FIELD TECHNIQUE: The Unsung Sunset

Story and photography by F.M. Kearney

I once heard that sunset and sunrise images are often dismissed by photo editors, because they are considered to be some of the most plentiful and easiest shots to get. I cannot disagree with the abundance of these types of photos. Hardly a day goes by when you don’t see one used in an ad for anything from deodorant to a Hawaiian vacation. As far as the ease at which these shots are obtained—well, that’s another story.

When I was younger—long before I thought of photography as a profession—sunsets were one of my favorite subjects to shoot. I simply aimed my 110 pocket camera out my westward facing bedroom window and shot dozens of snapshots of the colorful evening skies. I say “snapshots,” because they certainly wouldn’t be considered quality photographs by any stretch of the imagination.

Like most amateur photographers, I suppose, I looked at sunsets (and nature in general) as one of the easiest subjects to shoot. Unlike commercial or fashion photography, which requires a considerable knowledge of composition, exposure and lighting, nature photography seemed to require absolutely no work at all. Everything is already laid out right in front of you, leaving nothing left for you to do but point and shoot…or so I naively thought.

Although today’s digital cameras do a terrific job of handling low-light and high-contrast situations, there’s no substitute for good technique and proper metering. This involves the use of grid focusing screens to avoid crooked horizons and, of course, a tripod and some type of remote shutter-triggering system to ensure maximum sharpness. To handle the difficult light, you may need to use either graduated neutral density filters or HDR software. This doesn’t sound easy so far.

After getting past the basics of getting a technically perfect photo, it’s time to think about creative compositions. This is where most amateurs will exit the ride. The joy and excitement of capturing an amazing sunset or sunrise will usually overshadow thoughts of anything else. But, if you’re truly serious about your photography, this is the stage that will require the most thought.

The most interesting compositions usually include some type of foreground element, such as trees or rocks. These can be used to help frame the subject and/or draw the viewer into the image. Also, bodies of water can provide colorful reflections of the scene. It doesn’t matter how small the body of water is either. I once used a small puddle to mirror a bridge I was shooting at twilight.

These standard techniques will work wonders to transform a mediocre snapshot into an interesting, creative photograph. But what if you wanted to take things to the next level, or, in the words of a famous chef, “Kick it up a notch?”

Early morning light on Prospect Park Lake, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY

Early morning light on Prospect Park Lake, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY

I shot this sunrise (above) in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park with a Big Stopper filter. The Big Stopper, made by Lee, is an extreme neutral density filter that blocks ten stops of light. It’s perfect whenever you want to use a long exposure in daylight conditions. This was a one-minute exposure that completely smoothed out the ripples in the water and rendered the lake almost glasslike. The geese added a nice touch to the scene—moving just enough to appear ghostly, but not so much to completely disappear. I also used a two-stop ND grad filter to help balance the exposure of the sky with the water.

Sunset over Dickenson Bay St. John's, Antigua West Indies

Sunset over Dickenson Bay St. John’s, Antigua, West Indies

Here’s a sunset image (left) I shot of the shoreline of Dickenson Bay in Antigua. I used a Surefire flashlight outfitted with a red bezel to “light-paint” the rocks in the foreground. The red color contrasted nicely with the blue sky. As always, strong side-lighting creates the most dramatic effects. I held the light close to the rocks and slowly skimmed it across the top, like a scanner. This created strong shadows that really helped to make the image pop. If I had held the light higher, it would have flattened everything out. This effect can be perfectly mimicked (usually with considerably more ease and accuracy) with the Lighting Effects feature in Photoshop CS6.

Sometimes, the most interesting sunrise/sunset photos don’t include the sun at all. Both of these images were shot either just before the sun rose or just after it set. The color of the sky was enough to create compelling images.

I never tire of watching the sky’s transition from a golden amber near the horizon to a cobalt blue above—something I like to refer to as a “go-balt” sky.

Perhaps photo editors should give these types of “easy” images a second look.

F.M. Kearney is a fine-art nature photographer specializing in unique floral and landscape images. To see more of his work, visit www.starlitecollection.com