How to Photograph Sunsets With a Surreal Effect

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Avatar of Christopher O'Donnell
I'm a professional landscape photographer living on the coast of Maine. Through my work, I like to show a vantage point that is rarely seen in reality; a show of beauty, emotion, and serenity. Feel free to visit my website.

Sunset photography is one of the most common, but most diverse, subjects in the realm of landscapes. No two sunsets are ever alike, and the amount of unique environments and compositions are endless.

However, there can be a great disparity between what you see in person and what your camera captures – blown out skies, muddy foreground colors, and poor composition are just a few issues you can encounter. This is a very common problem with photographers, but easy to overcome if you know the proper techniques.

Finding Interest

Before I get into the technical aspects of capturing sunsets, you need to find an interesting composition first. What elements make a sunset stand out among the plethora of sunset images out there?

Clouds – and lots of them. While I’m no meteorologist, clouds always seem to have a different quality to them around the golden hours, and not just in color – the structure and layering is unbelievable compared to the monotony of the daytime. Here’s a simplified meteorological explanation of why clouds look the way they do when the sun is close to the horizon.

 


Photo by Christopher O’Donnell

Despite the why’s and how’s, clouds can easily turn a boring skyline into an explosion of color and texture. With this in mind, always try to capture sunsets with clouds in the sky for added interest – and don’t assume that a day filled with clear and blue skies will predict a boring skyline at sunset. Clouds can easily sneak up on you during the last few hours of daylight, so keep an eye out for any interesting patterns developing.

Foreground interest has been a subject gone over many times, but it’s especially important during sunset. By adding a prominent focal point in the foreground, you’re creating layers with your photos and also adding another point of interest in addition to the sunset – this will set your photo apart from the sea of sunset photos, at least composition-wise.


Photo by Christopher O’Donnell

 

The Technical Side

Now let’s get into the technical aspects of sunset photos by first addressing the most common problem: Why do my sunset photos never come out the way it looked in person?

This is one of the hardest aspects of sunsets to overcome. In short, the light meter in your camera goes completely haywire when shooting into the sun, especially when you have any ground in your viewfinder. The exposure needed for the sky is many stops less than what is needed for the ground – this is exponentially worse during sunsets since your light source (the sun) is within your viewfinder. Your light meter will try and average out the exposure between these two extremes and give you a very disappointing photo.

This is why your foreground will always come out completely blackened (underexposed) while your sky is exposed well, or your sky will be blown out (overexposed) but your ground will look adequate. Sometimes, you’ll get a horrible combination of both with an underexposed ground and an overexposed sky. Unless you’re going for a silhouette sunset image, this is not something you want to see on your LCD screen.

Considering this dilemma, you need to find a way to split your digital sensor in two – figuratively speaking. You need to have two different exposures in one so that part of your image is exposed well for the sky, and the other is solid for the ground.

For this, you have two approaches – the in-camera fix using filters, or the post process fix where you combine two different RAW files into one.

ND Grad Filters

The more traditional method to controlling your exposure is by using an ND Grad Filter. This is designed either as a threaded, screw on filter or can be used with the slot-in system. Basically, this filter works just like an ND filter, but will just reduce the exposure of only ½ your image – meaning that the filter is tinted only on the top side and gradually (hence the “grad”) transitions to clear for a soft reduction in exposure by an “X” amount of stops.

 

Grad ND Filter test
Photo by c@rljones, on Flickr

These filters also come as ND hard filters for those horizon lines that are sharp, eliminating the gradual transition between the tinted and non-tinted areas.

I would recommend using the slot-in system for these types of filters as you’ll need to readjust it often to line up with your horizon line – much easier to do than with the screw-on filters, at least with my experience.

Auto-Bracketing for HDR Sunsets

The other method to combining exposures is to not use a filter at all, but to take three (or more) exposures of the same scene and combine them in post process, taking the best part of each image and putting them together into one like a puzzle – also known as tone mapping, HDR, or exposure blending.

While you can do this manually in Photoshop using layers and masks, there’s a more automated method explained thoroughly by Trey Ratcliff – also known as the Stuck in Customs guy. Trey uses Photomatix software which will import your auto-bracketed images and – with some tweaking of the settings – allow you to produce amazing sunset images. His tutorial on Photomatix is right here.

 

Sunset at Hearst Castle
Photo by Stuck in Customs, on Flickr

 

If you’re more of the do-it-yourselfer type, I have my own tutorial here on blending the exposures manually using Photoshop – it’s a more controllable approach than tone-mapping in Photomatix and you don’t need to purchase additional software. This is the method I use for my own sunset images and have had much success with it.


Photo by Christopher O’Donnell

You can also combine these two methods – and may need to at times. An ND grad filter has a fixed exposure reduction – that is, it will only reduce the amount of light hitting your sensor for that part of your frame by a certain amount of stops. Lighting conditions are never the same during sunsets….the position of the sun, amount of cloud coverage, reflective light….can all affect how much difference there’ll be in exposures. So even when you use the grad, you may still have an exposure disparity between your sky and ground large enough where you’ll need to auto-bracket your scene and blend the exposures in post process anyways – although with much less difference in exposure than if you just auto-bracketed with no filter.
Whichever path you choose, reading your histogram will help immensely when photographing the sun. Looking at your LCD screen is definitely not an accurate way to judge exposure, especially during the sunset hours where it may be difficult to see your screen.

Here’s one more nifty tool: The Photographer’s Ephemeris. It uses Google maps to tell you exactly where the sun will rise and set, allowing you to scout and plan photo locations knowing where the sun will show up on the horizon. It also works for the moon as well. It’s available for both MACs and PCs, and also anything that runs iOS apps (iPhone, iPad, etc.) – so it’s very handy, and completely free.

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21 thoughts on “How to Photograph Sunsets With a Surreal Effect

  1. RG

    Nice articale! Regarding ND Grad filters, is there any such thing as “most commonly used/most useful” ND Grad? Eg, is 0.6x used more often than the rest? The reason I’m asking is that I’m planning to buy my first ND grad filter and don’t know which one to buy. Many thanks in advance!

    1. Christopher O'Donnell

      Hi RG –

      There’s no real common filter to purchase….at least by strength…it really depends on what you’re going to use it for. If you look at the comparison photo above, the .9 grad filter is too strong for that daytime photo, but it would be a good strength for sunsets as the difference between the sky and ground would be greater than this photo here.

      If I were you I would get the .9 because you’ll see a good difference in your photos. After that you can see what you most commonly use the filter for and purchase another to suit your needs. When I first bought mine I bought the strongest one and it worked out well for me. If you buy the .3 you’ll see little difference.

      You might also want to invest in a kit to see what works for you…perhaps get a used one at a low price and then purchase a higher-grade individual filter once you figure out which one you like best.

      Hope this helps!

  2. John

    The Photographer’s Ephemeris is a great tool and, while the Mac/PC version is free, the iOS version for iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch is $9.

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  5. Harry Lew

    Really enjoyed the article and your photos are superb! One question for you: with ND grads, do you try to totally equalize the exposure in the sky vs. land/sea or do you try to leave some difference? if the latter, what’s the optimal difference? Sky 1 stop brighter? 2 stops brighter? etc. Thank you!

    1. Avatar of Christopher O'DonnellChristopher O'Donnell Post author

      Thanks Harry….glad you liked the article. There’s no real answer to your question….you’re wondering what an ideal disparity of exposure is between the sky and ground….sky underexposed by one stop, etc. The ideal situation would be a well-exposed sky and well-exposed ground – the difference in exposure…whether it be one stop or five….depends on the lighting and your personal preference and what you consider “good”. Some photographers shoot skies in b/w, and have their sky almost at the verge of being completely blown out and it looks great.

      So I understand what you’re trying to say but there’s no cookie cutter answer other than make sure your sky has no blocked shadows (underexposed areas) and your sky has no blown highlights (overexposed) – that is what I do. Even then, some photographers break this guideline and their images still look amazing…so its up to you and what you like :)

  6. Rodney C. Davis

    Hi Chris. Thanks for this article. For me, shooting during the “golden” hours” was one of my attractions to amateur photography. Unfortunately, without the kind of technical know-how you offer here, it is difficult to achieve truly amazing photographs. Can you refer us or do a piece yourself on the actual process of auto bracketing during the shoot?

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