In The Desert
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What makes a sunset in the desert look great? What makes it stand out? Let's see what makes them not so great! Like everyone else I've taken some that weren't so great.
Here's a perfect example of not so great. While the color in the sky is pretty, that's all there is to the photo. No clouds, nothing in the foreground, nothing silhouetted in the photo other than the mountain. Boring!
Another example of not so great. It's just flat looking, even though there is a nice reflection in the lake in the foreground, the photo still has very little appeal.
Now this is much better, something in the foreground. It tells you where you were. On the bank of a river or lake that had a lot of nice cattails silhouetted in the foreground. It also shows a nice reflection of the sun in the water. Because of the foreground it now has depth. Remember composition and timing is everything. Look for the right place and right time to get that one great sunset shot. Now let's see how to set this all up.
Almost everybody at one time or another has looked at a pretty sunset and wanted to make it a permanent memory with a nice photo. At times the opportunity passes us by or we just can't seem to capture the moment. I should warn you here, these settings are not for all cameras. There are too many varied makes and models. You need to practice and just use this as a starting point. Many of the newer more expensive cameras for example, take great photos at high ISO settings, but for the most part it's better to use a low ISO settings. On most cameras this is a must to control the noise in the photo. Another thing you should consider is a tripod, as some exposures for sunsets are long enough that it makes it hard to hand hold the camera. A remote release is helpful, or you can use the timer on the camera. Here's a few basic settings to try.
ISO set to it's lowest setting. ( ISO 100)
Use Aperature Priority Mode. (f-8)
Try the vibrant setting in your camera.
Dial in a minus EV setting (try several).
User a tripod for stability.
Try focusing on brighter areas near the sun.
Spot focusing -- you'll be able to see what effect different areas of the sky around the sun create when moving the camera from light to dark areas. Aim at an area near the sun, being careful not to look at the sun with your naked eye, it could harm your eyes. This is where an electronic viewfinder or LCD come in real handy! Now as you move the spot focus area around the outer perimeter of the sun you'll see how it effects the entire photo. At this point you may want to try using the exposure lock button to keep the exposure where you want it. Using f-8 is just a good all around aperture and usually the "sweet spot" on a lens. If you don't know what the "sweet spot" is on your lens then set it at the middle of the aperture scale. If you use an aperture that's too small, like f-22 for example, you will loose detail through diffraction.
If you're using Aperture Priority mode, and we recommend it, then you may want to try changing the EV setting in the camera. Taking the EV down to a minus -2.0 may be just what you're looking for. The only way you'll know is to try it. At times a minus -1.3 is enough. Here's a video example of what these changes will look like.
We're trying to show the easiest way to accomplish this. If you're a more advanced photographer then you may want to shoot this in Manual Mode and just change the exposure time -- for example from 1/20 of a sec. to 1/100 of a sec. at f 8. This will accomplish the same thing. It's just easier to change the EV. And if you take a series of photos like in the video above then you'll have a few to chose from. Once you find the correct settings you can then take a multitude of photos to get the one you want. See the next section on timing.
Timing is just as important as composition. These two photos were taken only 2 minutes apart. The lower one shows the sun and is the better choice. So how can you get what you want? Set up your camera on a tripod and keep shooting at 1/2 to 1 minute intervals as the sun moves toward the horizon. You'll be amazed at the variation in the photos that you end up with. Below is a video time lapse of a setting sun. There are no clouds and there is nothing special about the photos other than to show that you'll have a better choice than if you just fire off a couple of shots. And in todays world -- film is cheap! So fire away.
You may also want to try bracketing, if your camera has this feature. This will give you one photo that is what the camera thinks the exposure should be, and some that are over exposed and some that are under exposed. You can then take your pick or you can merge them in an HDR software or in your imaging program.
"sweet spot" On all lenses it varies, but a good choice is the middle of your lens's aperture scale. For example: If your lens goes from f 2.8 to f 8 (typical for a most of Point and Shoot cameras) then your "sweet spot" would be f 5 or f 5.6. For lenses with a larger variance of f stops the best all around results will be when set to f 8 but below f 16. This is good to know for all types of photograhy, not just sunsets.
Summery: Shoot in Aperture Priority Mode with an f 8 aperture setting, test your camera's EV settings, use a tripod, take a lot of photos, and most important, try to find a scene that has something of interest either in the foreground or background of the image. And learn how to use your camera while having fun!