April 6, 2010
On islands and coastlines all over the world, tourists and photographers throng west-facing so-called sunset points at the end of the day. As the sun sinks into the water they click away, taking shot after shot of… well, of the sun! Unfortunately it is the same sun that they photographed at a sunset point on the other side of the world, and most of the time the pictures look pretty much the same too.
At best the pictures will be of just one more sunset, with no sense of place. At worst you will just get a yellow pin-prick in a dark sky. Either way, the only way that someone will know where the picture has been taken is if you tell them where you have been.
It is vital to try and get a sense of your destination in a sunset or sunrise picture. Pretty sunset pictures are nice enough, but unless you can convey something of your destination all of the pictures will look the same. Try to place something typical in front of it – even if this is only in silhouette. This might be a few giraffes in South Africa, the pyramids in Egypt or even just a palm tree on a tropical beach in Barbados.
You don’t even have to photograph the actual sunrise or sunset at all. If you face in the opposite direction, then you can photograph things bathed in the golden warm light that you get at sunset. You might be able to photograph ancient ruins, historic buildings or even soaring sand dunes – all bathed in the orange sunset glow.
If you are going to photograph the actual sunset, then try to avoid getting the sun in the picture. This might sound counter-intuitive, but your camera won’t be able to balance the massive contrast between the sun and the surrounding sky. You will either get a yellow sun surrounded by an almost black sky, or a burnt out sun, in a correctly exposed sky. If you just photograph a portion of the sunset, without the sun, you will get richer colours. You can also wait until the sun has just gone beneath the horizon and take a picture of the whole sky.
The colours will be better if there are some clouds in the sky as these will reflect the colours of the sun for quite some time after the sun has set. The colours in the sky will also get richer after the sun has set, so keep shooting until all the light starts to drain from the sky.
Technically, you want to make sure that your camera is not set to Auto White Balance. This will aim to neutralise any colour casts. With a sunset it will remove the wonderful golden light. Switch to Daylight White Balance, or even the Sunset picture scene mode if your camera has one. This will customise the white balance and the exposure.
Steve will be leading a photography tour of the Ladakh region of India in July 2010. For more information, visit his website. All photos by Steve Davey. Header image: Minstrel, Jaisalmer, India.