Sunset Photos: What Could Go Wrong?

A spectacular sunset near the town of Beaufort on the Western Highway in Victoria, Australia

Nikon D800e camera and Nikon 24-120mm f4 lens @ 82mm. Seven image composite, 1/60 to 1 second, @ f11 ISO 100

The above photo was made, at sunset, a little way outside of the small town of Beaufort on the Western Highway between Adelaide and Melbourne.

I just love sunsets. So beautiful to behold, yet so difficult to photograph. Here’s a list of the difficulties you’re likely to experience photographing them:

  • Sunsets are fleeting. If you don’t get on with it this daily miracle of nature will be over before you’ve got your camera set and ready to record the event.

  • Low light levels make it difficult to record a sharp image without a tripod or a high ISO.

  • Sunsets tend to be very high contrast where the dynamic range of the scene, from shadow to highlight, is beyond what your camera’s sensor is capable of recording in a single exposure.

The Long Return

These days when I make the long trek back home to see my mum in Hamilton, my hometown in Western Victoria, I take the Western Highway and pass through Beaufort, prior to turning at Ararat and driving onto Glen Thompson and Dunkeld before arriving, finally, in Hamilton.

Despite what I was told, this particular route is probably no shorter, in time or in kilometers, compared to the road I’ve been taking for decades through Melbourne to Ballarat and, along the Hamilton Highway, to my hometown, Hamilton.

Nonetheless, it’s an interesting, albeit considerably drier, alternative to my usual route through Ballarat and a number of small towns including Streatham, Lake Bolac and Wickliffe.

I did the trip during the middle of summer with heat measuring 45 degrees Celsius. I had the car’s air conditioning on full almost all the way, something I’ve never had to do, even when driving all the way down from Darwin to Melbourne a number of years ago.

 
Irrigation Channel, Mildura

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Chasing the Light

On this particular trip I kept my eye out for interesting photo opportunities throughout the journey. Unfortunately the light was dull, flat and very uninspiring.

As sunset approached I started to actively look for opportunities. I could see the sky light up in my car’s rear vision mirror, but couldn’t find a decent composition.

A side road suddenly appeared out of the corner of my eye. I took it and pulled the car over to make the above image.

High Dynamic Range (HDR) to the Rescue

The contrast (i.e., Scene Brightness Range) was so extreme that I had to make a series of exposures which were later combined into a single, composite image.

Within a few minutes the light was all but gone. Driving back towards the Highway I looked over in the opposite direction and saw a far more interesting scene.

Photographing in this direction would allow me to photograph the landscape bathed in the beautiful warm light of the setting sun.

Alas, by the time I saw it, the light was gone. If only I’d found this place ten minutes earlier.

But all is not lost as I’ve recorded the location and plan to stop there, well before sunset, while returning from another trip back home.

It’s just another great reason for heading home again, soon.

The brighter the light the darker the shadows will photograph.
— Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru

Never were truer words spoken, if I may be so bold, at least in relation to photography. Please think carefully on these words and let them seep into your consciousness.

Accept the statement as fact and understand how it is the defining factor that determines the success, or otherwise, of many of your photos.

Horizon Photography

I wanted to keep some of the landscape in the image to both suggest the scale of the wondrous sight above me and also to help tell the story of the parched landscape.

Forget about the ⅓ to ⅔ division of the frame you may have heard about in photography or, for that matter, painting 101.

Just place the horizon where it needs to be to tell the story you want to tell.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography