Thursday, December 16, 2010

Tips for better sunset photographs

click photos to enlarge
Like most photographers I'm easily seduced by a good sunset. However, over the years I've come to realise that, whilst achieving a mediocre or satisfactory photograph of a sunset is fairly easy, making a good one is actually quite difficult.

Photographing a sunset, in some ways, presents similar difficulties to photographing a fast-flowing river that tumbles over projecting rocks: the things that captivate our eyes don't necessarily translate well into a static, two dimensional image. In the case of the river we take our shot after being entranced by the sparkle of light on splashes, and the ever-moving swirls and rushes of light and dark on the surface, and then are disappointed by the lack of life in our resulting image. With sunsets the luminous quality of the light, the depth of colour, the subtle gradations of single colours, and the faster movement of nearer clouds across the face of more distant ones all encourage us to raise our cameras. But, as with running water, we can be frustrated by the flatness of the photograph.

I've come to realise that one or more of three things are required for a good sunset photograph. The first is a reflection of the sunset in water - in the sea, a river or a lake. I lived for twenty years near a west facing coast and was repeatedly impressed by the way in which such a reflection can multiply and transform the power of even a quite modest sunset. The second is that the sunset must have good qualities in terms of the depth of colour, the contrast across the sky, and the shape and consistency of the clouds. Every good sunset you look at repeats the magic of the first one that you ever saw, so a weak one with a sliver of colour against the horizon should usually be ignored, photographically speaking. The third thing that can make all the difference is an interesting (often silhouetted) shape on the land below. I've used piers  and breakwaters with the sea, but pools on the sand and mud are equally good. On land anything will do that acts as a hard foil to the soft sky.

Today's photographs show a sunset that I captured when driving home from a shopping expedition. The clouds above had a lovely, colourful, soft quality, those below a brooding darkness, and sandwiched between was some blue/cyan sky with vapour trails. Both images use the tower and short spire of Swineshead church as the ground interest. The portrait format shot was taken first from a greater distance, but I was happier with the nearer landscape format image that made more of the church's silhouette.

Two further points. Some modern cameras have a mode that allows you to enhance the colour of a sunset. Treat this with the contempt that it deserves and ignore it. A photograph of a sunset should be a celebration of the natural beauty of our world, not a technologically boosted image that ends up looking like an imagined Jurassic landscape minus the dinosaurs or an apocalyptic painting from the fevered mind of John Martin. And the second point? I've posted quite a few black and white photographs over the past several days, and I thought it was time for a splash of colour!

photographs and text (c) T. Boughen

First photo
Camera: Canon
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 119mm
F No: f8
Shutter Speed: 1/160
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: 0 EV
Image Stabilisation: On