Nothing makes a sky pop in a photograph the way that a sunset can. Beautiful purples and yellows in a sky are often the result of the setting sun, but in order to capture the richness of those colors in a photograph, there are a few tricks you should know about. In today’s landscape photography photo tip, we will continue our discussion on shooting better sunset photos.
In a past photo tips article we discussed how to meter the sunset so that we don’t get a dark, muddy (or even completely black) sky.
The meter in our camera will see all the light from the sun and expose for that value while letting everything else in the scene go dark. To fix it, we meter for the sky with the sun out of the frame, then recompose to include it. In effect, this increases the exposure value and more properly exposes the sky.
For today’s first sunset photo tip, we are going to take a step backward. Now that we have increased the exposure to get a “correct” reading in the sky, we have to step back and change our settings to slightly underexpose the sky. That’s when we are going to get all of those colors to “pop.” Slight underexposure will deepen and intensify the colors.
The problem is that if we overexpose the sky–or even if we have a “correct” exposure (I put “correct” in quote marks because artistically there really is no such thing) —we wash out all the stunning colors that drew us to the scene in the first place. On the other hand, if we underexpose by too much, everything starts to go black.
This is another area where shooting digital images is sometimes better than film. We can see what we’re getting and make adjustments on the fly. When shooting film, we had to guess at the best exposure–and frequently we were wrong. Even worse, we didn’t find out until the film was processed, which could take several days. And we had to pay $15 or $20 for the privilege of seeing bad or inadequate sunset photos.
With digital cameras, we can immediately see the results and tweak our settings until we get exactly what we want. With this ability, there is absolutely no reason why we can’t get sunset photos that will absolutely take our breath away.
The flip side to underexposing the sky in sunset photography is that the ground area is going to go dark. At sunset it is probably dark to begin with, and underexposing the image is going to further darken it, possibly making the foreground go completely black with no detail. Unless we are going for a silhouette, we rarely, if ever, want areas of our photographs to be without detail.
If we want to lighten the foreground without lightening the sky, we use a split neutral density filter. This way we underexpose the sky with the filter, not the exposure setting.
Actually, the filter can be neutral or colored. When using a colored filter, you can add color to a sunset.
Here’s a pro secret: many of the beautiful colors we see in professional quality sunset photographs have been added with a filter. Particularly in movies and on television. (Photo techniques don’t change just because it’s a movie set.)
We can stack filters and use a colored filter to add colors to the sky and then darken it with a split neutral density filter to rescue the foreground.
For sunsets, tobacco colored filters tend to be very popular. For sunrises, filters trend more toward pink.
So, to create that jaw-dropping, contest-winning sunset you’ve been dreaming about, meter with the sun out of the frame to increase the exposure value. Then slightly underexpose the sky to intensify the colors. Finally, bring back the details in the ground and add color to the sky, if necessary, with filters. Today’s landscape photography photo tip is going to quickly separate you from the crowd. Try it!
About the Author
Dan Eitreim writes for ontargetphototraining.com. He has been a professional photographer in Southern California for over 20 years. His philosophy is that learning photography is easy if you know a few tried and true strategies.
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