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Photographing Autumn Sunsets

Photographing Autumn Sunsets

Around September and October of each year, I inevitably gasp the first time I catch a glimpse of the vivid pink, orange and red hues that signal awesome autumn sunsets are beginning to arrive. The sun sets earlier in the day this time of year, and for most of us in the U.S., the early November time change makes it possible to photograph the sunset before dinner. These factors combine to make autumn an ideal time to photograph the sunset. 

What makes sunsets so special in the fall? In part it’s thanks to the sun’s lower angle, which delivers less blue light as the rays pass through more of Earth’s atmosphere, leaving only those warm oranges and reds to make it to our eyes. Lower humidity and clearer air also help to produce bright, saturated colors in fall and winter—though fall provides a generally more comfortable and inviting photography experience. Here are five steps to help make the most of this annual opportunity to photograph stunning sunset landscapes.

Pick The Perfect Place

First, understand that in the hour prior to sunset, things are going to look really interesting to the east. Yes, the east, because that’s the direction that’s going to be bathed in beautiful golden afternoon light. But once the sun dips below the horizon, the show is going to begin in the western sky. Yes, big open skies can make for beautiful photographs, particularly when that sky is filled with roiling clouds bathed in pink, orange and red. But adding in an earth-bound compositional element usually makes for much more interesting photographs. This could be as simple as focusing on the sunset visible between two mountain peaks in the distance or as involved as hiking until you find the perfect subject to silhouette in the foreground—like a tree or cactus. If these elements are small and close enough, you may be able to illuminate them with fill light from an external flash to really make a dramatic scene pop off the page. Another great way to add drama and interest is to choose a location with water in the foreground. The reflection of a vivid sky off the surface of a river or lake really makes for stunning photographs.

Photographing Autumn Sunsets

Arrive Early

Not only is it helpful to be able to see where you’re driving, walking or hiking to maximize safety and the ability to comfortably and conveniently compose your photographs, by arriving well before sunset (a good 30 minutes prior to the official sunset to be safe) you can shoot through the beautiful things that happen during those last golden minutes of the day’s light. One of the best things about shooting at sunrise and sunset is how quickly the light changes, offering interesting shots well before, during and after the peak drama. In the span of an hour, you can easily shoot a golden hour image, a colorful dusk landscape and then a totally unique starry sky. By getting there early, you’ll be able to travel and set up safely and have plenty of time to make use of gorgeous, fast-changing light.

Bring The Right Grear

Use a tripod, cable release, mirror lockup, self-timer and every other tool you can for making sharp long exposures. Long exposures provide all the versatility you’ll need to be able to dial in a sharp, midrange aperture (such as ƒ/8 or ƒ/11) and the lowest, cleanest ISO (such as 50 or 100) without worrying about having to handhold the camera. With the camera on a tripod and the composition dialed in, a remote shutter release is a perfect way to fire off a frame exactly when you want to. Many cameras now provide smartphone apps for remote viewing and shooting, making for an ideal smart trigger. Failing these hands-off controls, switch the camera to its self-timer (hopefully it has a 2-second option so you aren’t waiting around forever) to ensure your hands are off the body at the moment the shutter opens. Taking these steps for sharp photos will pay dividends once you’ve got your photos open on the computer and can scrutinize the tack-sharp, noise-free images in excruciating detail.

Photographing Autumn Sunsets

More On Long Exposures

With a fairly static sky, you shouldn’t have any trouble making a five- or 10-second exposure and producing sharp images. But if the wind is blowing enough to make the camera shake, that’s going to pose a problem. Another issue will be the wind blowing image elements, such as trees and clouds, around. You may like the idea of extending the exposure specifically to exaggerate the motion blur effects of moving foliage and clouds. Short of that, though, you’ll want to limit those shutter speeds to a duration that won’t cause moving objects to blur if you don’t want them to. Trial and error is the ticket.

Lens Selection

What lens is ideal for a sunset landscape? There’s no formula here, but bear in mind that wide angles are typically great for landscape photography. Moreover, if you’ve got a big, wide, colorful sky, you’ll want to take in as much of it as possible. That generally means the wider the better. Anything under 35mm (on a full-frame body) is a good place to start. I find a 24mm lens is generally ideal for including substantial portions of colorful skies. And if your lens isn’t wide enough, consider shooting a group of exposures as you pan in order to capture more of the scene for compositing in post. Search our archives for great advice on stitching and using tools such as Photoshop’s Photomerge feature.

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