Master that sunset shot

Rockhampton is home to spectacular sunsets all year round so we asked one of our local photographers, Nathan White, to show us how to shoot them like a pro!

How to shoot a sunset like a pro

Written by Nathan White at Nathan White Images
@nathanwhiteimages

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In our current digital age where we can view images from across the globe instantly and we scroll though a never ending cycle of visual media every day, we as humans are becoming very difficult to impress. We’ve already seen the world, all from the palm of our hands.

Despite this continual content overload, we still feel compelled to pause for a moment and admire the beautiful colours of an epic sunset photograph. There is something about it that hypnotises us, even if it’s only for a brief moment. It’s that same effect that drives so many people to want to capture that perfect sunset image.

Fortunately for those of us that struggle to find the secret recipe to shoot eye popping sunset colours, that information is also in the palm of our hands.

Read on for my top tips to shoot sunset photos like a pro.

WHAT EQUIPMENT DO I NEED?

Over the years our technology has become a lot smaller, which means that we no longer need a large DSLR to capture a print worthy image. A popular saying in photography is that “the best camera is the one you have with you”. Considering that most modern mobile phones have more resolution than a top of the line pro camera from 10 years ago, that saying is now very relevant.

THE ESSENTIALS

 A camera - This includes DSLRs, mobile phones, compact cameras, mirrorless cameras and action cameras i.e. GoPro.
A sturdy tripod - It doesn’t really matter what style of tripod, just so long as it can safely hold your camera.

Wait, is that really all I need…? Yes!

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LOCATION
 
The Rockhampton Region boasts some ideal locations for photographing sunsets, but the one that I find provides the most creative options is Mount Archer National Park. Mount Archer is located just 14km from Rockhampton’s CBD and provides sweeping views of the city and surrounds.

There are a number of great areas along Pilbeam Drive on the way up the mountain. Try stopping at one of the conveniently placed timber seats, The Saddle or the old lookout near the summit. My pick though is the Nurim Circuit Elevated Boardwalk. The boardwalk gets you up above the trees, providing a fantastic vantage point to capture a view of the entire city or looking back over the mountains towards the coast.

TIME OF DAY

If you are planning to photograph sunset, then the time of day to shoot can seem like a ‘no brainer’. But when it comes to getting a great shot, timing is everything. I find that the best practice is to always allow yourself enough time. The last thing you want is to arrive late, have no planned composition and you find yourself running around like crazy trying to get the shot.

Before heading out it is always a good idea to first work out what time sunset is (weather apps are great for this). Then plan to arrive at your location at least 1 hour prior. This will give you time to scope out the area for potential compositions, locate where the sun is going to be on the horizon and get your camera setup correctly.

When planning a shoot I use an app called PhotoPills (available for $15 for iPhone/Android). This app is an all-in-one solution when it comes to providing you with photography related tools. One of those features gives you the specific times for the various stages of sunset (golden hour, sunset & blue hour) along with the direction of the sunlight.

Now that we know what time sunset is and the direction of the light, we can focus on finding a composition and setting up our gear.

COMPOSITION

Mount Archer provides quite an assortment of composition possibilities. Whilst there is the obvious choice of walking up to the railing and snapping a pic of the view in front of you, our aim is to capture an image that stands out from the crowd, so we have to be discerning. Look for elements that lead your eye towards the light. This could be anything from tree branches, the pathway or some rocks. The goal is to give our image layers of interest. Another option is to use natural elements to frame up your subject. One of my favourites is the view from the amphitheater. In this shot below I use the trees on either side as a natural framing for the view and the snaking river in the background.

If your camera has a long enough lens, you can also pick a composition featuring objects that are far off in the distance. Using a zoom lens will allow you to choose a focal length that fills the frame with your subject and removes the need to incorporate the scene around you.

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TAKING THE SHOT

Choosing the correct settings on your camera tends to be where a lot of people have problems. If you mainly shoot on Auto mode or you are using a mobile phone, then modifying your settings to suit the scene will not be something that you are used to. Fortunately most modern cameras do a fairly decent job of selecting the correct exposure in Auto mode. Selecting appropriate camera settings in any of the other modes (Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority & Manual) is an entire blog post in itself, so I won’t open that can of worms here. There are however a few additional steps that we can take to raise the quality of our images while shooting in Auto mode.

First and foremost, we need to setup our tripod. The tripod is going to keep our camera nice and steady. This helps us to capture sharp and detailed images when shooting in low light situations like sunset. The tripod will also be of benefit for shots taken using our zoom or longer lenses. Any camera movement will be magnified when using longer focal lengths. Some cameras/lenses have stabilisation to help alleviate this problem but nothing beats a sturdy tripod.

Once our camera is attached to the tripod, we want to adjust it to make sure that the horizon line is straight. Depending on our composition, it is also good to have the horizon line positioned using what’s known as the rule of thirds. As per the image below, the rule of thirds divides your frame into equal sections to guide your composition. By placing your subject along those lines or where they intersect, it creates balance in your final image.

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If possible, we also want to avoid shooting directly into the sun. Despite all of the technology that’s packed into them, modern cameras still cannot see the way we do with our eyes. When facing a super bright light source like the sun, the camera can only adjust for either the dark areas or the bright areas. This is why you will find that in some of your photographs, you will have a nicely exposed sky, but the shadows will be almost black or your shadows will be bright and the sky is overexposed (completely white).

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If we angle our camera away from that bright light source, the dynamic range of the scene balances out and allows our camera to capture a more evenly exposed image.

 While there are tradeoffs overall, sometimes shooting towards the sun can have creative benefits. Especially if there is a lot of colour in the sky. Normally this involves adjusting the camera to expose for the bright highlights and allowing the shadows to darken in order to create silhouettes.

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So now that we have found our composition and locked in our settings, it’s time to take the shot, right? …almost. There is one final step before pressing the shutter button. We need to turn on our exposure delay or timer. When capturing images in low light we want to remove all movement from our camera and tripod. Believe it or not, when we press our shutter button it creates vibration which can cause our image to become blurry. If we activate the 2 or 3 second timer, it allows the vibrations caused by our hands to dissipate and the camera will take the shot at the end of the delay period.

EDITING THE IMAGES

Now that we have captured our masterpiece, the only step remaining is the editing/export process. This can be as little as downloading the images from our camera for use online, or we can utilise the various apps available to finesse our images before showing them off to the world.

If you are interested in editing your images on a desktop computer, then the best option is Adobe Lightroom. It is a paid application available by subscribing to Adobe’s Creative Cloud platform. There are also a number of free options available including Google Photos and Canva.

For those of you that are shooting with your phones or have transferred your images to your phone for editing, these free apps will get you started:

Adobe Photoshop Express
Instagram
Snapseed
VSCO

SUMMARY

So what are the key takeaways that I need to remember for capturing my next sunset photo?

Plan your shoot - Make use of mobile phone apps to work out the exact time of sunset and how long you will need for travel and setup.
Always use a tripod for low light scenes like sunrise or sunset.
Spend time selecting a composition that layers your image with interesting elements. Don’t just photograph the view.
Keep your horizon line straight.
Activate your 2 second timer.

If you would like to learn more about photography and getting the most out of your camera, check out the various workshops available at nathanwhiteimages.com.au