Here are a few easy-to-use sunset photography tips to improve your images right now. With just a few pointers you will quickly end up with better landscape photos, so you can say ‘New Zealand landscape photography prints for sale’ or just plain ‘New Zealand photos for sale’ and make a fortune doing what you love. Well, dreams are free, right?
PREPARING TO GO
If you are within an hour or so of your sunset location, check out the sky towards the west a few hours beforehand. If there are high clouds (but not enough to completely blanket the sky, blocking the sun) then things are looking promising. Having said that, nature is unpredictable. Sometimes the most promising conditions turn out to be a boring sunset, and other times you can get the most amazing sunset out of nowhere.
KNOW YOUR LOCATION
I cannot state this enough. To be consistently good at landscape photography you need to understand the area you are in. To make the most of good sunsets you need to know where (or rather at what angle) the sun will set. In the area where I live, in Auckland, New Zealand, I have several areas that are favourites. I split these areas into Winter, Summer, and ‘in-between’. Why? In winter the sun sets to the north-west, in summer to the south-west, and in-between in the general west. That makes a big difference in the photos you can take. Use an app, Photopills, Photographers Ephemeris etc to see where the sun sets on any given day.
So, you have decided where to shoot. You should always aim to arrive around one hour before sunset. This will give you time to find a parking spot, walk the extra few minutes you hadn’t planned for, go back to your car to get the piece of equipment you forgot, etc etc. This also gives you the chance to capture some shots during the golden hour. Sometimes I’ve found that the best photos from the shoot occur during this time rather than at the planned sunset. You can get some amazing light when the sun is low on the horizon, especially if it breaks through some gaps in the clouds and there is some decent foreground to light up.
Once you’ve found your composition for sunset and have set everything up, wander away from your tripod and find a better location. This serves two purposes – firstly you will find out if you really found the best spot first time. Secondly, after you have come back to your camera you will carefully re-evaluate your framing and composition.
Take a lot of photos – the sun will set from being just above the horizon to fully below within a few minutes or so. Make each of those wonderful minutes count. If necessary, bracket exposures for foreground and sky with a view to blending later. A lot of cameras these days have amazing dynamic range so you can often capture the photo in a single shot. Use your camera’s histogram to make sure.
And now for the big ‘if’. Do you move around or stay still? Do you take one great composition in varying light or do you try to take two or three? When I first got into landscape photography, I used to run around like a headless chicken when the light was good, trying to capture as many shots as possible. These days I’m a bit calmer, but there are still times when I’m not sure what to do when the light is going off.
DON’T RUSH HOME
I have on several occasions taken the sunset photo and then the sky has faded to dull grey. I considered nothing else would happen and packed my gear away. Then.. the merest hint of pink hits the underside of the clouds, followed by a full blown riot of colour. That’s got to be one of the worst feelings as a landscape photographer. So unless you deperately need to rush back home or to your motel, stick around and take advantage of the afterglow if it comes. And even if it doesn’t, the blue hour can be good to photograph as well.
LOOK BEHIND YOU
Sunsets are very contrasty by nature, and can be difficult to capture in a single exposure (although cameras these days have a much larger dynamic range than they used to, so that helps). What is much easier, and while generally a little gentler, is the ‘reverse sunset’ or afterglow which will happen to the skies in the east, and sometimes north and south. You will likely see a wash of mainly pink, and it truly is a beautiful gentle light to work with. If you are really lucky, in the moments of afterglow, you can shoot in two or more directions.
Just some final thoughts on composition. A great sunset doesn’t necessarily make a great landscape photo. You still need to follow all the other rules/guidelines for taking good photos, such as finding good foreground interest (e.g. leading lines), using the rule of thirds, etc.