Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Tantramar Sunsets

JPEG Straight From Camera

RAW File Processed and Converted with Photivo

There's not much in life more lovely than a spectacular sunset. Certainly we've all taken a stab at photographing a fantastic evening sky. We've also found out that usually the very peak of a great sunset is hard to predict, and doesn't last more than a minute or two, so unless you're lucky at grabbing your camera and running outside, it often should be planned.

You know when a sunset is reaching it's peak when small areas of brilliant orange light begin to form. Although you can be shooting all the while before this happens, don't be tempted to go back indoors before this happens. It pays to wait. And once this light begins to happen, it usually will get better and better very quickly, and then - "poof" it's dark.

So, some tips from a beginner (that's me). 

  1. Prepare your camera. make sure you have your widest lens, or simply your "normal zoom" at it's widest setting. Also make sure you've removed any filters, including Neutral Density glass from the front of your lens. I've had less than spectacular results shooting sunsets with a ND filter in place, trust me.
  2. Generally, your base settings don't need to be radical. Shoot at ISO 400, Automatic White Balance, Aperture Priority Mode at f5.6 to allow a reasonably fast shutter and good sharpness. You can also set up with Manual Mode at f5.6, Shutter 1/125. You will also be a lot happier if you shoot in RAW or RAW + JPEG.
  3. If you don't have RAW, or if you choose RAW + JPEG, make sure your JPEG in camera colour saturation and contrast are set for a high value.
  4. Exposure is all important. If you're doing an auto exposure (Aperture Priority), set your camera for one of the Selective Metering Modes (like "Spot Exposure" or "Centre Weighted") for best results. The "Evaluative" setting we use for 90% of our pictures will be unpredictable, as it also tries to meter on the darker foreground of the scene. If you have to stay in the Evaluative Metering, make sure you aim the camera at mostly sky, press shutter halfway and re-compose, and everything should be OK. 
  5. If you're using a manual focus lens, simply set it just forward of Infinity. If you're auto focusing, you may need to be aiming at one of the brighter spots to achieve focus. In low light conditions like this, I recommend manual focus to avoid difficulty.
  6. Once you got good exposure, simply compose and shoot, avoiding a lot of foreground - I prefer a bit of sillouhette on the horizon, nothing more. If you have a simple point and shoot digicam with minimal manual control, try using the "Backlight" scene style, or "Sunsets" if the camera is so equipped.


Sunsets are one of those subjects where you realize that a camera doesn't "see" quite like we do. When you capture all the vivid hues and dynamics of light in the sky, the foreground of your picture will be almost dark, even though you think didn't see it that way. Keep in mind, however, that when you're looking at a sunset without a camera, you have a "wandering eye", in which you are constantly looking around, taking in some foreground, and then some sky, with a much narrower field of vision than your camera's wide angle lens. Your eyes are constantly adjusting to the variations in light - unlike your camera which can only pick one particular exposure. For maximum contrast in a sunset sky, a camera must render the foreground almost dark. One way to overcome this of course is to set up for a High Dynamic Range (HDR) shot, by which you can get a brighter foreground, with lifted shadow detail, while still retaining all the dynamics in the sky. But if you go too far with this, I guarantee it will no longer look natural. I don't like HDR for this reason - you end up with something that looks more like a paint-by-number scene by using the full HDR technique of combining several exposure values of the same scene. In fact, I've just coined a new phrase here - "HDR is Photography by Number!" Some people like it, and some really get good at it, which means first and foremost, they will use it appropriately. I've seen too much inappropriate use of the HDR technique to turn me off completely I think.

However, I will often make use of one step of Dynamic Range Compression in my RAW File Processing, as I have done in the picture above. I'm pretty  happy with the straight from the camera JPEG (I had my camera set for RAW+ JPEG), but with some very subtle tweaking of the RAW in Photivo, I got a picture that looks a lot more like what I was experiencing through my viewfinder. A small amount of Dynamic Range Compression, combined with a hint of Local Contrast in the Shadows really put the life back into the sky. As a general rule, when processing RAW files, I make sure that with each step, I take it only as far as when my eye can just perceive a small change, and then back it off a bit. These effects are cumulative, so with a bit of Exposure Correction, Gamma Adjustment, Dynamic Range Compression and Local Contrast, I was able to bring out all of the glory I saw in this sunset.

Finally, if your camera doesn't have RAW, you can still enhance this JPEG. Here, I used GIMP to tweak the contrast, brightness and Gamma to make it more compelling-

JPEG Enhanced with GIMP

This is to show that in the absence of RAW processing, a JPEG can be tweaked to make it a lot more compelling. All such tweaking is fun, and requires some practice to get onto it.  Also, it's obvious that I cropped the pictures into a Panorama by cutting out most of the foreground, which was all dark and of no value to the photo.

A great sunset shot is something you'll want to hang on your wall. As far as the camera settings go, as you've seen here, it's very straight forward. The most important aspect is to make sure your exposure is correct, shutter reasonably fast, and all will be well.

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