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The Art of Making a Sunset

We’ve all seen it. There it is a big bright ball of sun above the water.  That’s it nothing else just that. Perhaps, you’ve even shared a few on Facebook or Instagram. These may be great for you, but for someone viewing your photograph they need something more.

How can you put you into your images? Start by thinking about what you want to tell your audience. If you’re not sure, what attracted you? Was it the clouds, the color of the water, or the reflections of the sky against the water?

Let’s think about this differently. Think about connecting with your viewer. Imagine a friend is with you as you make a photograph. With this in your mind, view your image. Does the image include elements inviting your viewer into the scene?

Sometime, the camera has a mind all its own. You find the camera didn’t quite get the same result you desired. This is where you become an artist. You see, the camera is only a tool. As an artist you have a large array of tools and skills. Your understanding and use of them make it possible to transform your raw image into a finished beautiful work.

A painter uses different paint brushes, mixes colors, and uses skills to transform their blank canvas into a masterpiece. They understand the effect and develop skills to give the final work the feeling or story they want to tell their audience.

You as a photographer have your own set of tools. The camera has two main tools – the shutter and aperture. The shutter gives you the ability to show motion and the aperture decides the depth of field (what is in focus in the image.) You may add other tools, and skills like bracketing, or neutral density filters for example. Finally, in post processing you put it together with burning and dodging, maybe some exposure blending, or another skill.

It is your knowledge and practice with your tools that hone your craft. Your knowledge lets you look at a beautiful sunset and decide what skills you will use to achieve your final outcome.

You need to be in sync with nature. This is the night you are on your way to make a beautiful photograph. You’ve made sure of the sunset time, plan to be there at the golden hour, cleaned your gear, you are ready. Sorry, mother nature did not get your memo. The sky looked perfect but as the sun started to sink in the west a bank of clouds rolled in. Maybe tomorrow. One of the keys to making a great sunset is persistence. At Keaton beach, I returned seven days in a row until the conditions match what I wanted in the scene.

You need knowledge of your subject. Photographing in the Shenandoah National Park, I was not happy with the haze in the sky during the day. This haze is dueto the wildfire smoke which traveled east from forest fires. In the evening however, the haze added layers of color and beauty to the sunsets.

Here’s a few more tips:

  1. Plan to arrive early for your shoot. Scope out the area. Look at different viewpoints and compositions. Sunsets are fleeting, make the most of your opportunity.
  2. Invest in a good tripod and shutter release. Photographing in low light demands it.
  3. Many great golden hour photographs don’t include the sun. The star of a sunset image is not the sun but the color and effect of the sun’s rays.
  4. If you want it right in the camera or at least as close as possible, invest and use neutral density filters. These will lessen the dynamic range and help your camera record more detail without blowing out the highlights or blocking up the shadows.
  5. Meter the sky without the sun. It will give you a better starting point for your exposure setting.
  6. Move your point of view. Try different camera heights. See what happens in your view finder with your camera for instance try getting low to ground.
  7. Stay for the blue hour. The blue cast adds an extremely calming peaceful feel to your photograph.

Making a photograph, whether about a sunset or something else, requires an understanding of your tools and your skill as an artist to bring your vision to your audience.

P.S. Want more like this? I send these articles out to friends, photographers, and art lovers who want to improve their skills, and explore their creativity or simply enjoy my thoughts and stories and I would love to include you.

Tell me where to send it and I’ll send you a copy of Seven Moments an eBook, as well as articles, sneak peeks of my new work, and very occasional info about resources to help you with this creative craft we love.