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I recently was able to talk to Michael Freeman about photographing better sunsets. Admittedly, I can't do this for the life of me, and have always found photographing people to be much easier. Michael is the author of the first three books in the Focal Press Field Guide series: The Photographer’s Eye Field Guide, The DSLR Field Guide and The Exposure Field Guide.
Silhouettes are a great way of using a sunset and retaining the rich colors without over-exposure. Stay low to the ground to keep the fullest outline against the sky, or use the sun's reflection if you're near water and can get higher like this, but choose your angle to the subject so that it’s recognizable (profile often works best) and if it’s moving wait for the telling moment.
Wait for about 10 minutes after sunset and don’t pack up like everyone else. While there’s no guarantee that you’ll get rich, burning clouds, when they’re high and wispy and the air’s clear, the flash will happen a while after the actual sunset, not during.
When the sun is near the horizon and bright, you have three basic lighting set-ups: silhouettes into the sun, cross-lighting and intense frontal lighting with the sun behind you. Scope the setting beforehand and identify subjects that will work in these three ways—then shoot fast.
Shooting into the sun virtually guarantees a dynamic range greater than your camera’s sensor can handle in a single exposure. Bracketed exposures, HDR and exposure blending give you full control over this. Hold the camera steady (ideally use a tripod), keep the aperture the same but vary the exposure from dark enough to capture the light of the sun’s disc to light enough to capture shadow detail as bright as mid-tones. Process for normality or extreme effect—that’s a matter of taste.
Use a telephoto lens, or the long end of long zoom, and shooting into a bright low sun is likely to give you the kind of veiled flare that suffuses the image with color. Technically they’ll say it’s what you should avoid, but it adds a lot of atmosphere. One sure way of promoting it is to choose a day with mist or strong haze (and that’s more likely with a sunrise than a sunset.)
Whatever you think you can do in software processing and post-production, there’s nothing like having the exposure good right from the start. Neutral grads are glass or plastic filters that shade smoothly from clear to gray, and work by darkening the upper part of the image softly. You need a fairly level horizon for them to work perfectly. They come in light-reducing factors of 1, 2 and 3 stops.
Michael Freeman is a renowned travel photographer and photography book author. He has served as a lead photographer for the Smithsonian Magazine for three decades and has published more than 120 photo books and 50 books about the practice of photography. Most recently, he penned three of the six books in the Focal Press Field Guide series which covered the topics of exposure, DSLRs and travel photography. For more information, visit Focal Press's website.