How To Frame A Spectacular, But Boring, Sunset - Digital Photography School
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How To Frame A Spectacular, But Boring, Sunset

Have you ever been at the beach and were witness to a gorgeous sunset? The colors, the calm wind and not to mention you were likely miles away from work? Possibly on holiday?

In that near perfect moment you took a picture because it was too good to pass up.

PeterWestCarey-Sunset2012-0622-6846

When you look at that photo, the feeling on that moment comes rushing back to you and you smile. This is my photo and I remember right where I was and how enjoyable it was.

The problem comes when you show your photo to others who weren’t there. They can’t instantly feel the warm wind and smell the salted air or taste the margarita you were enjoying. They see a boring picture.

Why is it boring? The viewer goes straight to the center, where the subject is, and looks away because they feel they took it all in (mainly with periphery). And they think, “Nice, but not nothing much is going on.”

Before we fix this dilemma,  let me state that shooting the sun setting on the ocean can be fairly boring most of the time. If there are no clouds, there is no “aftershow” and things get dark quickly. I’m not going to lie and tell you I can “Make your sunset photos OUTSTANDING!!” when the scene was actually fairly plain, but still gorgeous.

To jazz things up we’ll apply the Rule Of Thirds in this simplest of exercises.

First, let’s lay the Rule Of Thirds grid over our boring scene.

Sun1

The idea here is to move that sun off of its center spot and onto one of those grid lines. Let’s go to the left.

PeterWestCarey-Sunset2012-0622-6847

Improving (although I overshot the line a little, that’s really okay). The viewer now has a some room to move around the image. They may focus on the sun first and then gaze right, or the other way around. Either way, it’s more interesting. Now let’s move the sun up to the intersection of two lines.

PeterWestCarey-Sunset2012-0622-6848

And here it is with the grid lines on.

Sun2

Viewers have even more room to move in the image.

It’s just that simple. It’s not meant to be spectacularly different, but it is more pleasing than the centered version.

Taking a look at the same sunset, let’s go with a vertical tack.

PeterWestCarey-Sunset2012-0622-6849

Centered.

PeterWestCarey-Sunset2012-0622-6850

Moved high (maybe, you might note, just a touch higher than the Rule Of Thirds lines…that’s because rules in photography can always be broken if you like).

PeterWestCarey-Sunset2012-0622-6851

High and to the side.

What about going the other way?

PeterWestCarey-Sunset2012-0622-6852

Simple changes can make a sizable difference. They can make your photos more pleasing, if that is what you’re going for.

The sun setting over the ocean can be one of the most boring photos you will take, while being paradoxically beautiful to witness. Move the sun around in the frame and play a little. If the Rule Of Thirds isn’t working for you, break it. But try to understand why you’re breaking it so you can establish your own style.

And don’t forget to set your camera down at some point and just enjoy the end of another day.

PeterWestCarey-Sunset2012-0622-6857

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Peter West Carey is a world traveling photographer who now is spending a large amount of time going back through 6 years of travel photo and processing them like he should have to start with. He is also helping others learn about photography with the free series 31+ Days Of Photography Experiments which builds off of the 31+ Days To Better Photography series on his blog.

  • http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/ Mridula

    The last advice is the most difficult one to follow. :D Even though I knew about what you said watching it through illustrations makes it etched in the memory. So thank you.

  • Feroz

    Nice article, but it’s still Sep 30th

  • http://www.mydfz.com Valerie

    I understand pointing the lens at the sun can focus its rays and cause damage to the camera or to the eye looking through the viewfinder. How can such photos be taken safely?

  • Ben

    Interesting, but I think I actually prefer the first one… the others look a bit odd to me.

  • Mike S

    Room to move, to look around the photograph,
    After looking at the subject then look(s) away because they feel they took it all in (mainly with periphery).
    Aha moment , now I get why moving off centre works, yes I bounced straight back out of the centred subject, the thirds balance areas keep my interest longer by looking for more.
    By conciously being aware of where my ‘eye’ goes around an image, I ‘feel’ how long it keeps my attention, and someone else’s.
    Thankyou for a different way of explaining how the rule of thirds works, different explanations will work for different people, This one has finally created understanding for me. Keep up the good work, with slightly different explanations each time, I look forward to your next ‘aha’ tutorial.

  • http://peterwestcarey.com Peter West Carey

    Valerie,
    You will not damage your camera by pointing it at the sun if your lens is 300mm or less, generally. If you have a concern for your eyes, wear sunglasses to lessen the brightness.

  • http://www.mydfz.com Valerie

    Interesting. Can you explain why that is so that I better understand what is happening and don’t still find a way to get into trouble? The way I’m looking at it, it seems like the lens has to focus on the sensor and focusing the sun’s image over a smallish area seems likely to generate some heat which I’m sure wouldn’t be good for the sensor. In 35mm days I heard rumors of people burning the cloth shutters by pointing their lens at the sun. I don’t want to do the digital equivalent. Camera’s are too darn expensive to waste! :)

  • http://bit.ly/oufr4c Brian Fuller

    I’ve taken may sunset pics and never had one I really liked. Now I need to go back and see if I centered them all.
    Thanks for the post.

    http://bit.ly/oufr4c

  • http://jfgaramendi.500px.com Juanfran

    Hi Peter,
    I am not agree with you. I prefer the bored version (first image) than the second version (after rule of thirds). The first transmit calm, that is the same feeling that you feel when you are watching this sunset. Maybe, de-centered the horizon would be enough (as the second vertical picture). But I do not like at all the sun on the upper left corner. In my opinion, not always the rule of thirds works.

    See you,
    Juanfran.

  • trialex

    Yep another vote here for the-first-centred-image-looks-the-best.

    Luckily it’s all subjective!

  • Ellen Beener

    I take many sunset shot. Some are not so amazing and others just tug at the heartstrings. I have found that you really do need big think scattered clouds that are water logged. The suns rays going through the clouds is what makes for the gorgeous sunsets.

    I have also forced myself otu fo bed vey early to catch a sunrise. That is a very different experience which I suggest you do try to shoot. THe hues are more gold.

  • Roger Maxwell

    Peter,

    The Rule of Thirds is probably one of the first guides a photographer learns, and yet, for me, haven’t considered in several of my photos. I appreciate your article as it will certainly cause me to dredge up some of my dull sunset photos and give them another look. On several I used this rule but only regarding the horizon but not the placement of the subject. And while initially I really liked my shot, I started to notice how many other people had the same shot, the same star burst on the water effect – boring. But now I can’t wait to try this out and put a new spin, add some character to it. Thanks again.

  • Marco

    The original centered one is calming. The rule of thirds is really a way to impose activity on your viewer and some photos are better without that. It would be even more calming if you cropped it to a square format. Sometimes that is the right mood for an image. Just know why you are doing it. If this was my photo to frame, I would center the photo like the original and then crop it to a square with the sun dropped down to the bottom third of the frame but still centered horizontally. But that is just me.

    As to shooting the sun at sunrise or sunset, the power is greatly reduced because of the extra atmosphere between you and the sun. Same principal as the golden hour shooting. But for further safety of your eyes, it is often best to use the Live View mode instead of the viewfinder. I also limit the time pointed at the sun for the sake of the shutter curtains. That means aim it where you want, set the shot up and then shoot it, but move the sun out of frame when you are done. Things at sunrise (sunset) are changing so fast that leaving it set up while you chimp is useless anyways.

  • Rita Gaul

    I like the Vertical, Moved High example, mainly because the texture and depth of colour of the ocean in the foreground, draws your eye up to the sun,being the focal point Unfortunately the vertical view does lose some of the rich glow around the sun in the original photo. Having said that, with the Sun moved slightly off to one side gives one the feeling of movement instead of a static Sun in the middle of the photo.
    Rita

  • Les

    Peter, you said: You will not damage your camera by pointing it at the sun if your lens is 300mm or less

    Not entirely true. A normal lens (50mm or so) will behave like a magnifying glass. And with rangefinder cameras having focal plane shutters, like Leica and its Russian copies, focusing on the sun for a few seconds can begin to burn a hole in the cloth shutter.

  • Jonathan

    Living on the east coast of Australia, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the sun set over the ocean…

  • Jesse

    I have a separate question: Is it possible to capture the sun with smooth round edge? I always found the sun in my photo appeared rather segmented as if horizontal lines had been added.

  • Rosalyn

    I like your closing comment the most……..

  • Sarah

    Thank you for explaining the Rule of Thirds. I’ll definitely practice it! This past week has been a great time for sunset shots on Oahu because of the vog coming from the Big Island of Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano. It happens every so often when the tradewinds that normally clear the air, die down. Anyway, the beautiful cloud formations and intense colors have been absolutely enjoyable. I do have my fair share of plain sunset shots though. One thing I’ve tried to liven up a typical sunset shot is to shoot with something in the foreground that creates a silhouette: a tree, tree branch, even a couple sitting on a bench enjoying the view. Thanks!

  • La Verne

    An interesting perception. I understand the rule of thirds (sometimes), but there are times when a focus in the center really looks good.

  • brad

    Is there something unique about photographing both the sun and the moon? I have great difficulty convincing the camera to focus when I’m shooting either one. The auto focus just keeps going back and forth. Any insight is helpful. Thanks.

  • Melissa

    Brad, when shooting really anything, not just the sunset/rise and moon, you should always use manual focus. If you have problems with manual focus, one thing I’ve learned to do is zoom all the way in and focus it until it’s crisp and clear. Then zoom back out to where you want your lens to be. I was trained at a photography job to focus it where you think it’s focused, then blur it, make it clear, blur it again going the opposite direction of your first blur, then make it clear. Don’t make it completely blurry, just slightly past the clear image. You’ll find that it’s beneficial to do this, and once the photo has been taken go into your LCD screen and zoom into the picture you just took and see if it’s blurry up close. If it’s not, then you did it right. If it is blurry, then try again.(if you’re focusing on something like the sun or the moon, do this on something that’s far away that your lens can still “reach,” however, correct me if I’m wrong anyone, I think you need a minium Xmm lens to photograph the moon)

    In general, the Rule of Thirds helps a lot with every photograph you take. A photography teacher I had once said, “Learn all the rules of photography. Once you learn all of the rules, then you can break them.”

  • Barry E Warren

    Good read,and tips. I don’t get to the ocean that much, but wish I could. But do a lot of sunsets inland where I live. Which still the rules of thirds still apply and composing the shot.

  • george samuel

    strange that you re-posted this now. yesterday, i was taking some “different” sunset pics! vertical, smaller, sun at the botttom, other than thirds, etc!!

  • george samuel

    strange that you re-posted this now. yesterday, i was taking some “different” sunset pics! vertical, smaller, sun at the botttom, other than thirds, etc!!

  • Johan Strijckers

    great subject. I experimented with sunsets a couple of times during the holidays and loved this one with my kids

  • johan strijckers

    hmm cant seem to upload pictures

  • Donna Pitre Melsness

    Not big on sunsets . As you said they are boring. Good info though. Thanks.

  • Guest

    Nice sunsets

  • Guest

    Sunsets are great

  • Bruce

    Plain sunset but used sand dunes instead

Some older comments

  • Melissa

    October 12, 2012 12:54 pm

    Brad, when shooting really anything, not just the sunset/rise and moon, you should always use manual focus. If you have problems with manual focus, one thing I've learned to do is zoom all the way in and focus it until it's crisp and clear. Then zoom back out to where you want your lens to be. I was trained at a photography job to focus it where you think it's focused, then blur it, make it clear, blur it again going the opposite direction of your first blur, then make it clear. Don't make it completely blurry, just slightly past the clear image. You'll find that it's beneficial to do this, and once the photo has been taken go into your LCD screen and zoom into the picture you just took and see if it's blurry up close. If it's not, then you did it right. If it is blurry, then try again.(if you're focusing on something like the sun or the moon, do this on something that's far away that your lens can still "reach," however, correct me if I'm wrong anyone, I think you need a minium Xmm lens to photograph the moon)

    In general, the Rule of Thirds helps a lot with every photograph you take. A photography teacher I had once said, "Learn all the rules of photography. Once you learn all of the rules, then you can break them."

  • brad

    October 11, 2012 07:58 am

    Is there something unique about photographing both the sun and the moon? I have great difficulty convincing the camera to focus when I'm shooting either one. The auto focus just keeps going back and forth. Any insight is helpful. Thanks.

  • La Verne

    October 8, 2012 10:04 pm

    An interesting perception. I understand the rule of thirds (sometimes), but there are times when a focus in the center really looks good.

  • Sarah

    October 7, 2012 06:25 pm

    Thank you for explaining the Rule of Thirds. I'll definitely practice it! This past week has been a great time for sunset shots on Oahu because of the vog coming from the Big Island of Hawaii's Kilauea Volcano. It happens every so often when the tradewinds that normally clear the air, die down. Anyway, the beautiful cloud formations and intense colors have been absolutely enjoyable. I do have my fair share of plain sunset shots though. One thing I've tried to liven up a typical sunset shot is to shoot with something in the foreground that creates a silhouette: a tree, tree branch, even a couple sitting on a bench enjoying the view. Thanks!

  • Rosalyn

    October 6, 2012 07:34 pm

    I like your closing comment the most........

  • Jesse

    October 5, 2012 11:16 am

    I have a separate question: Is it possible to capture the sun with smooth round edge? I always found the sun in my photo appeared rather segmented as if horizontal lines had been added.

  • Jonathan

    October 5, 2012 10:36 am

    Living on the east coast of Australia, I don't think I've ever seen the sun set over the ocean...

  • Les

    October 5, 2012 09:26 am

    Peter, you said: You will not damage your camera by pointing it at the sun if your lens is 300mm or less

    Not entirely true. A normal lens (50mm or so) will behave like a magnifying glass. And with rangefinder cameras having focal plane shutters, like Leica and its Russian copies, focusing on the sun for a few seconds can begin to burn a hole in the cloth shutter.

  • Rita Gaul

    October 5, 2012 08:32 am

    I like the Vertical, Moved High example, mainly because the texture and depth of colour of the ocean in the foreground, draws your eye up to the sun,being the focal point Unfortunately the vertical view does lose some of the rich glow around the sun in the original photo. Having said that, with the Sun moved slightly off to one side gives one the feeling of movement instead of a static Sun in the middle of the photo.
    Rita

  • Marco

    October 5, 2012 03:27 am

    The original centered one is calming. The rule of thirds is really a way to impose activity on your viewer and some photos are better without that. It would be even more calming if you cropped it to a square format. Sometimes that is the right mood for an image. Just know why you are doing it. If this was my photo to frame, I would center the photo like the original and then crop it to a square with the sun dropped down to the bottom third of the frame but still centered horizontally. But that is just me.

    As to shooting the sun at sunrise or sunset, the power is greatly reduced because of the extra atmosphere between you and the sun. Same principal as the golden hour shooting. But for further safety of your eyes, it is often best to use the Live View mode instead of the viewfinder. I also limit the time pointed at the sun for the sake of the shutter curtains. That means aim it where you want, set the shot up and then shoot it, but move the sun out of frame when you are done. Things at sunrise (sunset) are changing so fast that leaving it set up while you chimp is useless anyways.

  • Roger Maxwell

    October 5, 2012 02:05 am

    Peter,

    The Rule of Thirds is probably one of the first guides a photographer learns, and yet, for me, haven't considered in several of my photos. I appreciate your article as it will certainly cause me to dredge up some of my dull sunset photos and give them another look. On several I used this rule but only regarding the horizon but not the placement of the subject. And while initially I really liked my shot, I started to notice how many other people had the same shot, the same star burst on the water effect - boring. But now I can't wait to try this out and put a new spin, add some character to it. Thanks again.

  • Ellen Beener

    October 5, 2012 01:30 am

    I take many sunset shot. Some are not so amazing and others just tug at the heartstrings. I have found that you really do need big think scattered clouds that are water logged. The suns rays going through the clouds is what makes for the gorgeous sunsets.

    I have also forced myself otu fo bed vey early to catch a sunrise. That is a very different experience which I suggest you do try to shoot. THe hues are more gold.

  • trialex

    October 4, 2012 08:30 am

    Yep another vote here for the-first-centred-image-looks-the-best.

    Luckily it's all subjective!

  • Juanfran

    October 2, 2012 01:37 am

    Hi Peter,
    I am not agree with you. I prefer the bored version (first image) than the second version (after rule of thirds). The first transmit calm, that is the same feeling that you feel when you are watching this sunset. Maybe, de-centered the horizon would be enough (as the second vertical picture). But I do not like at all the sun on the upper left corner. In my opinion, not always the rule of thirds works.

    See you,
    Juanfran.

  • Brian Fuller

    October 1, 2012 10:30 pm

    I've taken may sunset pics and never had one I really liked. Now I need to go back and see if I centered them all.
    Thanks for the post.

    http://bit.ly/oufr4c

  • Valerie

    October 1, 2012 02:04 pm

    Interesting. Can you explain why that is so that I better understand what is happening and don't still find a way to get into trouble? The way I'm looking at it, it seems like the lens has to focus on the sensor and focusing the sun's image over a smallish area seems likely to generate some heat which I'm sure wouldn't be good for the sensor. In 35mm days I heard rumors of people burning the cloth shutters by pointing their lens at the sun. I don't want to do the digital equivalent. Camera's are too darn expensive to waste! :)

  • Peter West Carey

    October 1, 2012 01:53 pm

    Valerie,
    You will not damage your camera by pointing it at the sun if your lens is 300mm or less, generally. If you have a concern for your eyes, wear sunglasses to lessen the brightness.

  • Mike S

    October 1, 2012 07:51 am

    Room to move, to look around the photograph,
    After looking at the subject then look(s) away because they feel they took it all in (mainly with periphery).
    Aha moment , now I get why moving off centre works, yes I bounced straight back out of the centred subject, the thirds balance areas keep my interest longer by looking for more.
    By conciously being aware of where my 'eye' goes around an image, I 'feel' how long it keeps my attention, and someone else's.
    Thankyou for a different way of explaining how the rule of thirds works, different explanations will work for different people, This one has finally created understanding for me. Keep up the good work, with slightly different explanations each time, I look forward to your next 'aha' tutorial.

  • Ben

    October 1, 2012 04:23 am

    Interesting, but I think I actually prefer the first one... the others look a bit odd to me.

  • Valerie

    October 1, 2012 02:13 am

    I understand pointing the lens at the sun can focus its rays and cause damage to the camera or to the eye looking through the viewfinder. How can such photos be taken safely?

  • Feroz

    October 1, 2012 01:51 am

    Nice article, but it's still Sep 30th

  • Mridula

    October 1, 2012 01:43 am

    The last advice is the most difficult one to follow. :D Even though I knew about what you said watching it through illustrations makes it etched in the memory. So thank you.

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