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 Post Posted: Tue May 10, 2011 6:24 pm 
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Joined: Sat Feb 21, 2009 5:22 pm
Posts: 64
Location: Columbia, South Carolina, USA
Phil Bolton asked me for advice on getting sunrise/set images. A couple of disclaimers:

First, I'm not an expert. I can only tell you about what I do. Second, I don't always do what I know.

The first thing I've learned: you have to be there. You have to show up while it is still mostly dark so you are not caught missing something. There's a warm up phase to what I do. They're not exactly test shots and they seldom turn out well, but you have to be there ahead of time. You also need to be fully there-- not distracted by other things. You need to engage with your subject. Athletes used to be fond of talking about being "in the zone." There is a time when we are fully concentrated on our activity.

Second, your equipment needs to be prepared and ready. I generally mount the holder for my ND grad before heading out. Lenses and filters need to be cleaned, probably the night before you go. These activities are hard enough in the light. You don't want to fumble about with them in the dark.

Don't forget your tripod. Don't even think you can work a low light scene without one. I used to think I could effectively hand hold a 1/20 second shutter speed. Don't try it.

I once responded to someone that I used very small apertures-- f22 or smaller. Few lenses give their top results at these f stops. I generally use f/11 to f/16 or so.

Get low. I spend half of my photographic life on my knees. I normally want something in the foreground and looking down to get it is seldom optimal technique.

Get those legs in shape. Bending, stretching, kneeling and standing take their toll. Working in sand makes this harder.

Find foreground interest. A shell, a fence, a piece of grass. I sometimes intentionally go for a long open expanse. It seldom works well.

Uneven lighting across the scene adds a sense of depth.

Focus. Find something 1/3 into the scene and us that as your focal point. If you're using a wide angle lens, you can get away with things not being in sharp focus. Most won't notice, but it will affect their response. I have begun using my camera's live view. It can work well to help you confirm sharp focus, but it has its own quirks. Don't, as a general rule, depend on autofocus in landscape work. It is frequently a poor judge of picking out the focal point.

I normally use spot exposure (and nearly always full manual settings). This makes things slower. When there's sunrise involved, I take a spot reading from an area near the sun, set my exposure so that it isn't going to blow out, check it against a darker spot and then make adjustments. I check and recheck what I've done after I shoot and make adjustments for the next image. Again, live view is boon, giving an accurate look at what the image is going to look like BEFORE you click the shutter.

Shoot Raw format.

Don't believe that you will be able to get something that looks stellar while it's still in the camera. If the exposure is okay, you've got the materials to work with. Sunrise is, by definition, a high contrast setting and your camera is not going to give you a result that is publishable most often.

Post processing: I tend to do as little as possible, but that's more lack of skill than anything else. I use Lightroom almost exclusively. I have PS Elements but use it mainly to clone troublesome objects. I bump contrast up to 50 or so, up Clarity to 20, sharpen the image. I frequently use the spot exposure tool to lighten some areas and/or darken others. I use fill light; though, as Vic keeps reminding us, it can undermine good contrast. I sometimes use Recovery to bring down highlights. There's a curves setting and I frequently manipulate that to create an "S" lightening the lights (not highlights) and darkening darks (not deep shadow).

Enjoy. I don't sell my images. I think that if I did, I would lose my enjoyment, worrying about the sales value rather than taking joy in the multiple acts of creation involved in making a pleasing image.

Post, even if you don't think it's your best work. You can learn from seeing your image in a public place. Surprising but try. Listen carefully to feedback. Jan is especially adept at pointing out what he finds pleasing. There is, sometimes, an implicit statement about what he finds less pleasing. Pay attention to that too. Vic is a bit more didactic and technical. Listen carefully to all, but don't take it too seriously. Sometimes, the critique is "off." Grains of salt and all that.

Comment. Putting thoughts into words raises your own awareness of issues, equipping you to use them in the field.

Be kind to others. Be kind to yourself.

Equipment: it's 30% of the puzzle. Being there is 30%. Lenses: get reasonably good glass. I don't have great glass. The best quality glass I have is my 70-200 f/4 L. The first time I used it properly, I was astonished. There is just something that I can't describe about the images it can make that is just better than my 17-85 IS lens. That said, don't overspend.

Did I say "enjoy?" "No pressure?" Remember that you are participating in creation, not responsible for it.


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 Post Posted: Thu May 19, 2011 1:27 pm 
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Joined: Sat Feb 21, 2009 7:37 pm
Posts: 62
Excellent explanation. Thanks for the input. I'm sure many will benefit from it.


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