Blog Entry: January 8, 2011
Zach Schierl & Renee Rusler
Ever been outside in the evening and witnessed what you thought was the most glorious sunset ever? Maybe you grabbed a camera to take a few quick shots only to find out later that your pictures didn't end up capturing the vibrant color like you thought they would? While it might be impossible to ever completely capture the essence of a great sunset in a photograph, here's a few tips to keep in mind next time you find yourself with a camera as the sun dips below the horizon:
Expose for the sky: Your camera will likely have several different settings for determining proper exposure. The two most common are spot metering (where the camera uses the little square in the center of your field of view to set the exposure) and matrix metering (where the camera uses the entire field of view to set the exposure). You'll want to use spot metering for sunsets since matrix mode will take the dark, shadowy foreground into consideration and your pictures will end up being overexposed. With digital photography, it's always better to underexpose than overexpose since this is a much easier problem to correcting in an image-editing program later.
Spice up the foreground: That being said, don't ignore the foreground since an interesting one is often what makes a good sunset picture great. Compose your shot with something in the foreground that will look interesting even though it won't be directly illuminated by the sun. Silhouettes are always a good option since you'll generally be looking towards the sun when shooting sunsets.
Keep it steady: If you're shooting late enough in the evening, your exposures will be long enough that you'll probably want a tripod to keep your images sharp. While many inexpensive cameras nowadays have an image stabilization feature that allows you to take longer exposures without the use of a tripod, if you plan on taking lots of shots, it's probably safer to use a tripod if you have one since it is impossible to tell just by looking at a tiny LCD screen whether your images are truly sharp or not. There's nothing worse than looking at your images later only to find out that all of your images that looked perfectly sharp on your camera's screen are ever so slightly blurry.
Mess with the white balance: As we talked about in a recent blog post, white balance is the setting on your camera that influences how different colors appear in your photograph. Since sunsets vary widely, there is really no way to be sure what white balance setting will give you the best results. The best thing is just to try several different and see what works best for you. I've found that the "cloudy" and/or "shade" presets often give the most vibrant and accurate colors.
Timing is everything: While this motto is true with pretty much all aspects of photography, it holds especially true for sunsets. Sunsets can change incredibly rapidly and are often very unpredictable. I've been out shooting sunsets before where I've gotten into my car to head home because it seemed as though the show was over only to notice 10 minutes later that the sunset colors were just now experiencing their greatest heights. Patience is key.
Explore Whitman Mission at sunset:
The grounds at Whitman Mission National Historic Site are open until 1/2 hour after sunset all year round. The photos in this article were taken on December 20 and 29, 2010.
The park has a variety of settings: the top of the hill, the pond, the grove of popular trees, even the parking lot is full of possibilities.
Come prepared. Be patient. Look around. Be creative. Have fun!
Last updated: March 1, 2015