By Russ and Tiña De Maris
Traveling through any “tourist trap” you’re apt to find postcard racks. Many will be filled with those wonderful “vacation pictures” – often a big sky filled with a huge orb of fire, descending into the sea or to a distant horizon. Save that pocketful of paper money. You, too, can photograph spectacular sunsets. It just takes a little forethought and some tips from experienced sunset photographers. Let’s go through the alphabet of sunset photography.
L is for Location
The first step for spectacular sunsets? Think of the realtor’s mantra: Location! Location! Location! Sunsets over the ocean are always popular, but what if your travels don’t take you to the beach? Chuck Haralson’s name is synonymous with great photographs, made for Arkansas’ Department of Parks and Tourism. Needless to say, there aren’t a lot of ocean dunes on Chuck’s beat. Still, Haralson has vast numbers of spectacular sunset photos from all over the Natural State. Here are some of his suggestions.
For the best sunset shots, think about more than just that big old orb. “Try to make the shot more interesting than just the sun,” Chuck says. “Try to frame it with a tree or cityscape if you can.” Here’s where a bit of advance planning can pay dividends. Just jumping out of the rig when spotting a sunset and pushing a button may not cut it. To get the spectacular sunset, be “on location” BEFORE the sun touches the horizon. Think an hour or even two ahead of sundown. Why be there so early? It gives you a chance to scout out interesting foreground objects to give depth to your photos.
On the beach this could translate to rocks, piers, boats, even people. An object in the foreground gives scale to your picture. And shooting from a high angle downward shows more than the sun. The feel of the landscape, the texture of trees or grasses, the changes in color – all these things can change with a height perspective.
E is for Exposure
If your camera allows you to adjust exposure, it can make your sunsets spectacular. Back in the day of film cameras (and even some of today’s digital marvels), various settings for length of exposure and “aperture” (how much light the lens admits) can make the day. But since most of us are using digital, look for a control that allows you to underexpose or overexpose the shot. Bracket – or shoot both over and under the camera’s normal recommendation.
Says Haralson, “Cover all your bases and somewhere in there, you’re going to have the perfect exposure. Even as many years as I’ve been shooting pictures, I still bracket. Everybody brackets.”
If your digital camera doesn’t allow you to use “EV compensation” as some call it, you can “process” your own photos using photo software like Photoshop and manipulate the final results. Use brightness and contrast adjustments for starters.
Some digital cameras have a bad habit: When “looking” directly at the sun, streaks may show up in the frame. You may need to wait for the sun to go down farther to avoid the streaks. This shouldn’t be confused with our next letter…
F is for Flare
Lens flare! Shooting the sun, you may see sunlight skipping across the picture. That happens when bright light hits the camera’s lens elements. Timing makes a difference: “You have a very narrow space there where you can shoot without having lens flare,” says Chuck Haralson. “But during that time there’s that golden light that I like to shoot that’s only about … 15 to 30 minutes before the sun sets.” If you have a long arm, or have a helper, put something in the way of the sun (without it being in the picture). We find a well-placed hat works wonders. But, too, some people find lens flare attractive!
B is for Big
Ever taken a picture of a huge moon, only to be disappointed by the minuscule spot when recorded by a camera? You’ve been fooled by an optical illusion – but your camera wasn’t. When celestial objects are close to the horizon they appear to us huge. But the reality is, they’re the same size regardless of where they are in the sky. To make a BIG spectacular sunset shot, if your camera has a true telephoto lens, “rack it out there,” and your pictures will show a huge sun.
T is for Take Your Time
After the sun sets, stick around a few minutes. When the sky is edged with clouds, twilight rays can light them up! Landscapes, too, can be affected by post-sunset lighting. Hues and shadows change in just minutes – but you’ll need to be there to see – and record – it.
P is for Parting Thoughts
Shoot lots. Don’t be content with walking away with one, two, or even three frames. Spectacular sunsets can play hide-and-seek. Ever “wow” at the photography in National Geographic magazine? Those photographers shoot, and shoot, and shoot to bring home just one amazing photo.
And remember, the longer the exposure, the more chance you’ll move and blur the shot. Does your camera allow the use of a tripod? Then use one! It’ll stand steady while you tremble at the sight of a spectacular sunset!