Home How-To Tip Of The Week October Skies—11/02/09
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Monday, November 2, 2009

October Skies—11/02/09

Making the most of super sunset opportunities

This Article Features Photo Zoom

One autumn morning years ago I commented to a fellow photographer that the previous night’s sunset had been quite beautiful. In fact, I added, many of the recent sunsets had been great. He said but of course: It’s October.

I had no idea what he was talking about but, ever since, I’ve paid attention each October and sure enough, the sunsets are wonderful. I don’t have the meteorological skill to understand why, but in many parts of the country, October (and well into November) proves to be a wonderful time of year for sunset photographs. Maybe it’s because rain (rather than winter’s snow and ice) cleans the air, and the atmosphere isn’t nearly as humid as in the middle of summer so the air is less dense. Really, though, that’s just my guess.

The important thing is that clouds and other atmospheric conditions in the heart of autumn accentuate the colors of a sunset. So take advantage of the opportunity and shoot some. Here are a few basic tips to help you make the most of your annual super sunset opportunities.

- The best part about sunsets—when you’re shooting the western sky, anyway—is the late glow of a richly colorful sky. When the light is low, a tripod is obviously key—but so is knowing how to make the most of that low light. Be sure not to use too slow of a shutter speed or moving clouds can blur—unless, of course, that’s the effect you’re after.

- Meter appropriately. If you expose for the darkened landscape, the exposure of the sky will be too bright. It will literally pale in comparison to the reality of the scene. Meter for the bright, colorful area of the sky—with a spot or center-weighted TTL metering mode—to ensure the saturated color comes through. Thankfully, with a DSLR you’ll get instant feedback for exposure adjustments via the LCD. If you shoot RAW, you’ll have a little more leeway in post, too. If you overexpose, you’ll lose the color. When it comes to sunset skies, when in doubt, underexpose.

- Set white balance manually. With Auto white balance your camera can mistakenly turn a deeply saturated sky into a watered-down photo. A basic daylight setting is a great place to start to ensure that you won’t miss out on all the right colors.

- Silhouette subjects in the foreground to give context to a dramatic sky. Trees, skylines, even people… A great sunset will always look better with a little context to frame it. Plus, a silhouette provides justification for the darker exposure that will keep the sky’s color rich and saturated.

- Wait until the sun goes down, and then wait some more. To see the post-sunset glow when you’re shooting into the western sky, the sun must be below the horizon. Once the sun goes down, the show is about to begin. Be patient, and don’t quit until the color finally recedes into darkness.

- Check a timetable to know when to be, and where. The Internet is a good place to find esoterica such as when the sun might rise and set. A Google search will turn up lots of options—like the Astronomical Applications department of the US Naval Observatory. http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/RS_OneDay.php You can also consider investing in software like The Photographers’ Ephemeris to help you figure out where to position your camera for the perfect angle on a moonrise. http://stephentrainor.com/tools

- Use manual focus and pay attention to depth of field. The last thing you want while the light is fading is for your camera’s autofocus system to have a hard time locking on to those low-contrast skies. Instead, use manual focus and set your camera to infinity. If you’re interested in foreground sharpness to contrast with the skies, consider utilizing a greater depth of field (by using a narrow aperture) and perhaps applying the “one-thirds” rule of focusing that dictates that one-third of the depth of field will always fall before the point of focus, with two thirds of the depth of field falling after it.

- Yes, the skies themselves are a wonderful show. But what about the light they may be casting on subjects around you? Don’t forget to turn around and see what the fading sunlight is doing to the scene behind you. This is particularly true as you’re waiting for the sun to fall below the horizon. Magic-hour light, when warm rays illuminate the landscape to the east, can make for another wonderful photographic opportunity as you wait for the western skies to come alive.

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