Take Better Sunset Pictures - Hints & Tips
Updated: Jan 29
Hello everyone, and once again thanks for reading my landscape photography blog.
I have had a request from a couple of people to do one based on the photographers favourite capture, the sunrise & sunset and how to get the most out of them, So heres my top tips to improve your pictures of the golden hour.
1. PLAN, PLAN & PLAN
It might sound like such an obvious thing but it can be overlooked by so many. So what should you plan for ? Do you have a shot in mind ? Is it just a location you want to get a shot from ? Is the tide right ? Will the weather be what you need ?
All questions you should think about before you go for a shoot in general.
I will usually have a shot in mind I want to achieve before I even consider a venue for a shoot, I know what I want to get out of it before i've even got there.
I will look first of all at the weather forecast, if it's heavy rain and thick cloud its odds on its not going to be what you want so change your plan to an area that looks far more favourable.
Ideal conditions will be sun & cloud, I'm not in favour of clear skies for this sort of shoot although they do have their own place I just prefer a bit more drama in a shot. That comes from good cloud cover that lights up well.
The weather forecast can be incredibly frustrating when they get it wrong time after time and this happens an awful lot, I have learned to use it more as a guide than a "matter of fact".
I don't know many jobs where you can consistently get things wrong and still remain employed ? Seems they are onto a bit of a winner there.
When I say use it as a guide I simply mean trust your gut, Your experience will tell you when you look out of the window in the morning far better than a forecast made many hours before. If it looks favourable on the forecast I will set an alarm early and have a look outside then make a decision.
Of course we can all get it wrong more often than not but I'm willing to bet you catch a few good ones that the weather forecast didn't.
So what about the tide times and why should you use these ? Well, what might appear to be a pretty simple plain beach at high tide can reveal a wealth of ledges and rocks hidden beneath that can give you great foreground, A focal area for light to bounce off and a general more interesting picture.
It's not a guaranteed science and you will have to know your venue to decide if it makes all the difference.
The other main reason for knowing the tide times is the most important, Your safety.
Tides can come in so fast and cut off your escape route from the coast. Never ever underestimate them and always respect that the tide can be a devastating force that can carry you away in a heartbeat. I speak from past experience and frankly i'm lucky to be here still, I learned the hard way and it cost me a lot of moneys worth of camera equipment and a personal and healthy fear of the sea.
Never discount a shoot because of rain either, some of the best sunsets will come with rain and intense light, theres also a chance of a rainbow in there too.
So you now have great weather for your shoot, the tide is out and its all looking good, What next ? Do you know where the sun will come up ? Will it feature in your shot ? Or do you want to use the light instead of shooting into it ? All questions you need to think about and the answer is available in the form of the Photographers Ephemeris, This is a fantastic Web & App based program that will show you the position of the sun rising or setting on a certain day of your choice, In my mind it is essential and I use the information for every shot I take. Knowing where the sun will rise in relation to your position for your planned shot will give you the best chance of getting what you want out of it.
You can download the paid app from either Android or Apple or you can use for free the web based version which can be found at www.photoephemeris.com
The Photographers Ephemeris, click the picture to take you directly to the site. Essential kit and well worth the phone app price.
2. KNOW YOUR CLOUDS
Now I'm not an expert here, i don't have the sort of knowledge to be able to teach it well but i do know from experience which type of clouds are going to light up, And which sort will result in a wasted trip etc...
I would love to pick the brains of a few experts about clouds as it's a subject I find myself getting more and more interested in. At this point id like to plug someone on twitter who has fabulous knowledge of all things cloud related and i recommend you follow him @wessexweather
So which clouds should you really be looking out for ? Well it all depends what you want from a shot. High and mid level in general will be what you are after, especially if there is no low level cloud around to obscure them. High level whispy cloud (Cirrus & Cirrocumulus) are the ones to look out for if its quite clear and you're looking for some great pink colours in the sky, these are almost a dead cert as long as the light has a clear path to them.
Mid level clouds such as Altocumulus produce great patterns and again if not obscured they will catch the light very well and usually in a deeper tone than the real high level stuff.
So its all about high level and mid level right ? Wrong, some of the most intense sunsets all come from low level cloud, They seem to have far more contrast to them which produces the different colours and in different strengths, clouds to look out for are Cumulus, Stratocumulus,Stratus & Cumulonimbus.
These clouds are the ones that produce real winners and can also break you because they look so promising but can also fail to deliver, But when they are right they are stunning ! They also have the added advantage of being able to have patches for the light to pour through as the sun is setting and give us the wonderful crepuscular rays that we all crave and stare in amazement at.
3. TIMING IS EVERYTHING
In this instance i'm not referring to the timing of the shot, but more the timing of your arrival to shoot. So many times I have seen photographers turn up right at the point of sunrise and exclaim that it has been fairly average, only to chuckle to myself that if they had been there 30 minutes ago they would have seen a display that could make a grown man weep.
I always try and arrive at least 30 minutes before sunrise as this is the time the sunlight will be reflecting off the clouds and giving the most dramatic colour. Once again this is a subjective view and some people will much prefer a picture of the sun itself coming up. Thats not really what i'm into personally but each to their own.
The same applies to sunset, the amount of times i've watched photographers start to pack up the second the sun has dipped past the horizon and walk back to the car park only for it to light up like a Christmas tree and then watch them come hurtling back and in such a faff that they miss it all.
Wait and see isn't always the best approach, your experience will tell you if its all over but knowing your clouds will help that.
This picture was taken roughly 20 minutes before the sun came up, by the time it actually appeared the scene was pretty poor and not really worth shooting.
4. SUNBURST STARS
You ever wondered how some photographers get those fantastic pictures where the sun is screaming at the centre of the picture with a great lens flare around it and lines shooting off in a star formation ?
It's really simple and straight forward. The burst you see is essentially the blades of your lens aperture closing. If you were to shoot wide open at for example F4 then there is no closing of the blades because by definition they are wide open, If however you went to the other extreme and shot at F22 the blades will close right up and allow for these great streaks of light. Now there is reason to not shoot quite as far as F22 as your lens may well suffer from diffraction and cause you to have a very soft image. Shooting at around F16 will give you a nice sharp image from front to back (subject to your focus) and will also allow the sun to star out.
You also need to be shooting directly into the light to get the best effect from this, while its possible to capture the same effect off centre it has a habit of making some sides of the star different lengths and looks a bit messy.
Shot directly into the light and with an F16 aperture to get the starburst flare.
5. USE ND GRADUATED FILTERS
This is more for the serious shooter here as they are not a cheap investment, But boy are they worth it.
I won't go too heavily into the subject of ND Graduated filters as I covered it more in depth here.... http://www.danielwrethamphotography.com/single-post/2016/09/09/Photography---A-guide-to-ND-filters
If you haven't read it then have a read as I think it will really help you.
So why use them ? Well it enables you to balance the whole scene exposure so you can still see your foreground as well as the nice colours in the bright sky. If you don't have these then you can always get round the problem by shooting at the bright sky and letting your camera expose for this rather than the ground, or another favoured method is to under expose by two stops of light. This is not a method I would personally use, but it might help others who don't have ND Graduated Filters, It will however result on a silhouette effect of the foreground which can work nicely in some pictures but again it's not for me personally.
I hope these tips have helped you in some small way to improve your pictures and get a better understanding of the forces of nature and how to time your trips to give you the best chance possible.
I will be taking a break next week so there will be no usual Friday blog as I'm away shooting in Wales so I hope to be able to bring you maybe a couple of decent updates from the trip when I'm back.
Thanks to everyone who has shared and supported this blog and my page, It really is appreciated more than you will ever know.
As ever, Happy shooting.
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