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Photographing Sunsets

Sunsets and sunrises can be a challenge to some, accurately reproduced by others, while some of course create them to order using filters or in editing.

The colour of light changes throughout the day, early in the morning and later in the day its more orange and at midday more blue. Many people use auto white balance, and this estimates the colour of the light by jumbling up the light and shifting the white balance to get an overall neutral colour. This works quite well with general scenes and even some that you might not expect to work, but does not work well either when you have a very large bright item in the shot, or where you have colour that is wanted to be some way off a midday view.

The major reason therefore why sunsets disappear for many people is that they have their cameras set on auto white balance, this corrects for colour casts, the camera sees too much red or orange and just cancels it out.

A simple fix is to take sunsets with the white balance set to sun. With some cameras, with a warm up feature, you can enhance it a little. You may want to play with the shade and shadow white balance settings as well, as often this can give enhanced effects.

Sunsets change quite quickly, they tend to get better slowly and then very quickly go over, so take a number of shots so you don't miss the best.

Oops you forgot and now your sunset is reduced or lost

If you are taking Raw photos this is not a problem as you can change the white balance setting after the event, just use either the raw loader of Photoshop/Elements, or if using a Nikon you can adjust this in either the free ViewNX software or better in the full editor CapturNX2.  Other software that can read Raw images should also allow this change. Select daytime and sunny for the best effects. You will also find you have an additional control while tinting that allows you to add warmth, increasing the effect further. If you have a number of pictures to edit then use the batch processing feature to do this quickly.

If you photographed it as a Jpg, them its far more difficult and you need to experiment with your editor either changing the colour or adding a layer of orange and merging this into the image.

Weather and sunrises and sunsets

Generally you get the best sunsets when the weather ahead is likely to be good, and the best sunrises when its most likely to be a wet day. However you also ideally need some cloud, but not too much to get good images.

Affect of white balance setting

You need to tell the camera its seeing blue light, rather than orange or red to sop it cancelling out the sunsets, but you can increase the orange or red effect by using flash to set the PRE against a blue/grey card, this creates an orange cast over the entire image, similar to putting on a warm up filter, after you have set PRE. You could if you wish instead put in a K value to the white balance that would produce a similar effect. A K value of 6,500 is daytime sun, around 8,000 is the equivalent to shade, higher then this is telling the camera that the light is more blue so it will make the pictures more yellow or orange. See also Table of the K values of light.

Creating sunsets with filters

You can have sunsets to design any day you like if you use a sunset grad, or set of grads that create sunset effects. This is one or more rectangular filter(s) that slide up and down either a whole or in parts to give you the design you want. This can be far more effective than painting it in later in an editing program. See the article Sunset Filters for more details on what is available and how to use them.

If you can imagine that you are a professional photographer and a client has asked you to take a photo of their hotel against a sunset for an advertising feature in a couple of weeks, you can see why this is a useful skill, you need to be able to attend and take a sunset, and while you still need the right level of cloud etc, its not as difficult as arranging to be somewhere when you will have a perfect sunset.

Sunsets added in editing

You can create sunsets in editing, the best ones are usually done as a number of gradated colours merged in. It is however far more difficult to get really natural looking results in editing than it is with a filter set. For some reason many will consider producing it with filters acceptable and in editing not.

The other alternative if you have other good shots of sunsets is to cut out the sky drop in your sunsets behind. Just try to make sure that any shadows line up perfectly or it looks silly. If you are going to shoot some sunsets for later use, then select landscapes with little sticking up, so as to get the largest amount of good sky, take images at different zooms and with the sun slightly one side an the other as well as central. Alternatively have a look at other sunsets available in images the internet that are covered by creative commons, and check out the actual creative commons licence on any that you would like to use, many allow you to take part of the images and use it as you like. Putting 'sunset' into the creative common search engine or flickr only found over 570,000 images available.

Looking at alternative sunset images

Sunsets come in many styles, with landscape light, silhouettes, reflections in water, just take a look at the first 10 pages from the search above to see the variety.

Sunrises have a similar range of effects.

Other pages

Sunrise, sunset, and moon links

We have a range of articles on colour management, and white balance that you may find helpful.

Colour Management and White Balance

Introduction to white balance and why use white balance

Choosing the white balance setting to use

How to set and use Pre

Other steps we can take on white balance

The K values of light

Colour Management


By: Keith Park Section: Photography Section Key:
Page Ref: photographing_sunsets Topic: Landscape Photography  Last Updated: 11/2009

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