Maui has the best sunsets.

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Two snorklers pause to enjoy a spectacular sunset How to Take Great Sunset Pictures

Visitors to west Maui are nearly certain to see several beautiful sunsets during their stay. West Maui is, after all, the home of the best sunsets in Hawaii. The moist tropical air and puffy clouds that often form over the neighbor islands of Lanai and Molokai create excellent conditions for brilliant mixtures of yellow, orange, pink, red, purple and violet reflecting off the clouds and water. As the sun sets, the colors typically become most saturated just after the sun drops below the horizon, and then fade to pastels as the sky darkens. Typically, shades of yellow and orange predominate before the sun sets, and the colors shift towards pinks, peach and purple after the sun sets.

Sunset photography is challenging. Many people attempt to take pictures of the sunsets, only to find that the recorded image (whether digital or on film) doesn’t match what they saw. The brilliant colors seen near the setting sun often show up in the recorded image as white with only a slight tint of yellow. The beautiful play of colors on the water in the foreground show up as dark and muddy.

sunset photo with blown highlights.  Makena Beach, 2004 Properly-exposed sunset photo with
            well-saturated colors.
            Makena Beach, 2007
Histogram for above photo.
                Blown highlights show up at right. Histogram of correctly-exposed
                photo above.
Two sunset photos taken at Makena Beach. Visually, they both looked great. However, the photo on the left has "blown" highlights, and the sky colors are not well saturated. For the photo on the right (taken several years later), the techniques discussed here were used to produce a more pleasing result. The photo on the left was taken before the sun set, while the photo on the right was taken just after the sun dropped below the horizon. The histogram for each photo (discussed below) is also shown.

There are several reasons for this unfortunate result, but they all boil down to the simple fact that our sense of sight (our eyes and the portion of our brain responsible for processing vision) is superior to photographic equipment in several ways. Digital cameras typically can reliably record light intensity varying over a factor of 200 to 1000 in a single exposure. Film cameras can do only a little better. The difference between the lightest and darkest parts of an image is referred to as dynamic range.

Sunsets can have extreme dynamic range – in some cases, a factor of more than 10,000 between the intensity of the brightest part of the sky and the dark foreground. Consequently, the brightest parts of the image are often “blown out” in a photograph (recorded as bright the camera will allow). When this happens, especially in digital photography, there will be little or no color in this area of the photograph because all colors are recorded as maximally (and equally) bright. When all colors are of equal intensity, light is perceived as white. That brilliant orange sun you saw slipping below the horizon shows up in the photo as pure white, surrounded by a very bright area of sky with little color. A similar, although less deleterious effect occurs when only one or two of the color channels (red, green and blue for most digital cameras) is “blown.” In that case, part of the image will have diminished color differentiation, although the color may actually be quite saturated. When the sun is in the frame of the image, it is often necessary to allow this to occur (to a very limited extent) with the red channel in order to create a pleasing image.

Fortunately, there are a number of techniques any photographer can use with nearly any camera (except those that allow no exposure adjustment).

Expose for the Brightest Part of the Image

For most pictures, the photographer attempts to adjust the exposure (whether manually or through the use of the camera’s built-in metering system) so that the average light intensity of the scene is recorded as a medium intensity in the photograph. In a black and white photograph, this would be a medium gray.

In a sunset photograph, however, the photographer usually wishes to capture the colors in the brightest part of the sky in vivid detail. Therefore, the camera’s exposure must be adjusted so that the brightest part of the sky doesn’t fall beyond the high end of the camera’s dynamic range. You will accomplish this by metering the bright parts of the image and adjusting your exposure accordingly. There are several ways to do this.

Overexposed Kapalua sunset, November 2006. Kapalua sunset, properly exposed
We witnessed this incredible sunset from D.T. Fleming Beach in Kapalua in November 2006. The image on the left was exposed as indicated by the camera's metering system. For the image on the right, the exposure was adjusted to avoid "blowing out" the brightest area and to allow greater saturation of the colors in the clouds.

In the case of a “point and shoot” camera, you may have the option to select the part of the frame used to meter the light. Select “spot metering” rather than “matrix metering” if you have this option. Then, place the meter spot (the default position is the center of the frame) over the brightest spot of the scene, and press the shutter button down part way. While holding the shutter button part way down, reposition the camera to frame the scene as you wish, then press down completely to take the picture. You will almost certainly have a spot metering option if you have a single lens reflex (SLR) or a digital SLR (DSLR), and you may also have the ability to move the metering spot around in the viewfinder, so that you don’t have to reframe the scene before shooting.

If you are shooting digital, you can review the photo immediately after exposure and adjust it as needed. You will probably find that you will need to increase the exposure by one or two EV units (“stops”) over that indicated by metering the brightest areas without blowing out the highlights. This adjustment is necessary because, without this adjustment, the camera will attempt to expose the image so that the metered part of the scene records as a medium tone. The resulting image will almost certainly be too dark. Most point-and-shoots, and most or all SLRs and DSLRs, have an exposure compensation function that will allow you will to increase or decrease the exposure from the metered value. By setting exposure compensation to +2, you are telling the camera to record the metered part of the scene as very bright part of the resulting image.

This may sound confusing, but there is a method to the madness. What we are attempting to do is make the brightest part of the image very bright without exceeding the highest possible intensity value in any color channel. If we had simply used the matrix metering that is the default setting for most cameras, we would only be ensuring that the mid-tones of the scene are recorded as mid-tones in the resulting image. Instead, this procedure "places" the brightest part of an image as a highlight that is within the dynamic range of the camera.

Another alternative with digital cameras is to just use manual exposure settings and trial and error. It only takes a few frames to find the exposure that provides the richest colors and the nicest image.

Most digital cameras have the capability to display a histogram of the exposure like those shown in Figure 1 and 2. If your camera supports this feature, it will be well worth your time to learn how to use it. The histogram of an ideally-exposed sunset photo will show that the curve for each individual color channel will not extend to the right of the histogram. Don’t worry if one of the color channels indicates a small spike at the right side of the histogram, but any large spike near the right of the histogram indicates that some portion of the sky is overexposed. If your camera can only display a histogram for the total intensity channel (all colors together), you will want to make sure that there is some space between the right side of the intensity curve and the right side of the histogram.

Learn how to use these exposure options before you go out to shoot a sunset scene. If you try to learn while trying to shoot the sunset, you will certainly miss the enjoyment of the sunset, and may also miss the opportunity to take a good photo.

If you set your camera for spot metering or manual exposure, be sure to reset it to your preferred mode once you are done with your sunset shooting.

Adjust Digital Cameras for “Vivid” Colors and Moderate Contrast

Many digital cameras allow you to select for more vivid colors, and to adjust the relative contrast of the images you will take. If you have these options, select more vivid colors, and moderate or low contrast. (There will be plenty of contrast in your resulting photos – that is the primary problem we are trying to overcome. Further, you can always increase contrast with image editing software, but you can’t effectively reduce contrast in images that have blown highlights.)

Hide the Sun

When the disk of sun (or part of it) is in the field of view, the dynamic range will always be huge – virtually guaranteeing that portions of the image will be blown out, or dark areas will record as pure black, or both. This situation can be avoided or at least reduced by waiting until the sun is obscured, by a dense cloud, a mountain, or the horizon. If there is an object in the foreground that can be used to good effect in your composition (e.g., an old barn or a palm tree), give it a try. Alternatively, the image can be framed to either side of the sun (or below it, for instance to capture reflected colors on water).

As soon as the disk of the sun is removed from the frame, the dynamic range of the scene decreases dramatically, allowing more accurate capture of the remaining colors and shades. Ironically, the image can be much brighter overall if the sun is not in the frame.

Compose for Silhouetted Foreground Objects

Against the bright background of the sunset, objects in the foreground will necessarily appear quite dark because the sunlight striking them on the side facing away from you; you are on the shadowed side. It will be impossible to expose these objects correctly without blowing out the vivid colors of the sky, so try to work with the high contrast by composing your image with an interesting silhouette in the foreground. If you feel that palm trees are too much of a cliché, find another interesting foreground object.

Lahaina sunset.  Note surfers in the water. Artwork and a sailboat at anchor serve as silhouetted foreground objects in this photo shot from our dinner table at PacificO in Lahaina. In this case, the placement of the artwork served two purposes: it hid the sun and provided an interesting foreground subject. As suggested in this article, the camera was adjusted for moderate contrast, which allows the foreground to separate from the water, preserving some sense of depth and allowing the surfers and the hull of the sailboat to be seen.

Bracket Your Exposures

Many DSLRs, SLRs, and some digicams allow you to automatically “bracket” your exposures. In this mode, you will typically take three frames of each desired picture. One will be exposed less than the metered (or set) exposure, one at the metered exposure, and one will be overexposed (relative to the metered or set exposure). Later, you’ll pick the best image and delete or discard the other two. Especially with digital cameras, this is an easy way to greatly increase the likelihood of getting a correctly-exposed photo. You may have the option of setting the increment of the bracketing. If so, two “stops” (2 EV) is a good starting point.

Use a Tripod

Early in a sunset, the scene is bright and the exposures will be short. However, as the sky darkens, the exposures will get longer. The longer the exposure is, the greater the potential for blurring of the image due to camera movement. Longer focal length and lower ISO film or settings will be more susceptible to camera movement. Image stabilized cameras or lenses will have less of a problem with this, but they are not immune. Exposures longer than about 1/30 are very difficult to hand-hold without some blurring.

In order to prevent blur due to camera “shake,” use a tripod. With a decent tripod set on a firm, steady surface, you will be able to take exposures of nearly any length without blurring.

You will want some way to release the shutter without moving the camera. A simple option is to set the timer mode of your camera (the mode commonly used to take group photos that include the photographer). Set it for a very short delay (two seconds is fine). Then frame your shot, press the shutter and take your hands away from the camera.

Another method is to use a remote shutter release. Several kinds are available – mechanical cables, electronic cords, and wireless. Use whatever is available for your camera. If you use a cable or cord, you may want to secure it to the tripod in the middle with a Velcro strap to avoid transmitting motion to the camera during the exposure.

With a steady tripod, you’ll get a blur-free image, even at exposures stretching to many seconds with either of these methods.

Keep Shooting

As the sun sinks below the horizon, the sky continues to darken – but that doesn’t mean it is time to stop taking photos. If you are using a tripod as described above, you may continue shooting, using longer and longer exposures, perhaps as long as a half-hour after sunset. In some cases, the colors of sunset may be more vivid in your photos during this period than they were when they appeared most vivid visually.

Long exposures provide cameras with one of their very few advantages over human vision. While our vision uses only the light available in real time, long photographic exposures can “integrate” light over a period of time, allowing the camera to “see” when it is too dark to see or to discern colors with our eyes.

Look Behind You

Often, in the quest for the perfect sunset photo, we become so focused on the view to our west that we miss wonderful photographic opportunities in other directions. While you are shooting the sunset, take a look around in other directions every few minutes. Sometimes there will be brilliantly-colored clouds, golden hillsides or (to the east before sunset) even rainbows in other directions. It would be a shame to miss those shots. If you have a companion, ask him/her to look around periodically, too.

It pays to look behind you.
        Clouds over Kapalua, July 2007 As on many evenings, the sunset was beautiful in upper west Maui. However, the real show was the reflection of the the sunset colors off these clouds just east of Kapalua. The colors were unbelievable, and the full moon just happened to be showing through as a bonus. Had we not looked behind us while admiring the sunset, we would have missed it.

Use Your Zoom or Telephoto

The dome of the sky is huge, and when you are viewing a sunset in west Maui, the horizon stretches far in both directions. Especially if there are few clouds in the sky, the area of brilliant colors may cover only a small are of the sky. Don’t be afraid to use the optical zoom of your digicam, or a zoom or telephoto lens on a SLR or DSLR. It’s not cheating to zoom in to the part of the sky where the colors are. On the contrary, you can sometimes take an exceptional photograph of a huge sun setting over Lanai or Molokai. Try it.

ADVANCED TECHNIQUES

Following are few techniques available primarily to DSLR or SLR shooters that will help tap the full potential of your camera in taking great sunset photos.

Shoot Raw

Most, if not all, current DSLRs allow shooting photos in “raw” mode. Simply put, this mode records everything the sensor of your camera sees. There are a number of advantages to this, including:

Shooting Raw has some drawbacks you should be aware of. First, raw images burn up space on your memory card like crazy. On my Nikon D80, a JPG image is typically 1.5 MB in size. A raw image is 7-15 MB. Second, raw images can’t be directly viewed in typical browsers and some generic image editing software. You will require specialized software like Adobe PhotoShop or Nikon CaptureNX in order to view and edit the photos. You’ll eventually have to convert the images to JPG or other common format in order to share it with others, and perhaps even to print it. However, if you are willing to put up with these hassles, you will have much greater control over your images and a much greater potential for capturing a really great sunset photo.

Adjust the White Balance

Film photographers use different types of film for different types of light, because they respond differently. If you take pictures indoors using daylight film, they look awful. In digital cameras, the white balance setting (abbreviated “WB” on many cameras) is analogous to the choice of film. Most digital shooters leave their cameras set to “automatic” white balance – and this works well for most situations. Sunsets, however, may be an exception. In a sunset photo, you want the light to appear a color other than white – because it is. Depending on the sunset and on the camera, the automatic white balance setting may actually work against you, trying to make the beautiful orange sky appear more white.

The best solution to this problem is probably to set your camera to Manual white balance (if it offers this option), and experiment with it. (If you are shooting raw, you don’t need to worry about it – white balance can be adjusted in your editing software later.) Take a couple shots, then review them and adjust as necessary. You may have to continue to do this throughout the sunset.

Another option that may work for some cameras is to leave the camera on Automatic white balance and adjust it warmer or cooler to suit. (If you have such a setting on your camera, you will probably be able to adjust the WB to settings of +/- 1, 2, 3, etc.) Usually, a “+” setting will make the scene warmer (enhance reds and darken blues).

Use Filters

As mentioned earlier in this article, sunsets (especially before the sun actually sets) have very high dynamic range, often with very high contrast between the foreground (everything below the horizon) and the sky. What if there was a way to decrease that tremendous intensity difference without muting the contrast within the sky or in the foreground? A way to make the sky darker without making the foreground darker?

neutral density filters Three neutral-density gradient filters.

There is a way to do this: a graduated neutral-density filter ("ND grad"). ND grad filters are filters that are darkened with a neutral gray tint over the top portion of the filter, but are clear at the bottom. There are many options for the shading difference between the top and bottom portions, and for the sharpness of the transition zone. The difference between the top and bottom portion is often expressed in “stops” (factors of two of light intensity). For instance, a 2-stop gradual ND grad has a tinted portion at the top that reduces sky intensity by a factor of four (2 x 2) and a gradual transition between the shaded and clear portions of the filter.

neutral density filter mounted on Nikon D80 A Cokin P-series neutral-density gradient filter mounted on a Nikon D80. The filter holder allows the gradient area of the filter to be positioned as desired in the frame.

Some ND grads are screw-in filters that attach to the filter ring on the front of your lens just like a skylight or UV filter. Others are square glass or plastic plates, commonly measuring 3-4” on a side. This type requires the use of a filter holder that attaches to your lens. The filter is held in slots that allow the filter to be raised or lowered and rotated. The square filters, while more of a hassle to use, are far more versatile than the screw-in round type because they allow you to frame the picture as you wish, then adjust the location of the filter transition area to the horizon.

Another filter you may wish to experiment with is a “warming” filter. These filters are available in either the screw-in or square type, and have a slight amber tint. There are several levels of tint available, and the warming filter is sometimes combined with other types of filters. Warming filters have the effect of making the yellows and reds of a sunset slightly richer – making the scene feel “warmer.”

In most cases, you will be making a sunset photo for your enjoyment, not as a documentary recording of the event. You want a photo that expresses what you saw and felt.

The filters discussed above help make a photo that expresses the sunset you saw, yet they do so by altering the light entering the camera. It’s kind of a paradox – we alter the light in order to let the camera see the scene as we see it.

Remember to Set Everything Back

Many of the settings suggested in this article to help you capture a better sunset photo require that you change your camera setup from that you would normally use in routine, daylight shooting. When you are done with your sunset shooting session, don’t forget to set your camera back to your usual settings. It may be helpful to keep a list of the changes you made so that you can remember to reverse them all.

Happy Shooting

I hope this article will help you capture the ultimate sunset photo, or at least get you started towards more satisfying sunset photography. You’ll probably find that it is addictive. No two sunsets are alike, and there’s always the possibility that you’ll like the next one you photograph better than any you have photographed before.