The difference between a nice sunset and a dramatic sunset is all about the clouds.
Of course, the difference between a dramatic sunset and no sunset is all about the clouds too!
A clear sky at sunset might turn a shade of pale blue or pink, which is beautiful and calming, but with just the right amount of clouds the sky becomes alive with fire and drama as the day’s last rays reflect off the clouds making them red, orange, purple and pink.
Not all clouds are created equal though. They come in many shapes, sizes, densities, and altitudes, and they all refract or absorb the light in different ways that can drastically change the quality of your photographs.
Types of Clouds
Clouds that hang low in the sky and form a band on the horizon or appear like a thick blanket covering the sky will block the sun’s high-flying rays and make the sunset pretty anti-climactic, if you can see it at all.
Sometimes large and lumpy clouds that are brighter on the top and dark on the bottom can create a lot of contrast, making for a very moody atmosphere. Rain, snow, and hail clouds fall under this category, as the weight of the excess moisture weighs them down.
The most radiant displays of colour emerge when the clouds are very high in the sky. They are usually smaller, whiter, and thinner than the low-lying clouds, and they are able to catch the sunlight from beneath, allowing us to view those fiery colours from the ground.
These are more likely to occur when the weather is hot and dry, which is why desert landscapes are famous for their magnificent sunsets. When you want to create a dazzling sunset photo, these are the clouds you want to look out for.
Predicting the Weather
Sunsets don’t last very long, so it takes a little planning and a lot of luck to have nature set up the perfect sky for you. You never know when the ideal conditions are going to present themselves, but if you tune your senses to the weather and its patterns, you will start to get an idea of when you can expect to see the right amount of clouds in a sunset sky.
Watch the sky over the course of the day to see what kinds of clouds are forming and how fast they’re drifting overhead. Check your local weather forecast to find out when the sun will go down, and try to judge if they’ll be sticking around based on the time of day and the speed of their movement. Keep informed about any storms coming in that will bring low-hanging clouds along with them.
If you have a great view from your back yard, all you have to do is keep your camera at hand so you can dart out when you see a great sky. On the other hand, if your aim is to travel to a more distant location to get your shot, you’ll have to be a little more precise in your calculations to avoid hauling all your gear up a mountain only to have the clouds dissipate. Your best bet is to choose a location that will be beautiful with or without clouds – that way, if nature doesn’t cooperate, you haven’t wasted the trip.
The Perfect Exposure
The most effective way of bringing out the natural saturation of coloured light is to underexpose very slightly – between a half-stop and a full stop. This darkens the rest of the image, making the colour pop in comparison. Use your exposure compensation to adjust this.
To make sure you get the best possible exposure, bracket your shots. This means taking several images at different exposures, so you can analyze them on your computer at home in order to determine which is the most successful. This can be done manually using your exposure compensation setting – take one image using the camera’s default settings, then take one that is underexposed by half a stop and one that is overexposed by half a stop. Some cameras will have an automatic bracketing option that you can utilize to change these settings for you.
Another option is to create a high-dynamic range (HDR) image by combining multiple exposures as I did in this photo of a Joshua Tree. I made one exposure for the sky, another for the mid-tones, and another for the shadows and combined them in post-processing.
If you want to soften the appearance of moving clouds, use a long shutter speed to blur them slightly. If they are drifting slowly you’ll need a longer exposure to achieve this than if they’re gliding swiftly across the sky.
When you’re going after sunset-specific shots, there’s a good chance that your foreground is going to be silhouetted against the sky. When this happens, it’s easy to forget about the foreground all together. This is a mistake. Remember that every part of your frame is important. The darkened foreground is simply negative space, and should be composed just like the rest of the image. Look for interesting shapes or objects to place in the frame to create a focal point that enhances the picture. If you want your foreground to be more visible, use fill flash (flash with the brightness turned down) to lighten the subject slightly without overexposing.
When you bring your photos into an image editing program, you might have the urge to crank up the saturation and make the colours really bold. Resist the urge to go overboard on this feature; a 5% increase is all right, but much more than that can cause your image to take on a cartoonish look that could make it appear inauthentic. If your software allows you to, change the “vibrance” instead. This option is similar to saturation, but it focuses its effects on the pixels with lower colour intensity, preventing over saturation. Be ginger with your adjustments, and when in doubt dial them back a little bit to ensure the alterations are subtle and the final image looks natural.