Nature Photography: Five Easy Tips For Better Sunset Photos
By Andrew Goodall
Sunset (and sunrise) photography; no other subject in nature photography is more guaranteed to inspire us to grab the camera. This does not only apply to serious nature photographers. Almost anybody with a camera is likely to have a go when a great sunset appears.
The great news is, good sunset photos are surprisingly easy to take. In my gallery, I don't actually display many sunset photographs. You see, they are hard to sell, because almost everybody has a few great sunsets they have photographed themselves. Rather than buy mine, they are more likely to grab their camera and show me the picture they took the night before!
As a result, I am often asked to evaluate sunset photos by amateur photographers (occupational hazard for a nature photographer!), and I have learned to quickly identify where most people go wrong. It is not hard to expose a sunset photo; in many cases you can leave your camera on auto and it will do the work for you. The trouble people have is in making an interesting composition. It is not good enough just to photograph a good sky. The real challenge lies in turning a spectacular sky into a compelling photograph.
Here are my five tips for taking great sunset (and sunrise) photos.
Sunset Photography Tip #1. Learn to predict a good sunset before it happens. Have you ever seen a perfect sky, only to realise you didn't have your camera handy? In the five minutes it takes to get your camera and set up for the photo, the moment has passed. As brilliant as a sunset can be, the effect may last for only a few minutes, so you need to be able to choose your location, set up your camera, and be waiting for the show to start.
Sunset Photography Tip #2. Be patient to get the best colours. The few minutes as the sun is crossing the horizon can be spectacular, but it is not the whole story of a sunset. As the sinking sun lights the clouds from below, often the richest colours can appear up to half an hour later. By this time it will be getting quite dark, so be prepared with your tripod. You may be shooting exposures of half a second or more to bring out the best in your sunset photograph.
Sunset Photography Tip #3. Find a good foreground subject. This may be the most important tip of all. Time after time people show me their sunset photos, and all I can think is "Great sky...pity you didn't make a better photo out of it." We have all seen and photographed spectacular skies, so that alone is not enough to create your work of art. Try to identify some object that stands well above the horizon (trees, windmills, buildings, power-lines) and has a shape that will create a good silhouette. It doesn't have to fill up your picture. In fact, it may only take up a small area - that will only make the sky seem even more impressive. The important thing is to give your picture a focal point, so that your viewer has something more interesting to look at than just a great sky.
Think back to my tip #1. To get a great photo you need to be prepared in advance, so scout your location for a good foreground well before the razzle-dazzle gets underway.
Sunset Photography Tip #4. Fill your photo with colour. You have probably heard of the 'rule of thirds' in landscape photography. In simple terms this rule suggests your horizon should be a third of the way from the top, or from the bottom, of your photo to create a balanced composition. The trouble is, when you are photographing into the sunset, everything in the foreground will be in silhouette. This means if you follow the rule of thirds, a big part of your composition will be totally black. This is one situation where you can ignore the rule of thirds. By allowing your sky to dominate the composition, you fill your picture with colour and draw even more attention to the richness of the sunset.
Sunset Photography Tip #5. If near water, use it to enhance the effect. People often see a sunset at the beach, or by a river, and stand a long way back to get their shot. This approach fails to take advantage of the reflections on the water, so instead of a rich foreground there will be too much empty black space.
Get right down to the water's edge or to the wet sand on the beach. By capturing the reflections, your foreground will echo the colour of the sky. Not only will your photo be more colourful, but you will start to spot opportunities for much more interesting compositions.
So there you have my simple tips on sunset photography. Notice that I have concentrated on creativity, not technology. As I said at the beginning, exposing a good sunset photo is not difficult; the challenge is to make your photo stand out from the rest. Like all good nature photography, your sensitivity to nature is far more important than technical expertise. Allow nature to inspire you, think creatively, and great results are sure to follow. Good luck!