You may have probably faced this challenge many times. You’re standing in front of the most magical sunset. You decide to whip out your camera and take a picture. Except, your camera somehow decides that the scene is too bright and chooses to under-exposes it. The result is a bright blob (representing the sun) at a corner of the frame, a completely underexposed foreground (representing the beach) with silhouettes of your kids waving at you. The shimmering water creates a bright highlight as well. There may be little or no discernable details in the sky.
Such a scene is a nightmare for any camera to properly meter for. The reason for that is that digital cameras (considering that you are using a modern digital camera) are all programmed to meter for reflected light only. That in itself is a big problem. But let’s first focus on the approach to shoot a sunset.
Setting up to shoot a sunset
Tip 1 – Be the Early Bird
Whether it is sunrise that you wish to photograph or sunset, getting there early will allow you to select the best vantage point, set up your gear, take a few test shots, get ready to make the final shot but also give you the time to savor the moment as well. Many times, photographers are guilty of missing the moment in their bid to take the cool image. It is important that you savor each moment because they are all unique.
It’s imperative that you have the time to adjust the exposure, select the right lens and make the right composition. More time means you have that much more luxury to experiment. Ok, the 24-70mm at 24mm isn’t giving the right effect, let’s switch to a wider lens. Or the warming filter is making the image a little too warm for liking, let’s not use it.
Step - Be nimble with your hands and fingers
Though you can take all the time in the world in order to get the setup right, when the moment arrives you will have to be very quick to capture the moment. Golden hour photography (which is what sunset and sunrise photos are all about) gives you just a small window of opportunity in which to make those images. Miss it and they are gone!
Tip 2 – Gear
What you use is as important as what you shoot with it. Though there are numerous instances when you will come across resources both online and offline suggesting that your gear does not matter, at times it actually does; and sunset photography is one such moment. You will need the proper tools if you wish to shoot great photos. Apart from the camera body which should allow you to manually set the exposure, you will need the following tools:
Wide angle lens – a lens is given to shoot any type of photography. But I mentioned it specifically because any lens will not do. Landscape, seascapes, cityscapes and any pursuit to capture sweeping vistas in general requires a wide angle lens. If you don’t have deep pockets don’t worry, a kit lens will also do. Just set it at its shortest focal length.
Hand-held light meter – this is a very important tool, for reasons I shall explain later in this article. To just highlight its importance a hand-held light meter allows you to accurately deduce the right exposure value, something that the built-in light meter of your camera will not.
Graduated neutral density filter – this is a very useful tool for balancing the exposure, especially, when you want to do a bit of creative photography, rather than just make a quick snap. Grad NDs as they are more popularly known as come in soft and hard varieties where the transition from the coated edge to the clear edge is subtle and abrupt respectively. Also they come in different strengths of light stopping power. They all have their own advantages.
Tripod – a tripod is a must. Landscape photographers never leave home without one. Even if you are not using it in all situations, a tripod is that extra option just in case you want to do something creative using slow shutter speed.
Tip 3 - The settings
Shutter speed – shutter speed will depend on the effect that you need. E.g., a slower shutter speed will be ideal for creating a mist like effect of the surf rolling in and back on the beach. It looks particularly well against elements like a lighthouse, some rock formations on the beach or a pier. This is where you would need to use a grad ND filter to hold back the sky and the sun and for bringing up the foreground. A faster shutter speed is required when you need to create a slightly dark look. It is also ideal for capturing something moving fast in the foreground, such as your kids jumping in the air silhouetted against the bright sky etc.
Aperture – generally, you will need a small aperture. A small aperture will allow you to capture a vast depth of field, which is recommended for landscape photography. The easiest way to derive the correct exposure value (shutter speed and aperture) is to use the light meter explained below. This will save you valuable minutes while you fumble around with the exposure settings.
Horizon line – Must not be in the middle of the frame. There are too many examples of bang in the idle horizon compositions which are reminiscent of the missed moments. So, simply don’t do it.
Reflections – Use the reflections. Incorporate the reflections into your image so that they add a bit of interesting aspect. If shooting at the beach, use the wet sand and the reflection of the sky on it and crop out any dark foreground to make an interesting composition.
Stay till the end and another half an hour after that – beginner photographers are guilty of being impatient. They tend to pack and leave just after they have what they had planned for. You must make it a habit to linger around even after everyone else has left. The golden hour, though is just small window, the light after that is just as interesting to capture other images. E.g., if you are shooting in front of the Taj Mahal and the sun has set below the horizon, don’t leave immediately, the sky with all it pink and red hue is perfect for a slightly different image of the Taj.
Image quality - Should be RAW hands down.
Tip 4 – Importance of the hand-held light meter
Without a hand-held light meter you will be using your camera’s built-in meter, which is basically designed to give you only a reflected light reading. The problem with that is reflected light reading is not accurate, at least not with what the camera’s built-in metering system tells you. It is biased towards making everything middle-grey. Plus, you don’t even get the right metering either because it takes in to account the whole scene for making the right exposure. You would wonder, isn’t that what we are supposed to do? Matrix metering and auto-exposure? Well the most accurate way to meter would be to using the spot metering and to use the zone system. Just select a point in the scene which you feel is middle-grey and use the light meter to give you the reading for that point. Feed these values to your camera and take the shot. Ideally, the rest of the image should fall in place.