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As a landscape photographer, I participate in many online groups, and I also teach classes where I get the opportunity to see less experienced photographers’ work. I often see some very good work, but many times I also see missed opportunities. Newer photographers just getting started photographing landscapes often times become so enamored by the colors in the sky, that they neglect other areas of the image. I often see images with weak, underexposed foregrounds, and poor compositions that keep them from being good photos and relegates them to being just pretty snapshots.
Don’t get the wrong idea. I often photograph at sunrise or sunset. But, the sun or sky is rarely the subject of the photo. It may be an element in the image, but the subject is generally something else. In many ways, it can be more difficult to make a great image at sunset or sunrise, because there is a tendency to be drawn to the pretty colors in the sky. But as photographers, we really need to pay attention to the other elements in the image to ensure we’re creating a complete composition. So below are a few tips to help improve your sunset or sunrise photos.
This tip is the most obvious. Sunsets make great backgrounds, but rarely do they make great subjects. You need to find a good foreground. The gorgeous colors in the sky can be so vibrant that they really allow us to see our surroundings differently. The play of light and shadow over objects in the foreground, due to that great directional light given off when the sun is lower in the sky, helps create interest that might not be there in the middle of the day when the sun is higher.
The best way to do this is to find something of interest right in front of you. Use a wide angle lens, such as the 16-35mm or something around that range, zoom out to as wide as you can, and put your foreground object a few feet in front of you. Stop down and set your aperture to f/11 or smaller, and focus on your foreground object to ensure that it’s sharp. If you want to add some extra interest, try stopping your lens down as far as you can. This will help create a starburst where the sun is, which will add a little extra interest in your scene.
One thing to keep in mind, is that the exposure for your foreground subject and the background exposure, are likely going to be very different. You have a few options here. The first would be to expose once for the foreground, and once for the background, and then blend them together in Photoshop. A great article on blending exposures is 5 Easy Steps To Exposure Blending for High Contrast Landscapes. Next, and generally my preferred method, is to use a graduated neutral density filter to try and darken the bright sky in the background, so that it is more balanced with the foreground subject. Read Using Graduated Neutral Density Filters for Landscape Photography for more on ND Grads. The last, and easiest option, is to create a silhouette of the foreground objects, while properly exposing the colorful sky and sun in the background. This works best with a singular object with a distinctive form, such as a bridge, a tree, a distinctive building, or a person in a distinctive pose.
In this case, the sun itself won’t be in your scene at all. The magic of sunsets or sunrises is the soft, warm, directional light they offer. This light can create tremendous light and shadow play within the scene, making textures in your foreground especially desirable. Rocks, logs, trees, grasses, and undulations or patterns on the ground, will create interesting shadows and highlights that draw your viewer’s eye into the scene. In this case, it’s often best to put the sun to your side, so that it rakes across the scene, letting the shadows and highlights play from one side to the other.
With a scene like this, a polarizing filter may help as well, as they are most effective when the camera is aimed 90° from the sun. This will help deepen blue areas of the sky, enhance other colors, and reduce any haze that may be in the scene. You may need to make some choices about exposure, if the contrast between highlight and shadow in the foreground is too great. A graduated neutral density filter can help keep the sky under control if it is still too bright against the foreground.
At sunrise or sunset, that soft warm light that I mentioned as being great from the side, is also great from behind you. This will help create a soft frontal light on your scene, illuminating all of the details. This is likely to be the easiest exposure of the three situations, in that the light will be very even, with no bright highlight or deep shadow areas in the scene. You’ll likely get soft, warm pastel colors if there are any clouds or haze in the sky to reflect the sun’s light.
Be careful when composing your image, as the sun behind you will cast a long shadow, and you may end up with your own shadow in the photo. To minimize this, try crouching down low, and setting your tripod as low as possible to help shorten the shadow. Also, if using filters for longer exposures, on DSLRs with optical viewfinders, the sun can enter the camera from the rear, affecting your exposure. Take care to cover your viewfinder in these instances.
You’ll want to get there early for sunrise. The color in the sky can start half an hour, or more, before the sun actually rises, with clouds first showing subtle traces of pink and purple before the red, orange, and yellows appear as the sun breaks the horizon. You’ll want to be set up and ready when that happens, which means trekking through the dark to your location. Advance scouting can be helpful for this.
The same is true at sunset, but in reverse. Just because the sun has gone down, doesn’t mean that the show is over. Generally speaking, the sky will continue to light up, and colors will continue to change for about 30 minutes after the sun goes down. Many photographers have packed up and gone before this happens. Patience will reward you with more subtle color changes, such as reds going to purples and blues, rather than the vibrant yellows and oranges you get during the initial phases of the sunset.
More than any other time to shoot, sunset or sunrise creates dramatic colors and fantastic play between light and shadow. Because of that, it can be difficult to try and capture the detail in the shadows or highlights, depending on which way you bias your exposure. A RAW file contains much more information than a JPEG, which will allow you to bring out the details in shadow and highlight areas that may be lost if shooting JPEG files. In addition, shooting RAW files allows you to adjust your white balance in processing to give you better control over the overall tone of the image.
For more on processing RAW files, check out Understanding the Basic Sliders in Adobe Camera RAW, and for more on why you might want to consider photographing in the RAW format, see 5 Reasons To Shoot Your Landscape Images in RAW.
What’s your favorite sunrise or sunset photography tip? Please post your tips and images in the comments below!