HOW TO SHOOT SUNSETS I N S AT U R AT E D C O L O U R
Following a New Year’s resolution that saw the photographer shoot every sunrise and sunset for an entire month, Talman Madsen gives us the low-down on how to shoot stunning skies
As we’ve established, opportunities to shoot a really great sunrise or sunset don’t come around that often, so it’s important that we’re prepared and ready to shoot when they do. It’s all about making the most of these opportunities when they do arise.
PREPARATION I personally love shooting mountains and other wilderness locations; wide open spaces that have an awesome foreground, while leaving space for the dramatic sky to be the feature. When deciding on a location, make sure that your point of interest lines up with the sunrise/ sunset. I use apps like PhotoPills and The Photographer’s Ephemeris to plan my composition, which ensures that my point of interest lines up with the sky that I’m hoping to capture. If you’re planning to shoot a sunrise, and you’re unfamiliar with the lay of the land, it’s a good idea to scout the location for any obstacles and to familiarize yourself with the terrain, as you’ll often be arriving in the dark. When on a photography trip, I shoot every sunrise and sunset no matter how dire the outlook may be, while, when I’m at home, I generally wait until conditions are looking like they could produce something incredible. When deciding whether to go out, I first look at the detailed cloud stats on yr.no (a Norwegian weather website) — usually, I’m looking for lots of high cloud, followed by good levels of mid cloud and some low cloud. Cloud cover is important — you want enough so that you’re going to get something to reflect the colour, but not so much that nothing can get through. Usually, conditions are ideal to capture dramatic skies when there’s an incoming storm, so, although logic may suggest otherwise, take a chance and head out. There’s nothing quite like that feeling you get deep within when the sky erupts into a dramatic brilliance of colours, and you’re completely set up, camera in hand, and ready to capture Mother Nature in all her glory! These moments don’t come often, though. In January, I was needing a challenge to push my photography to the next level, so I made it my mission to photograph every sunrise and sunset for a month, each at a different location. I don’t know what I was thinking when I committed. It was a crazy month, with next to no sleep (don’t try this in summer, folks). However, it was all worth it for some of the epic photos that I got and for the ways in which I developed as a photographer over this time. All said and done, I walked away with three sunrises/sunsets that were completely off the Richter scale, a few more that were still really decent, and a whole lot of duds!
to decrease your shutter speed, allowing for a greater intensity of colours and a sof t flowing ef fect on areas of movement, such as the sk y or water. Another technique to try when the situation calls for it is to take multiple exposures and adjust the exposure differently in each, commonly referred to as ‘bracketing’. Most modern cameras have an internal bracketing shooting mode that will capture images at various shutter speeds to expose each area of an image correctly. If your camera does not do this, it’s easy enough to shoot two to three images at progressively longer shutter speeds — this will capture detail in the shadows that you can then use later on to create an evenly exposed image. Don’t forget to take a moment when it’s all going off to breathe and soak it in, and it is always satisfying to let your excitement spill over with a big loud ‘wahoo!’ the image, I know that I’ll be able to pull more detail out of the shadows — so don’t worry if your image looks quite dark. When using this method, it’s important that you aren’t clipping either your whites or your blacks — the best way to ensure this is by checking your camera’s histogram. When done correctly, the curve will generally be towards the left of the histogram — make sure that there are no spikes on either end. If there are, you’ve clipped and lost detail, and you will need to change your shutter speed and try again. I personally don’t use many filters, but a sof t grad can be helpful when shooting these high dynamic range (HDR) scenes, because it darkens the sk y, allowing you to expose for a longer time without blowing out the sk y. This results in more foreground detail, while still achieving a natural-looking image. You can also use a 10-stop (or similar) filter
ON LOCATION I always aim to get to my location one to two hours before the big event. It is always best to make sure that you leave plenty of time to get there, set up, decide on your composition, and take some test shots. When shooting dramatic skies, I generally use an f-stop between eight and 11, a low ISO, and then adjust my shutter speed accordingly. In low-light situations, it becomes imperative that you have a tripod to ensure that you can use longer exposure times. The hardest part about shooting these intense skies is getting an image where the exposure reflects that which is true to your eye. If shooting in auto mode, the camera will generally expose the entire scene, resulting in a blown-out sky with no detail whatsoever. To best capture the scene, I always ‘expose for the sky’ — meaning that, when dialling in the shutter speed, I underexpose the image as a whole to capture the detail in the sky as true to eye as possible. Later on when I process
POST PROCESSING So, you have taken your photos, almost lost your voice from all the excited screaming and yelling, and are now ready to process your images. The ultimate goal is to enhance the scene while retaining the integrity of the image, ensuring that it is as true to eye as possible. I shoot with a Sony α7R II, which has great dynamic range; this allows me to pull a lot of detail out of the shadows. I personally don’t like the HDR look in images, and think that it’s important not to go too overboard when pulling up your shadows, as you end up with a flat-looking image. Remember, contrast is still your friend and creates depth in your image. Choosing to leave areas of an image dark will add to the mystery and awe of your photo. A common issue in processing occurs when people overuse the saturation slider. When you get that truly cracker image, it generally doesn’t need too much done to it. The main adjustments I usually make involve adjustments to the white balance to ensure that the balance between the blues and yellows is correct. Often, less is more; if you start to see ‘haloing’, banding, or weird colours, you have probably gone too far. I have a personal rule not to ever share an image the day I take it, because, when I do, I often find that I rush my processing and am later on unhappy with the image. I tend to process the image and then sit on it — I like to come back to it with fresh eyes at least two to three times. I will often wait months before sharing an image, choosing instead to enjoy it myself before sharing it with the world! Finally, always remember that ‘photography’ is a verb — so get out there and do it!
SONY A7R II, ZEISS BATIS 18MM F/2.8 LENS, 18MM, 1/3S, F/11, ISO 50 The low levels of water in Lake Wanaka allowed me to set my tripod at ground level, immediately in front of a puddle to capture the famous ‘ Wanaka Tree’ with a reflection. Even though we were at the lake edge for over an hour before sunrise, we were still the second group of people to arrive
SONY A7R II, SONY VARIO-TESSAR T* FE 24–70MM F/4 ZA OSS LENS, 70MM, 3.2S, F/11, ISO 50 This sunrise was one for the memory books — it’s not often that one gets to see such a wide array of colours all at once in the sky. In this situation, getting up high allowed me to capture more of the colour range than I would have had I been down lower; preparation played a key part in capturing this image
SONY A7R II, ZEISS BATIS 18MM F/2.8 LENS, 1/5S, F/11, ISO 50 (THREE IMAGE BLEND) For this image, I decided to bracket nine images. I later chose three before blending them in Lightroom. This gave me greater control over the dynamic range between the shadows and the highlights, enabling me to create a scene that better reflected what I could see with the naked eye