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Shooting the Sunset

Author: Ben Reeves
He is a travel writer and photojournalist working in Phuket. Originally from the UK, he arrived in Thailand by way of Oman.
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Natural Fireworks

Sunsets are stunning, aren’t they? No matter where you are in the world, the cascade of colours in the sky from the brilliant blue of the afternoon to the black of night (via yellow, orange, red, pink and purple) is like an all-natural fireworks display every evening. Even in Bangkok, where the horizon is concealed behind seemingly endless tower blocks, it is a picturesque time of the day, ideal for photography. No wonder sunset photography is one of the most popular forms of photography. 

As with practically every aspect of the art, it is one which is just as easy to get wrong as it is to get right. Shooting sunsets have a lot in common with garden or landscape photography, so we can take a selection of those tips as read: use the rule of thirds, look for foreground interest, symmetry is visually appealing, and so on.

There are some notable differences, which is where the following tips will come in handy. Of course, even these tips have their limits and a full photography course in Bangkok will naturally be far more effective in helping you make the most of the dusk.

Cloudy Days Are Best

It perhaps seems counter-intuitive, but the best days for sunset photography are actually those with a bit of cloud in the sky. Too much and you can’t see the sun and the sky merely goes from a light grey to a dark grey and finally to black, which is useless. A common problem we have here in Phuket is a huge cloud bank out over the Andaman Sea, blocking out the most dramatic moment, as the sun hits the horizon. The jackpot is the happy medium of mostly high-altitude clouds.

sunset photography

You’re bound to have seen days like these from time to time and noticed the amazing impact it has on the sunset. The colours of the sky are nicely complimented by the vivid colours of the clouds and it paints this glorious kaleidoscope of colours across more of the sky instead of just immediately around the sun. It also extends the light show because the clouds will still be lit from below, even after the sun has disappeared below the horizon.

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I said in my pro-tips article before that I always underexpose pretty much every photo because it is easier to recover detail from shadow than it is from highlights. Sunsets are the best example of this in action. You want to maximise the detail in the sky and the clouds, but you are shooting directly into the sun, so the risk of lost detail is that much greater. If you trust the light meter and expose the shot exactly as it says you should, you will see those beautiful orange tones lose their lustre and the clouds lose their detail in the glare of over-exposure.

My camera is always set to centre-weighted metering, so the light meter focusses on the area in the middle of the frame and takes its reading from what you are pointing the lens at.

sunset photography
Examples of the centre weight meter icon on a camera

I do this so I can more precisely control what is and is not properly lit in the shot. In the case of sunsets, I will usually first point my lens directly at the sun and meter for the brightest part of the frame, then make sure it is underexposed, then re-frame and take the picture I want. This usually does the trick.sunset photography

Foreground Interest, With A Bangkok Twist

Finding foreground interest in Bangkok is quite easy. There’s always something around you which you can use to build a layered effect in the shot. It is probably harder to find an uninterrupted view during sunset photography sessions! The question is how to make the most of it.sunset photography

Silhouettes are particularly effective in sunset photography, but you do not want to totally block out the sky because that is the most beautiful part of the shot. Something which you can see through will create the most striking silhouettes, such as a tower block under construction, cranes, radio masts or the Rama VIII Bridge. Obvious landmarks like Wat Arun also work well, particularly now that it is covered in scaffolding.

There is one notable exception where silhouettes are not striking and that is portraiture. Silhouetted people can improve a shot a lot, such as getting the backs of people looking out at the sunset from the railing of a rooftop bar, particularly if you can get two people looking at each other, so you can make out their profile. However, if you want to get someone face-on, remember that you’ll need a fill-in flash.sunset photography

Reflections are also excellent during sunsets, both for creating symmetry and for foreground interest in sunset photography. This is naturally much easier in a beach scene than a cityscape, but it is something to consider if you’re taking a picture of Wat Arun from the eastern bank of the Chao Phraya River. Remember that reflections don’t just have to be off the water, either. Bangkok has plenty of highly reflective buildings which can be used creatively.

White Balance

White balance is one of the more complex aspects of photography that I have not yet really discussed. This is the method the camera uses to accurately capture the colours you are seeing. Certain extreme lighting conditions can make white appear blue or orange or any number of other shades, which can paint an inaccurate picture of what you are really seeing. Shooting sunsets are about as extreme a light condition as it gets.sunset photography

White balance is the one setting where I do generally trust the automatic setting, but even here I don’t trust it entirely, which is why I almost exclusively shoot in RAW mode. RAW files are significantly larger than the default jpeg files because much more data is being recorded. It means that it is much easier to edit the file in Photoshop afterwards, with the white balance being particularly flexible.

You can use the editing tool in two ways. Firstly, you could go for absolute accuracy by finding something white in the image and setting the balance off that. You can also be creative by making the image appear “warmer” or “cooler”, by moving the temperature slider up and down and making the light more orange or more blue respectively.

Use a Tripod With Sunset Photography

You are taking pictures in low light conditions and you want to keep the sharpness of the shot as high as possible, so bumping the ISO up is not really an option. The best solution, therefore, is to have a longer exposure, which means you have to keep your camera steady. That means either a stable surface or, ideally, a tripod. If you have one, a cable or remote shutter release is also helpful in preventing camera wobble from pushing the button. Using the self-timer works as well.sunset photography

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