Perfect Sunset Composition - How I Did It

Perfect Sunset Composition – How I Did It


Today DPS Soave Photography is sharing with us how he composed a sunset image perfectly so it showed up under a pier. Matt put a lot of energy into getting it just right – learn how he did it below.

On May 2nd, 2008, I was able to turn an everyday La Jolla, California, sunset into something unique:




Before this, the Scripps Institute of Oceanography Pier at La Jolla has been one of my favorite subjects for daylight beach photography:


About a month before, while taking pictures of the pier during the day, I thought it’d be great if I could somehow frame the setting sun in the middle of the pier. It didn’t seem too difficult: wait under the pier until the sun sets, then take pictures. It’s a little more difficult than that; the sun is only in that spot twice a year.

Unaware of this, I thought it’d be pretty easy to get; I assumed the sun always set exactly in the west, and since the shore runs north to south, the pier must point directly west too.

After looking at the Scripps Pier on Google Maps, I found that the pier really points pretty far north of west, since the La Jolla coast doesn’t quite run exactly north to south. I figured my ideal picture was going to be impossible, since I still thought the sun just set directly west.

After investigating a little more, I found that the sunset shifts further north as summer approaches (in the northern hemisphere). The pier still points pretty far north, but I thought I’d look into it more anyway to see if it was still possible.

I knew I had the resources necessary to figure out what I’d need to make the picture work. First, I called up Google Maps to get an aerial view of the pier (see above link) to measure the exact direction of the pier. I took a screenshot, opened Photoshop, and, using the ruler tool, I found that the pier points approximately 18.2∞ north of west.


Could the sun possibly reach 18.2∞ north of west? Another program I like to use (for my attempts at astrophotography), Stellarium, shows you where in the sky you’ll find stars, planets, nebulas, and other celestial bodies for any point on earth at any point in time.

In early April, the sunset was almost directly west. In Stellarium, I turned on “Azimuth lines” (which vertically divides the horizon), and fast-forwarded time, looking for a sunset that seemed to be at the right angle. When it got to around April 30th, the sun seemed to be in the right position. Since there were 6 azimuth lines between north and west, I found that they were each 15∞ apart (90∞/6 = 15∞ per line). The sunset appeared to be around 18∞ north of west, close to my calculated angle of the pier.

The NOAA Solar Position Calculator website allowed me to confirm my data. After entering the exact latitude and longitude of the pier (32.866 N, 117.254 W; determined using Google Maps’ “link to this page”), the date I was going to photograph the pier (May 2nd, 2008), and the time of sunset (which can be found on any weather website), I found that the exact azimuth was 289.28∞ east of north, or 19.28∞ north of west (close to the 18.2∞ I found in Photoshop). Note: it was ideal for the sunset to be further north, because I wanted the sun to be further above the horizon so I could frame it in the pier.

StellariumSo that night, I went to the beach about a half hour before sunset, waited for the sun to approach the horizon, and took my pictures as the sun set. I had some trouble getting an appropriate exposure (since the inside of the pier was much darker than the setting sun), but with a little post-processing, I got some results that I was happy with. More pictures from the evening can be seen here: Flickr Set: La Jolla (5-2-2008).

Overall, my advice is this: if you picture a photograph that you really want to try to take, be creative. Whether that means simply driving to a new location, climbing a tree to get a different perspective, or using different resources to find when you can get your picture like I did.

Note: To any fellow La Jolla photographers, I’ve calculated that this will happen again around August 8th, 2008, as the sun starts getting further and further south.

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

Some Older Comments

  • mike July 25, 2010 07:01 am

    With out doubt the best results I have ever had, apart from choosing the composition that you fancy is to set your camera if posible in cloudy setting. The results were fantastic.

  • Jason January 28, 2010 10:07 am

    Full marks for preperation. The only time I've used Google maps was to find some turquoise ocean in Egypt

  • Benz January 28, 2010 10:02 am

    If you want to know camera and setting john My Photoblog contains all the exif data from the camera in every post as well as Photoshop layers and other tricks and tips.

  • John June 5, 2009 07:33 am

    Great photos,but how about sharing camera model, settings, etc.?

  • Andrea December 10, 2008 10:29 pm

    Geez Bill do you actually enjoy photography or just using computer programs? I would say the later as I am a budding photographer and can completely understand where Matt has come from and appreciate what truly amazing photo's he has taken and the time and effort put in to get excactly what you want. Photoshop is a TOOL not a camera, get a grip and learn how to actually take photo's and appreciate how amazing these pictures are.

  • Kevin Ross June 4, 2008 09:18 am

    Great Job! Loved the photo! With the way you approach your subject, I'm amazed. Can't wait to find out what you have in store for us next. Keep up the good work!

  • Greg Soave May 15, 2008 04:49 am

    Wow Matt. Nice job. That is really impressive. It's pretty amazing how much effort went into that.

    P.S. Bill - Why not just photoshop 3 suns, all different colors, and add some faieres in it?? Oh yeah, then it's not really a photograph anymore.

  • Alicia Sharp May 13, 2008 02:08 am

    Matt, the photograph is truly amazing and the article very interesting. I would of never thought that the tools to figure out when the sun was going to set in a particular spot is readily available on the internet. But it is obvious it took dedication and the sense of accomplishment you must feel. Fantastic job!

  • Matt Soave May 11, 2008 10:35 am

    Hey guys, thanks a lot for all the comments everyone! And thanks DPS for posting this.

    Bill: sure I could do that, but I'm more of a fan of photography than pure Photoshop. Fake pictures are cool too I guess...

  • Embrodak May 11, 2008 08:06 am

    Hooray for science!

  • shannon May 10, 2008 07:58 am

    Bill's comment makes me sort of sad; That he can't appreciate the dedication some people have to creating art is truly a shame. I think it's a great shot, definitely quite attractive, and inspiring to see you work so hard to make it happen. Good job!

  • Mandy May 10, 2008 05:49 am

    Wow! That is some achievement and a great photo. I take my hat off to you.

  • Michael Rutherford May 10, 2008 04:49 am

    It is nice to know some people take the time and effort into a composition.

    Despite some of the negative feedback you have here, i think you have done a great job.

    I would never of been able to work all that out with or without googles help, i am no good at maths what so

    Well done a great job.

  • shutterfiend May 10, 2008 03:20 am

    Well, there's always next year ;)

  • Bonnie Freeland May 10, 2008 12:25 am

    Regarding Neils Henriksen's information about the Palm Pilot - wondering if all PP's will give this info, or only certain models. Would anyone know? I have been thinking of looking into purchase of a PP and this would be the "kicker" to get one. What a great shot! From a sunset-shot lover, WELL DONE!

  • Ryan May 9, 2008 11:25 am

    Wow... Can't imagine how disappointed you would have been if the weather or clouds turned against you that day.

  • Bill May 9, 2008 04:47 am

    This seeemed more a High School science project than capturing a beautiful image. Sorry, but, there's very little attractive about this photo.
    From a production stand point, it would sure be a lot quicker and easier to just combine a couple of shots in
    your favorite photo editing program.

  • Geoff Fox May 9, 2008 03:03 am

    New York City's streets are offset to E/W by around 30 degrees. That makes May 28 and July 12, every year, the days the sun sets directly down the centerline of the streets.

  • John Halsey May 9, 2008 01:47 am

    This is a great post! How Ingenious!

  • Jay May 8, 2008 11:09 pm

    A lot of effort, but it all paid off in the end!
    I wish I had the time to really put this much into my photography.

  • PRH May 8, 2008 10:09 pm the next time someone demands "why learn trigonometry?" I'll direct them to this post :D

  • Alex May 8, 2008 08:25 pm

    Not to be the one that does the short cut here and in no way criticizing that amazing photo. But what about the clone tool :) could place that sun anywhere you wanted!

    But then again doing it this way is much more rewarding

  • Trish May 8, 2008 08:09 pm

    WOW A very spectacular shot and impressive lengths you went to - you deserve many accolades for your determination and talent (plus the maths OMG).

  • xlt May 8, 2008 04:55 pm

    huh, too much math for me. :) I usualy take into consideration approximate location of sun / sunlight when go for shot.

  • Damian Gadal May 8, 2008 09:41 am

    This is great information, and something that I'll be able to use right away. Thanks!

  • Reznor May 8, 2008 05:12 am

    Wow, what an efford, I would have propably just taken two shots and composited them into one as soon as I realized, the sun wouldn't set in the needed position. I guess, doing it this way is much more rewarding but not everyone has that much time to spare.

  • Jeff May 8, 2008 03:09 am

    I read another similar article the other day concerning landscape photography that has a good general rule of thumb equation if you want a quick idea of when the sun will be in the right place to correctly light certain topographical features. You can give it a read over on the Outdoor Photographer website.

    Of course, when you're trying to photograph the sun through a pier, a much more precise calculation must be made...but the tips in this article will at least get you started.

  • Mahesh Subramanian May 8, 2008 01:08 am

    I really liked the pictures with the sun set. Amazing effort. Bravo, well done.

  • Greg Furry May 8, 2008 01:01 am

    Great post. I was just thinking of doing something very similar using Google Earth now that it supports the sky view.

    Unfortunately it doesn't seem to let you change the date. Seems like this would be a nice feature to add. Virtual scouting. Find your location. Switch to street view. Set the time to near sunset. Move the date until the sun is in the right location. Set the date on your Google calendar with a reminder to grab your camera and head to the location around the time the sun goes down.

  • Taallyn May 8, 2008 12:51 am

    Interesting article. You did a lot of research to get the shot. It also gives a better appreciation of what ancient peoples had to do to build their astronomically aligned structures Stonehenge. They didn't have Googgle, NOAA or computer astronomy programs to help them get the data.

    Again, good article. I won't have have realized that some of the sources were available for use like that.

  • My Camera World May 8, 2008 12:47 am

    Those exact sunset compass settings for those perfect shots may seem hard to get and includes a lot of math and science.

    A program I use is SOL II for the Palm Pilot which casts about $10 helps me plot the compass setting for sunsets for each day of the year. It has many astronomical measurements available. More than I need. I just want to know where the sun and moon are positioned.

    The program plots the sun angle throughout the day. For a particular day I just check the sun angle at sunset which gives the compass settings. For the example in this article I would have measured the compass angle through the piers and just moved through the days in the calendar until the angle was the same. This then gives the best day and hopefully the weather will supportive.

    I also have the DOF calculator on the Palm which is free.

    These devices, which I bought used, are small and handy to carry around with you and you can make notes about your shoots.

    Niels Henriksen