Thursday, August 04, 2005

Photographing Sunrise & Sunsets - A Few Thoughts...

With regard to sunrise/sunset photos:

1) Always use a tripod. I don't care what other people say, it is difficult to hold a camera perfectly still at shutter speeds slower than 1/30 sec., and often you are using slow shutter speeds because you NEED to set your Aperture to its smallest opening - on many digital cameras that is f/8 or f/16. You want depth of field.

IF YOU DON'T HAVE A TRIPOD, one trick that works well is to hold your breath right before hitting the shutter button - It Works!

Perhaps cameras with I.S. (Image Stabilization) technology work well when hand holding the camera at slower shutter speeds; however, I have not used them (YET), so I can not give any judgment on I.S.

2) Expose for the darkest areas of your scene. If you do NOT want to silhouette your foreground subject(s) of your sunrise/sunset photos, then you will need to have a little bit of detail in the black areas. You can burn in the lighter areas later (using Photoshop or whatever) as long as there is some detail in the highlights to begin with.

**Please Note** If your intention is to silhouette your foreground subject, then by all means leave out the subject detail as it will NO longer be much of a silhouette if the silhouette shows texture and details. Expose your shot for the sky to get the results you want while still keeping your subject a basic, black outline.

3) Add something of interest in the foreground, like a person, a beach house, a wooden fence post, an old bike, a red sand bucket, a bright colored beach chair and umbrella, a sand castle or any such thing, or big interesting beach rocks or trees. This will add a lot of interest to the photos as it will also help lead the viewers' eyes into the photo, all the way from the front of the photo to the 'back' where the sun is located. (Well, try to imagine your 2D photo being 3D and then visualize a front and back to it, then you will have it!) The addition of an object or subject to your sunrise/sunset photos will also add perspective to your photos. If you have a pier, boat or lighthouse around where you are shooting, those are FANTASTIC objects to add in your photo for sunsets/sunrises.

** Another Note ** When adding a subject to your sunrise or sunset, obviously, and most of the time, your subject will end up being more of a silhouette! Then, you may be wondering, "Why in the heck you want that type of thing in the photo if it will turn out a blackish mess?" Well, you almost got me on that one, lolol!

Many photographers who 'shoot' people outdoors will use additional lighting (portable spots or flash units) to brighten up the main (or "Original") subject because the background subject, in this case the sunset or sunrise, is darker and colorful. Look at it this way: If your environment is dark (less bright), as is the case that time of day around sunrise or sunset, then you will need additional lighting to brighten up a subject if that is your intention. The key is to make the foreground subject stand out (above and beyond) the background - otherwise your subject will blend in to the background or be underexposed.

If you DO NOT WANT to expose for the foreground subject, then - DON'T WORRY ABOUT IT!

HOWEVER, to make that red sand bucket (as an example) really stand out, try to expose the bucket a half-step to one-full-stop more than the background. Look at the results on your digital preview screen and you will get an instant feedback about your camera and flash settings.

You need to make sure that you take a quick exposure reading of your sky (your sunset - NOT THE SUN, but the sky around the sun - NEVER LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE SUN WITH ANY OPTICAL DEVICES - UNPROTECTED VIEWING CAN CAUSE A LOT OF EYE DAMAGE!!!!!!) Try using your camera's built in light meter, adjust the lens to its longest zoom setting, and then take a meter reading of the sky. Or, you can use a handheld meter. I use a basic GOSSEN SIXTINO 2 handheld meter - it is not that sophisticated but it does not need batteries and it is highly accurate and durable! The lighting this time of day will change quickly so work fast! Manually (if that is an option on your camera) set the shutter speed so your foreground subject is exposed 1-Stop more than the background. Use Manual Mode on your camera.

At this point, let's play "Devil's Advocate" - you say: "Well, Nawfal, you just took a reading with a regular light meter, not a Flash Meter, how will that help?" Good question.

IF, AND THIS IS A BIG IF! If you have sophisticated portable lighting and a flash meter then you are set - take a sky reading and a flash reading using your flash meter and bump up the flash unit so that it "puts-out light" 1/2 or 1-full stop above the "environmental reading" to bring out the details of the foreground subject.

If you are using your built-in flash on your digital camera then you have other issues to deal with.

First, your flash has to be powerful enough to light up the object/subject you are photographing in the foreground. If you have that, then move onto the Second Point. Second, you are going to have to experiment with your Flash Output settings and that is easy enough to do with most digital camera.
a) Expose for the sunrise or sunset.
a-and-a-half) Set your flash to the ON setting!
b) Set your flash output to -2 or -1 for starters, especially if your subject is close-up; otherwise, you may overexpose the subject.
c) Review your shot in the preview screen. Did you get it? No! Too dark! So, bump up the flash power until you get it; or, if you bleached out your foreground subject, then reduce the flash output.
d) Do you see "unwanted shadows" caused by the flash and your foreground subject? You should do a test run before the sunrise/sunset shooting! IF the shadow bothers you, or it is NOT part of the effect you are going for, then you can try shooting from a lower position and angling your camera slightly upward; or, you can use a reflector to bounce back some light. These options may not be possible - you decide!

** NOTE ** At sunrise/sunset times of the day, the atmosphere and lighting change quickly so work fast. However, with digital, as long as you are set up and ready to go with camera and main foreground subjects where you need them to be, then all you need to do is get the exposure and composition right.

When working with large objects, like a lighthouse, well, I'm not all that sure a simple flash would be enough to brighten that up - probably not. Some subjects are better left as silhouettes when shooting sunrise and sunsets. HOWEVER, experiment and see if you can light up large objects in the foreground - it never hurts to experiment!

Still, the key to getting most of your scene sharp is to keep the lens aperture at it smallest lens opening (f/8, f/16, f/32, or whatever it is on your camera).

*A Technical Note*: if you know that there are flaws (types of distortion) with your lens at f/32 [or whatever], then set the aperture to it most perfect, yet smallest, setting to get the clearest results. Then, adjust the shutter speed appropriately. As long as you took my advice and use a tripod, you will keep your camera steady. About the "flaws" - each lens is not totally perfect, although some come very close. At some aperture settings, the results are not as good as others. If you know the technical stats on your lens, then you can be aware of these "flaws" ahead of time and avoid those lens settings that may not give the best over all results. If this matters to you, or if the flaws are very noticeable at the smallest lens opening, then you may have to sacrifice a bit of depth-of-field. As I mentioned, it may not matter to you and any optical flaw may not even be noticeable to most people. So, should you even worry about the technicalities of your lens glass? Don't know - I think we worry about too many things already - why worry about this IF the photo is for your personal use! If the photo is for a client, then you may want to consider all possibilities : )

4) I'm not in favor of filters usually. Lenses are designed for best results on their own without additional glass added to the end of the lens barrel. If you need to protect your lens keep the lens cap on when not in use. Otherwise, when working at the beach or near water, just attach a polarizer (to reduce glare) or if cloudy and not a lot of glare and skies are already blue and cloudy, then a simple UV filter will work to keep sand and sea water away from the lens. Nevertheless, even filters have different degrees of quality, so a top quality filter will give clearer results than a cheaper brand. ** BUT NOTHING WILL HELP YOU GET CLEAR PHOTOS IF YOUR FILTER IS SMEARED OVER WITH FINGERPRINTS, DIRT, GREASE AND GRIME, So clean your filters before using them! **

5) With digital work, many things (contrast, color, etc.) can be tweaked using software, BUT, now this is Important, YOU MUST START OUT WITH A FAIRLY GOOD IMAGE to make it worth "tweaking"!

If the original is out of focus or blurry due to camera shake, or the image lacks any detail in the dark or light areas, then it is like starting out with damaged goods and even Photoshop won't be able to do much with it in the end.

Digital film is cheap and reusable! Take dozens of shots if you need to and preview each one to see if you are getting the results you want. Expose each scene 1-stop above and below the recommended exposure as this will give you some latitude of choice.

With analog film, bracketing was an expensive effort and you never knew if you "GOT IT" until you saw the results. However, digital is instant - so have fun.

Your ideas and techniques may be different than mine, and that is fine! The main point is to enjoy photography and get what you want out of it! Happy shooting.

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