Watching the sun’s fiery descent over the sea to the horizon, creating a myriad of flame-coloured highlights on the water’s rippled surface makes westerly coastlines a particularly favoured viewpoint for sunsets. The intensity and scale can vary enormously from day to day. The height and density of any cloud cover, air temperature and air pollution, all play a part in how the sun’s rays are scattered and colours rendered.
Some of the most memorable sunsets occur the day after a previous evening’s firework displays, due to haze and smoke particles scattering light waves more than usual. In fact, when the Indonesian island of Krakatoa blew asunder in one of the world’s biggest volcanic eruptions in 1883, spectacular blood-red sunsets occurred for months afterwards, half a world away in Europe and North America.
Although an extreme event, Krakatoa demonstrates how atmospheric conditions influence the ‘colour quality’ of sunsets. More obviously apparent to current times is how the ever-present air humidity in equatorial regions serves to further scatter the red light waves of the spectrum, ensuring sunsets of saturated colours on a regular basis.
Compared to the world’s cooler temperate climate zones, the other advantage of equatorial locations for witnessing memorable sunsets is the minimum of variation in sunset time and direction during the year.
By contrast, in the more distant latitudes of the northern and southern hemispheres, there is a huge variance in the sun’s journey across the sky and in the number of daylight hours from one season to the next. After all, it is the tilt of the Earth’s axis that determines the seasons and the changing length of the day, and therefore the time and direction of sunrise and sunset times. These differences become more marked the closer you travel to the North and South Poles, to the point where the sun can disappear for weeks at a time during winter and never set during summer.
In the weeks surrounding one of the twice-a-year equinoxes in March and September, the duration of night and day is of similar length wherever you might be in the world. For this reason, an equinox is one of the most convenient times of year to photograph both sunrise and sunset as neither occurs at a particularly early or late hour of the day! It would be a mistake to think that the light and colour of a sunrise and sunset are much alike.
Sunrises tend to produce a less dramatic sky because the cooler night air doesn’t carry the same level of dust and other particles as the atmosphere at the end of a warm day. Consequently, light waves are scattered less at dawn than at sunset.
CHOOSING A POSITION
Photographing a sunset is fairly straightforward, but it still requires considered planning and preparation. You should find out in advance where and at what time the sun will meet the horizon to enable you to choose your position, select your focal length and compose your picture before the sun enters the frame.
It is important to have the horizon perfectly level, especially if the sun is setting over the sea or a flat open plain. For this reason, it is vital that you secure your camera on a tripod and use a remote release or self-timer to trip the shutter for maximum image sharpness. This is one type of photography where autofocus doesn’t give the photographer any advantage, as the subject to lens distance is infinity, so it’s best to switch the AF off.
More attention needs to be given to your meter reading, which should be taken from the sky, so try to ensure the sun is not included within the frame. This exposure value needs to be locked so you can recompose to include the sun and then fire a sequence of images with different exposures bracketed around your metered value. By making so many different exposures, you will produce a choice of images with varying degrees of colour saturation.
It is important not to totally rely on your camera’s meter reading in scenes of high contrast or extreme brightness, such as your typical sunset. In such scenes, a built-in meter reading, if left alone, will inevitably lead to underexposure, so the photographer needs to override the metered reading to achieve the ‘correct’ exposure. By making individual spot meter readings from different parts of the scene to check exposure variance within the frame, you can decide which reading to use to best render the contrast range within the frame. However, this ‘average’ reading is unlikely to provide an exposure reading that will render detail in both highlights and shadows.
If you want a result that will give detail and definition to foreground subjects (and not just record them as a silhouette), while still preserving the vivid colour of the sunset, then you need to use a camera with a high dynamic range (HDR). Fortunately, most modern camera models have such a capability, usually through a specific menu setting. Simply, it works like manually set exposure bracketing, but automatically, taking a burst of images to record the scene at different exposure settings and then merging the results onto one frame.
Zoom lenses are ideal for capturing sunsets because the range of different focal lengths extends the number of framing options available. With your lens and camera on a tripod you can carefully zoom in as the sun descends, giving greater prominence to the fiery disc in the frame, or zoom out to show the sweep of colour in the sky and foreground after the sun disappears.
A note of caution: Avoid looking directly at the sun through the viewfinder. Instead, use the Live View on your camera monitor to check composition while zooming the lens. Again, having the camera and lens on a tripod makes this undertaking easier and more precise. The touch screen technology common on mobile phones is now appearing on some digital SLR cameras, allowing you to make spot meter readings and select focus points without constantly checking settings by looking through the camera viewfinder.
Of course, a major consideration of shooting into the sun is how to control the amount of lens flare that appears in your picture. Lens hoods can help reduce stray light reflections from other surfaces but flare from direct sunlight is almost impossible to avoid.
While zoom lenses offer great compositional advantages, their optical construction means there are many more glass elements within, and therefore highly reflective surfaces increasing the likelihood of flare.
Lens makers are developing more sophisticated optical designs and lens coatings to counter these aberrations, but in some instances including flare in an image can be viewed as a creative addition, perhaps emphasising the brightness and ferocity of the sunset.
SILHOUETTES AND FOREGROUNDS
Even after the sun has disappeared below the horizon and the western sky is flaming orange and yellow, the foreground and other areas of the image are likely to be rendered as silhouette. As a result, you should try to include a tall and recognisable shape to add interest to the scene.
On coastal locations, ideal subjects are those with enough height to break the horizon, such as palm trees, a lighthouse or a yacht with a tall mast. Alternatively, by including water in the foreground the reflected colour of the sky’s changing palette will boost the overall impact of the image.
Away from water and further inland, a mountain landscape photographed at sunset can be breathtaking. Snow-covered peaks take on a different guise, reflecting colours of vibrant pink to liquid gold. In drier and flatter locations, such as the dusty expanses of African savannah, a sunset can serve as a spectacular backdrop to the silhouettes of some of the continent’s iconic wildlife, most notably long-necked giraffes, a herd of elephants, or even the outline of a leopard or lion ambling against the backdrop of a fiery horizon.
In these instances, such encounters are often by chance and with the camera in hand, not in a prepared position on a tripod. No matter; don’t miss the moment, just contain your excitement, hold the camera steadily, focus on the animals and enjoy the moment.
Seeing Landscape by Charlie Waite, Collins & Brown, softback, £12.99
Understanding Exposure by Bryan Petersen, Amphoto, softback, £16.99
Exposure and Lighting for Digital Photographers by Michael Meadhra & Charlotte K Lowrie, Wiley, softback, £22.99
Accessory option: Sun compass
This pocket-sized accessory (£21) features a magnetic compass centred between a series of markings giving the direction of sunrise and sunset month by month. Used by cameramen in the TV, film and aviation industries, it indicates sunrise and sunset positions for mid-month, based on a latitude of 50°N (London) but is useable for all areas between 45°N and 55°N
Camera option: Touch screen DSLR
When on a tripod, making exposure and focusing adjustments without altering the composition is far easier using a touch screen monitor than a standard display. The new D5500 (£500, body only) is the first Nikon DSLR to feature a touch screen monitor. More than that, the 3.2in monitor is a fully articulated screen with an anti-glare coating and 1,037k dots for superb image definition.
Lens option: Standard zoom
Having a range of focal lengths from the same shooting position provides plenty of possibilities for making different compositions in a short time frame. The Sigma AF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 DG macro (£150) is a compact, lightweight lens with apochromatic lens elements and uses a 9 blade aperture diaphragm for softer background bokeh. It’s sold with a lens hood and is available for Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax and Sigma SLR cameras. www.sigma-imaging-uk.com.