One of the coolest aspects of growing up as a kid of the 80s was taking photos with a Polaroid camera.
Clicking the camera was just the beginning. Taking that piece of film out and shaking it was when the start of the real fun began.
Seeing the colors change from yellows to greens to reds and oranges while an image magically appeared was something that words simply cannot do justice. You had to see it to believe it. In fact, I still can remember the very first time I ever saw a polaroid picture. It was one my sister took of me sitting on my mom’s couch wearing those old 80s tube socks with the red ring-stripes pulled up nearly to my knees. Certainly not a stylish picture by any means, but it was so groovy to watch that picture develop itself.
This past weekend, I came to a realization that sunsets and Polaroid pictures share that cool, colorful “developing” that I still find pretty awesome about a Polaroid picture.
I was shooting an engagement session, and the images I walked away with show this off as it applies to sunsets. Just like a Polaroid, each sunset develops in its own unique way, often involving color changes that can be quick and fleeting or lasting and vibrant.
Each one is different.
Some are incredible.
Some, not so much.
In some regards, I guess I have become a bit of a “connoisseur” of sunsets. I get butterflies in my stomach and get all giddy when I am shooting and sense that all of the components are coming together just in time for a flash of nature’s true brilliance.
If you or your clients are loving the idea of sunset photos, here are some of my tips that will help to make it possible for you to reliably capture some amazing images at just the right time.
1) Location Scout. Every location is different, but finding a spot where the sunset will be visible and unobstructed usually helps. Yes, I sometimes will include environmental components in sunset shots as well, but if there are clouds in the sky, they are my go to composition element. Getting on top of a hill or mountain isn’t always necessary. As a result, check the area for a good composition with the sunset in it, and go from there before having clients take an unplanned hike.
2) Use the compass in your phone. In most instances, the best sunset colors are going to be in the west. Occasionally, it will be in the east. I do not recall ever shooting north or south for a sunset. With that in mind, I usually plan to capture the images from this series in a westerly direction and try to have an easterly alternative just in case.
3) Have your gear ready. Lights, batteries, tripods, triggers! Check! Have it all, and have it all fine tuned for an exposure to start. On wedding days, I will take my assistant outside and get all set up and do a light test before ever asking the bride and groom to step away. It only takes moments, but my philosophy is that the bride and groom should be able to enjoy as much time at their reception as is possible. Any setup should be done without them as their time is valuable, and their party is as well!
4) Vary your setup. For the images below, I used three different lenses. My camera bag was ready, and I was able to quickly change lenses to get different positions. The lenses I used were a 70-200, a 45 tilt-shift and a 14-24. I also had one light (a Profoto B-1) on a tripod along with a Profoto Air TTL-N trigger. The advantages of this system over others are many. I love the power and quality of the light from the B1. I also like that the Air Remote gives me with the ability to easily adjust the power on the flash, while also giving me the ability to use it in TTL mode, use the modeling lamp if I choose, and the ability to turn off the flash all with the press of a button or two from my camera. An added bonus is that Profoto also makes some snap on grids which allows you to direct the light and control the spill in the event that you do not want to have any light other than on your subjects. This makes the Profoto B1 a quick and easy, albeit expensive option, to use in a timeframe that is often very short.
5) Expose for the sky. If you let your camera choose the settings, it will likely overexpose the sky. Unfortunately, that often leads to skies that are blown out or otherwise just not interesting. When you choose the exposure of the sky, you can control what is light and dark, while also adding quite a bit of contrast and saturation to the scene. These are invaluable tools to me, and LiveView is a tool that has made this much easier and quicker than in the past. Once that is set, you can easily adjust your light as needed to expose your subjects properly.
6) Know when sunset is going to happen. Yes, it sounds obvious. However, it is often overlooked. Whenever you have a session, if sunset images are a part of the plan, know when it will happen. This will give you a starting point for when the light lighting up the sky may be most likely to color the sky. Keep in mind, however, that brilliant skies can occur 20-30 minutes before or after that timeframe. Keep your eyes open, and be patient.
7) Gain Experience. The more you are attentive to sunsets and the atmospheric conditions on any given day, the more in tune you will become. Temperature, humidity, and pressure all can have an impact on the brilliance of a sunset. Unfortunately, there is currently no app for understanding all of those variables that I am aware. Take the time to pay attention, and look up the temperature, humidity, and pressure later if need be. The most important factor about experience is that you can only gain it by being outside and looking at sunsets as they happen.
8) Plan to work quickly. I have seen amazing sunsets that lasted less than two minutes. They were gorgeous and colorful. They had a brilliance that is rarely seen. Had I been 30 seconds later getting there, I may have missed it. On the other hand, I have been fortunate enough also to have photographed engagement sessions and weddings when the colors in the sky danced for nearly 30 minutes. You never can be sure how long a sunset will last, but experience will help you better be able to gauge it. Whatever you get, you get…so be ready to make the most of it!
9) Communicate. Knowing that your clients want sunset photos is one thing. Communicating with your assistant (if you use one) as well as the clients so they know what to expect during their session or wedding reception is a key component in maximizing your images. You all should be on the same page as far as a location and a general timeframe. Typically at weddings, I will chat with the bride and groom 30 minutes before sunset to let them know that it is getting close to being time for sunset photos and to make sure that they are still up for heading outside. At the end of that conversation I give them a reminder that I will be back to get them shortly, but when it is time to go, we need to go quickly.
10) Know your tools. If you have done all of the above and still feel that you missed the sunset, you always can adjust your exposure. Know that there are colors in the sky regardless of whether your eye can see them or not. Know that your camera can if you tell it to. If you do that, you always can use Lightroom or Photoshop to enhance what is there. (I personally do not believe in adding things that are not there.)
Below are some selected images from a recent engagement session taken over a span of about 15 minutes in Bear Mountain State Park north of New York City. To me, they show how the colors of the sky continue to “develop” throughout the sunset. In turn, these color changes have the ability to dramatically impact the feel of the images.