just so-so. Is it the photographer's fault?
Not at all. In fact, the look of a sunset is governed by the amount of dust particles, water vapor, and cloud formations in the sky. Consider Rose Sunset, by Jeanne LeBlanc. The photo has great composition, but the sky just wasn't cooperating. Since it's so empty of clouds, there are no particles in the sky for the sun to "paint" with colour.
Now consider Sunset Over Georgian Bay, by William Robinson. William didn't have the same gorgeous landscape to work with, but he did have a very accommodating sky. So, you can see that you don't have total control over your sunsets. While you might be able to choose a picturesque location, it's up to nature to provide the raw ingredients for an explosive sunset. When in doubt, just try it. It often takes a lot of shots to reach perfection--but with a digital camera, you can't beat the price of the "film."
Make Your Sunsets Special
Finally, I suggest that you try to make your sunset photos about something other than the sunset itself. If you look for great sunsets in calendars, books, and magazines, I think you'll find that the good ones are almost always focused on some subject other than the sun. The setting sun provides a context for the scene, but the real essence of the photo is something else that's genuinely interesting.
Consider ,Evening in Paris, by Peter Wilson; or there's this stunning lake scene from Claude Adams, simply entitled Sunset. Both of these photos offer you more than just a colourful sky, and that's what makes them fun to look at. So go grab your camera and shoot some sunsets!