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Tips for better Sunset Photography

Landscape Photography Workshop

Sunset photography, in itself trying to capture Mother Nature’s finest light show is ultimately the biggest challenge for most cameras. Challenging due to the massive scope of dynamic range of light from glaring sun to dark shadows all within the same scene. Most cameras will simply compensate for the light closing down the Iris leaving darker areas pretty much rendered as silhouettes. To combat that most portrait photographers will counter with a strobe to fight against the power of the sun and win back some detail in the shadows. Increasingly HHS or High Speed Synch has become very popular in such a case. Photographers select a wide aperture for that shallow depth of field with a powerful strobe firing at full power and a shutter speed way beyond that of your standard flash sync speeds. It’s a nice look, for the portrait photographer. But what about the landscape photographer?

Sunset PhotographySunset PhotographyBeyond the happy snap of the sunset those seriously into sunset photography have a few tricks up their sleeves. Before we look at any filters and such we can look at what is available to most modern DSLR camera users. For the shot that accompanies this blog I firstly set my White Balance shift, this is indicated by WB+/- icon on the camera’s LCD screen. By selecting that I enter into a square Matrix map that shows the four sides equally divided into quadrants with a vertical and horizontal crosshair. By simply toggling toward one of those colour biased sides I am taking the white balance and erring it towards the colour indicated by the zone I steer to. Numerical values at all intersections within the matrix indicate the level of bias towards any one or two colours depending on the look I’m after. Numerical values for the bias options top out at value setting 9.

At the uppermost quadrant I have Green Bias, to the left is Blue, on the right I find Amber and in the lower segment I find Magenta (Magenta plus Amber make Red). I can then set my bias as I wish. For the shot on the image you can see the Magenta tone which was accomplished by navigating my bias towards A7 / M7 (Amber value 7 and Magenta value7). Once set I select OK to enter that and then navigate out of my Menu.

Sunset PhotographyMy further set up, in conjunction with my 15mm f2.4 Irix Lens, was comprised of a couple of filters of the KANI Filter brand that I use to augment my sunset photography. At this point in time there is only one filter holder available that I know of for this lens which is made by a small outfit in Vietnam. The Bombo Laser 100SE Filter Holder is made from aluminium (yes, I’m a Brit), that slides over a 95mm adapter ring that screws directly into the Irix Lens filter thread. I can then use an additional two drop in filters.

Firstly I used a KANI Soft GND (Graduated Neutral Density) filter with a density characteristic of 0.9. This allows me to increase the camera exposure by three stops therefore introducing light to the darker areas created with the small iris as the camera compensates for the highlights of the sun and at the same time retain all the details and colour in the sky.

Sunset PhotographyNext up I used a KANI ND1000 or ten stop neutral density filter to dramatically reduce the amount of light entering the camera by a value equal to ten stops of light. Effective sunset photography would be almost impossible without such filters. This allows me to shoot with larger apertures in bright conditions and still have enough leeway, at ISO100, to effect long exposure times. In the case of the main image above it was shot at f4, ISO100 for 20seconds whilst looking directly at the setting sun. I placed the ND1000 in the filter holder slot closest to the lens so that it would effectively seal and not allow any light leaks to sneak into the lens. This is especially important when shooting long exposures during daylight or twilight hours. It’s also an idea to cover the camera eyepiece to avoid the potential for additional light leaks from that location too.

For focus and composition you simply have to take care of business PRIOR to sliding the ND1000 filter in place. Make sure that once focus is set to then switch the focus mode to Manual. That way you’re set, as long as you don’t nudge the focus barrel when placing the filters you should be set. At this point I have to mention the one feature of the Irix Lens that absolutely sold me is what I call the ‘Infinity Click’. This feature is so ingenious, especially for nocturnal imaging. Those clever lens folk at Irix basically engineered a noticeable ‘bump’ in the focus dial to indicate the point of infinity focus. Even with eyes closed you can rotate the focus ring and hit Infinity simply by touch, it is pretty darn clever. For someone who shoots a lot of Milky Way imagery I can tell you, it saves so much time and certainly takes away any focus doubts.

Still with me? Good.

My final step was the actual shoot. To calculate the adjusted shutter speed I simply use an ND Filter Calculations chart, you can find them quite freely available online if you want to print and laminate one. Alas in this age of Smart Technology there are also a number of Apps available to address the problem. I personally use the Lee Filters Big Stopper App which has, by default, settings for 6, 10 and 15 stop filters. Prior to sliding in the ND Filter I switched to Aperture Priority (AV Mode on Canon) selected my aperture (f4 at ISO100) and saw that my camera gave me a metering reading of 1/125th sec, I then switched back to Manual mode. Consulting the App I selected the dial for the 10 Stop Filter. By spinning the left dial to read my metered reading of 1/125th it corresponded with an adjusted shutter speed of 8seconds. I then added another 12 seconds on top of that to counter the light reduction from the graduated filter and the fact that I tend to shoot at +2/3 of a stop in general, “Shoot to the right”, of the Histogram, as the old adage goes. I ended up with a shutter speed of 20seconds.

Given that I was effecting such a long shutter I needed as much stability as possible, for that I was using my trusted Manfrotto 055XProB Tripod. There was hardly any wind anyway, the effects of the previous nights curry had worn off for which I was eternally grateful, as was the cat! I simply elected to use the 2second delay timer of the camera. If I had needed an exposure longer than the max 30second default option of the camera I would have then opted to use an electronic shutter release in BULB mode. But that, as they say, is another story, and one that I will tell later down the road.

So there you have it, the story behind the shot and hopefully some tips and tricks to helping you take better sunset photography. Please feel free to check out the links to the gear used if you’re looking to step up your sunset photography game. Yes, I am an Amazon affiliate as making a living from the camera alone these days is not the easiest of options.


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Emmy Award Winning wildlife cameraman and Internationally published landscape photographer Mark Thorpe has been an adventurer since he could walk! An ex-French Foreign Legionnaire and National Geographic underwater cameraman and field producer he's also been privy to a mixed bag of hair raising adventures. Currently based in Okinawa, Japan he's always on the lookout for that next big adventure, and for those who willing to support the same. He shares his adventures online with a totally organic social audience in excess of 230,000 followers. An audience garnered since his debut with Social Media in 2009. Mark is currently open to long term ambassadorship offers from corporate entities looking to add a dynamic content media marketing solution to their brand identity and social channels.

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