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+.

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