Monday, January 7, 2008

Sunsets 101

Here's some advice for capturing beautiful sunsets:
1. Places everyone! Finding a good sunset place isn’t easy. And just because you found a beautiful place to capture summer sunsets, it might not work well in the winter months.
2. Timing makes perfect. Get in place early to set up, to take some practice shots and make last minute adjustments. Sunsets unfold quickly, so you need to be ready.
3. We all need support. Use a tripod. That’s the key to getting clear sunset shots. Having said this, some cameras might produce acceptable sunset photos without a tripod. Canons for instance (as a Nikonian, I hate to admit this) handle high ISOs better with less grainy noise. I’ve taken some handheld sunset photos that I’m pleased with, but generally, it’s still a good idea to get a sturdy tripod. If you are using a lens with vibration reduction (or image stabilization), be sure to turn it off when using a tripod. Another help is to use a remote shutter release - this will help reduce vibrations.
4. Go against the grain. Use low ISOs. Doing this is crucial for avoiding the graininess that is so often see with sunset photos. Now, if you don’t have a tripod…you may have to use a high ISO (800-1600 -- or auto ISO on Nikons), program mode, and spot meter of a bright part of the sky. All of these will help bring your shutter speed to a point where handholding is possible.
5. Patience, patience. Don’t leave too early. Sometimes the most dramatic colors are seen after the sun has set and all the other photographers have packed up and left. The shot above was taken thirty minutes after sunset.
6. Color your world. Experiment with different white balance settings. The warm ones (shade, cloudy) will bring out the reds and oranges, the cool settings (tungsten, florescent) will bring out the cooler tones (blues and purples). Think white balance doesn't matter? The photo to the right was taken one minute after the photo above. Why the difference?...the top photo used the white balance setting of "shady,", the one to the right, "tungsten." (notice how the light from the tungsten or filament spot lights now are white instead of yellow).
7. Lights, Camera…METER! The light meter setting might seem like a minor thing, but once you master how and when to use this important setting, you will much more successful in capturing what your see. Think about how critical it is that our pupils open and close depending on how much light is available. Remember that eye test that dilates your eyes and how you forgot your sunglasses and had to wear the hideous plastic 3D-movie glasses home? Way too much light was being let in. The light meter reads how much light is out there so the camera can make adjustments to the aperture and shutter speed. For instance, if you use the spot meter setting and place your focus rectangle on the brightest part of the sky (of course, never look at the sun through the viewfinder), the camera will think, “That’s a heck of a lot of light – better use a fast shutter speed.” (See example here). However, using matrix (evaluative) metering during sunsets (which has the camera read the overall light level of the frame) will typically leave the shutter open longer, which will brighten the entire photo (at the expense of detail surrounding the brightest areas of the scene). The photos above used matrix metering – and thus the steeple is well defined. Had I used spot metering and metered off the brightest part of the sky, the entire steeple would have been in silhouette.
8. Be not afraid. Experiment. The above tips will help get you started taking better sunset shots, but I’m always trying new techniques…and so can you. (do your best Stephen Colbert impersonation here).

Above: Seeger Chapel at Sunset. Nikon D80 at 200mm f/5.6, 3.6 sec., ISO 100, matrix metering, white balance: shady.

Inset: Seeger Chapel Blues. Nikon D80 at 200mm f/5.6, 2.2 sec., ISO 100, matrix metering, white balance: tungsen.

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