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The following post on long exposure shots after sunset was written by Matthew G. Monroe from The Global Photographer.
I’ve never been a huge fan of sunset photos… In fact — to be quite honest — the thought of just hanging around at the beach, along an observation deck, or even on a mountain top simply to take a picture of the sun hitting the horizon seems pretty dang’ boring to me. Oh sure, it can be mighty fun to just hang out with your sweetheart at the beach (MAJOR romance points), and a nice glass of chardonnay while at the top deck of the Seattle Space Needle — Perfect!
But the simple fact is that most sunset photos end up looking like — well — just about every other sunset image that’s out there: a big reddish-orange ball hits the horizon, while nearby ridgelines, trees, pets, and romantic couples all get turned into dark silhouettes. Aesthetically, it might all look quite good, but usually there’s nothing to differentiate any one particular image from the millions of other sunset shots that are out on the web (or in your grandparents old collection of slides).
Sooooo… What can you do to make your sunset shots stand out? What technique can you make use of that will make your sunset images stand out from all the gazillions of other beach shots, palm tree shots, observation deck pictures, and mountain top photos that are out there?
Simple… Don’t shoot the sunset.
Instead, take your pictures long after the sun has set.
Looooooooong after the sun has set.
Though you might not end up with the most technically polished of images, you’re almost guaranteed to have a more interesting “sunset” image if you wait about fifteen to twenty minutes after the sun has dropped below the horizon before actually snapping a picture. Your results may vary, and it could take as long as forty minutes after the sun sets before any magic really happens, but for those photographers with a rock steady tripod, a fully charged battery in the camera, and a good amount of patience, rather creative images can be created in some of the most unlikely of places. For the sake of this article, I’m using a series of photos that I shot near my own hometown (the Portland, Oregon area) of the very stylish and architectural St. John’s Bridge. I won’t make any claims about these images being award winning — but they should illustrate both my point and technique rather well.
Okay… How to begin… First off, be prepared for the location/environment that you’ll be shooting in. Myself, I always keep a small battery powered headlamp in my camera bag because — well — it’s just a good common sense sort of thing to do. A small flashlight or headlamp sure makes it a lot easier to find any CF cards that might get dropped in the dark while doing a card change (or so rumor has it). Also, be sure to dress for any weather and temperature shifts that might take place after sunset. At high altitudes, the temperature drop that takes place just after the sun drops is shockingly fast and extremely dramatic.
A very smart thing to do (if you’ve got the time and patience) is to get to your shooting location at least ten minutes before the sun actually sets. This will give you some time to look around and — more importantly — will give you time to actually think about what it is you want to shoot. Examine your environment. Is there some interesting architectural feature nearby? Any moving water? A gnarled old tree? Think about your framing and your lens choice. In that big ol’ mind’s eye of yours, run through various focal length options that you have — from telephoto to wide-angle.
Okay, you’ve got a basic mental image of the shot going… Now pull out your camera and start doing some rough test shots just to see if the framing you’ve imagined will actually work out. It will? Great! Now pull out your tripod… Set your camera up on the tripod… Get the final framing that looks most interesting to you… If you have a shutter release cable (always a good idea for long exposures) get it hooked up while you still have some light out. Put your camera into Full Manual mode (i.e.: YOU have to set aperture, shutter speed, ASA, and white balance). Set your ASA as low as it will go (typically ASA 100). Set your f-stop somewhere between f8 and f13 — it’s your choice. Lock focus on the portion of the image you think is the key element. Check your focus. Check it again. Now, turn off the Autofocus .
Let me repeat this: Turn your Autofocus off..
Now just sit back, get a nice cold (or hot) drink, and take a gratuitous photo or two just for fun. If you have your camera pointed towards the actual setting sun, be sure to keep the lens cap on when you’re not shooting, as the sun’s focused rays hitting your viewfinder screen can do some really nasty things to your camera.
Sit back some more.
About ten minutes after the sun has gone done, do a test shot with your camera just to see how things are looking. Chances are good that the results will be pretty dull and awful (see my photo below). Don’t worry — you’re taking this shot just to confirm that your camera is working, that your framing is good, and that you can adjust your camera manually to compensate for the rapidly encroaching darkness. About ten minutes after sunset, with an aperture of f8, you’ll probably need somewhere between 1 and 3 seconds of exposure time.
Fifteen minutes after the sun has gone down take another picture. Looking better? It should… You’re working your way towards the truly magic sorts of photos that can only take place long after the sun has set.
Now, start thinking about your white balance. If you’re the kind of person who usually shoots in RAW mode then this won’t matter all too much, but for myself — when shooting strictly JPEGS — I play around with my white balance quite a bit, using my camera’s LCD screen to judge color and contrast. I will often drop my white balance down to about 2800 degrees K. just to increase the saturation of my blue tones.
Okay, now it’s about eighteen or nineteen minutes past the sunset… Start clicking away, and really examine your pictures to see if you’ve picked an appropriate white balance AND that you’ve got a good exposure going. Remember, you’ll need to adjust your exposure time manually in order to make this all work out, but at some point you’re going to hit the sweet spot and it will be obvious when you hit the sweet spot. Typically, when you find that an aperture of f8 and an exposure time between 15 and 30 seconds gives you a good looking picture on the back of the screen, then you’ve most likely found the sweet spot — but keep taking pictures.
Let me repeat this: KEEP TAKING PICTURES!
In my experience, there’s only about a one minute window during which really cool, really interesting, and (if you’re lucky) truly jaw-dropping images can be created after sunset — and this usually happens somewhere between twenty and twenty-five minutes after the sun drops below the horizon. It’s important that you keep snapping away with your camera (and keep adjusting your exposure time) because — well — you’re trying to capture a very specific (though fleeting) moment. Trust me, when you capture that moment you’ll know it almost immediately — though you should also keep clicking away even when things start to look dull again on the back of your screen. If there’s a rising moon (you did check to see when moonrise was, right?) you might find yourself back at that sweet spot in a short while. Myself, I’ve had a series of sunset images go from dull to interesting, back down to dull again, and then up to really, really, really interesting because of a rising full moon.
Again, your results may vary — heck, will vary — and so it’s best to have a lot of patience when doing all this. If, after about an hour has passed and you find yourself becoming cold, hungry, or bored (or all three), then it’s time to pack it all up and head on back to your home, hotel, campsite, friends, spouse, children, and/or pets. Try not to bore anyone with tales of your exploits. Just pull out your camera — don’t say a word — and start showing the people around you some of the really cool photos that you just took. Everyone will want to know how you did it.