Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Sunsets - When Light Gets Dramatic

Sunsets are one of the favorite scenes.  They have been known throughout the ages to be both beatiful and romantic, and stir many emotions.  For a photographer, sunsets are also known as the magic time (when the light is at its best).  I will admit that in the past, I had to work hard to get sunsets to come out really nice.  This was both in camera when taking the picture, and even some post processing.  Seems it was difficult to get the proper exposure on the sky (exposing on the sky properly, at the expense of the ground is the secret to getting good sunset pictures).  Even with all this fiddling, the colors in the picture never matched what i was looking at in real life.  However, this is no longer the case.  The little SX210 in auto mode (yes auto mode) gets great pictures.  I wish I could take more credit for this, but seems this camera is able to capture the colors and not let the extreme wide contrast (from a bright sun down to dark) get in the way.

Though these pictures all had some post processing work, most of it was to change the size up the contrast a little on some (so the ground was less hazy) maybe some lightening (again only 1 or 2) and finally a little sharpening (again mostly for the ground).  I spent under 2 minutes on each picture in post processing (so this is what it looked like coming out of the camera).

My first comment is timing is crucial.  Though you can get good pictures separated even by a few minutes, they will look very different.  Even with this, a few minutes can mean the difference between a great picture and a really bad picture.  I was trying to get a picture of a sunset over a farmhouse, but was not able to get setup in time (it was close though), and missed it (and that picture is not worth showing - all for about 2 minutes).  Remember as always, click the image to get a larger view.

To show you what I mean I have a few pictures taken a few minutes apart.  Though I like all of these (so the wait did not ruin the picture), you will see how different they really came out.  I will start out at the beach in Ocean City, MD.

It was a little hazy when this was taken.  This caused the colors really to bounce, but also left the sun more as a circle (the haze reduced the glare etc).  The colors are nice on this picture, but really that is all.  Other than that, this picture is not that fascinating.  Normally something a little more (clouds or foreground) is a nice offset.  Now, lets wait a minute.

A few minutes later, and all of a sudden the sun is under the haze a little bit more.  This causes us to lose a little of the nice orange, but adds other elements.  We get the halo around the sun (well the haze lit up).  We get the reflection in the water as the sun has moved down (and this has lit the water more so the waves are more visible).  This picture adds some elements to the sunset that improve the picture.  Though both these pictures are nice, the wait of a few minutes might have lost some richness in color, but added other elements to the picture. 

The next pair show even a bigger difference.  These were taken out of a hotel window in Ottawa (just outside the city, looking over the city (though not the center of the city)).  Here a few minutes really changed everything, but again I like both pictures. 

Here is the first picture. it was cloudy, but there was a break below the clouds.  The sky was lit a vivid orange.  This is a nice scene, very different from the natural setting of the beach above.  here we have the steel and cement of civilization with a colorful backdrop.  However, in just a few minutes, this picture also changes, but in his case, the change is much more dramatic.

Just letting the sun set a little more just totally darkened the clouds.  With this different color, the view also needed to be adjusted to take advantage.  The prior image was zoomed in fairly strongly (remember the SX210 has a 14x zoom).  The building from the above picture is off to the left center here.  However to capture the dramatic black and orange sky, and offset it with the lights from below, for this picture we needed to zoom back out and capture the total scene.  In the first Ottawa picture, we wanted to zoom in so we could capture the buildings and close ups of the clouds lit with the brilliant orange sunset.  Below, we did not want to focus on any small details, but zoom back out so we can show the entire dramatic scene.

So as you can see, timing is very important in sunsets.  A few minutes really changes the picture and tells a whole different story.  When you get out and take pictures of the sunset, make sure you are there early enough, and keep clicking (digital is nice that way).  Keep an eye out to make sure you are capturing the elements that really stand out.  You may surprise yourself and end up with multiple good pictures (though they are widely different).

So with that out of the way, lets look at a few other examples of sunset type pictures.  The first does not include the sun at all, but is just the sky just after the sun went down.

This sky was visible upon exiting the local grocery store.  As noted above, I did not have much time, so I pulled out the camera, made sure it was set to auto, and took the picture.  I snapped three pictures, but really this one came out best (as above, timing is critical, and it changes quickly).  I liked the way the sky turned pink, and the texture of the clouds.  The hill in the foreground added some nice contrast.

The next picture reminds me of an old west scene, but the actual taking of it was quite difficult.

We were driving on the highway, and saw this nice multi colored sky  You can still see some of the blue through the clouds, the yellow glow and the clouds all caught different colors.  Again the trees add a nice foreground element.  I really wanted this picture, but did not have time to pull over.  So I flipped the camera to my daughter in the back of the van, and asked her to start shooting (auto mode works - so yes these were taken while we were traveling at ~60mph on the highway).  Note, because it metered on the sky, it was releatively fast, so we only see a little motion in the foreground.  It really pays to keep looking around (and carry the camera), never sure when a good picture will jump out.

Some nights, the sunset just isn't going to pop.  Not to fear, even on those nights there might be something to shoot.  The next two are examples of them.  Though we are not really getting a good sunset, by changing the angle of the light, we do get some interesting light patterns in the clouds.

Normally we see the streams of light coming through the clouds going downward.  However, as the sun
gets lower, this can change (if the opening in the clouds is such that the light can get through).  The above is a good example of this.  It makes for an interesting picture.  However, even when not getting a good sunset, timing is still important (that sun moves faster than you think).

A few minutes later, this is the picture we get (we about 14 minutes later, the sun has further to move, so you get a little more time here opposed to a direct sunset).  Though this picture lacks the streams, it is nice the way the sun is streaming below the clouds, hitting them in lines (making them glow).

So what do you do if you miss the sunset totally:

Look for the moon.  This is the moon through a tree and some clouds.  I had to lighten this one a little bit.  Did not really fit in, but I thought it was a nice dramatic picture, and was a nice ending.  Interestingly, this was taken handheld.  It is good to practice holding the camera steady (anti shake only helps so much).


  1. These are some nice examples but what about sunrise is it the same? They are just as quick for the beauty the have in them. Is the stary night sky a paossble as well? I lookforward to your answers.

  2. Well you caught me (and I did not really think about it when I was putting this together). The Ocean Pictures were really sunrises, not sunsets (so the sun was walking away from the horizon. Though most will think that this is not important (and for some things it is not), but there is more moisture in the are in the morning (dew etc). That can give a haze. This can change the atmosphere and change the mood a bit (and make it more dream like if caught just right, but also it will not be as crisp). However, few romanticize about the sunrise (so I grouped it all together as a sunset).