This is the second part of three dealing with photography at sunrise and sunset. It will focus on how and what to shoot. See Part I for some general info., equipment and tips.
Now what to shoot? As I mentioned above, water should probably be near the top of your list. But you can find beautiful bodies of water in the mountains, broad valleys, cities, even deserts. And of course seascapes by definition include a very big body of water. While including the sun in your shots is the classic composition, photography at these times of day is so much more than that. Start to think and plan along the following lines:
I. Shoot toward the Sun
You will face the strongest contrasts when doing this, so looking at your image on the LCD right after you take it is important. Turn on your highlight warning (blinkies) and also take a look at the histogram. Make sure you don’t have too much dark area (which will just look noisy when you lighten it) and definitely avoid letting areas get blown out (climb up the right edge of your histogram). You can let things like the sun, headlights or streetlights, and a few other things blow out to white of course.
Using a graduated neutral density filter is nearly always key when shooting into the sun. Although Photoshop, Lightroom and other software have graduated filters, you cannot expect to use these programs to darken a blown-out sky. So you might need to use a grad. filter in the field just to tame the bright sky enough to be able to use another grad. in post-processing. If you have trouble seeing in your viewfinder the line where dark goes to light on the filter, use the depth of field preview button (if your camera has one). Also try using live view. I hand-hold the filter in place, but you can also get the dedicated filter-holding kit. I also will often move the filter up and down to effectively soften the transition. You can buy a hard-transition filter and then use this technique to turn it into a soft transition.
Also watch for flare. Use your lens hood, and consider wearing a cap just so you can use it to help block the sun. Avoid using any screw-in filter unless you have to. For example, use a polarizer to tame that reflection on the lake surface (so you can see the pretty rocks beneath the surface) but take off your protective UV filter. A little flaring is easy to remove later on the computer, and flaring sometimes adds something to the shot. Simply be aware of it when you’re shooting toward the sun or any bright light.
It’s usually best to take your meter reading off of the bright part of the sky near the sun (not the sun itself). You can also take it off of the bright part of a reflection in water. In aperture-priority mode, point the center of your frame at this bright area. Press and hold the exposure lock button before recomposing and also before sliding the grad. neutral density filter over your lens. In manual mode, you set your aperture, point the middle of the frame at the area you’re metering from, and then adjust shutter speed so the light meter is more or less centered. I like to bias my exposure a little to the right, which refers to the histogram bulging to the right (slightly overexposed). Remember to use the highlight warning to make sure important detail isn’t lost by making it too bright.
II. Shoot at an Angle to the Sun
This is often what you want to do when the sky is decorated with colorful clouds at sunrise or sunset. Shadows of things like rock formations, trees, even people or animals, can really help to set off the photo and give it depth. Same principles apply as with other images: meter off of the brighter areas of the landscape or better yet, a medium-bright part of the blue sky. Or you can simply frame and shoot, then check the LCD, including the histogram.
This is also when a circular polarizer comes in most handy. Realize that when the sun is low and you are shooting in a direction that is near 90-degrees from the sun, the polarizer will have its maximum effect. What this means in practice is that you need to be careful; don’t necessarily rotate the filter to its maximum. Less can sometimes be more here, so try a partial polarizing effect. If you need to tame large contrast between land and sky use a graduated neutral density filter over top of the polarizer.
If you are using a very wide angle lens, be careful of two things regarding the polarizer: (1) the filter might show up in the corners, forming a vignette. Zoom in a bit or go buy a polarizer built for wide-angles (they’re thin); and (2) the polarizing effect will vary across the sky, since the angle of view is so large. This can result in some weird effects, especially if you have a lot of blue sky. Don’t use the filter at maximum effect, or use a graduated ND filter to darken the lighter area in the sky.
Hope you’re enjoying these posts. Stay tuned next Friday for the final part. Note that these images are copyrighted and not available for free download, sorry. If you’re interested in purchase of any of them, as fine-art prints or as high-resolution downloads, simply click on the image. Once you are at the screen-filling image, click “add this image to cart”. It won’t be added to your cart right away; just click the appropriate tab to be shown pricing for the image. Please contact me if you have any questions. Thanks for looking!