Why blue and red/orange skies?

When I started in photography the ‘golden rule’ was to take photographs only between 10am and 2pm; ‘when the light was at its best’! Of course nowadays we have come to realise that the light in the early morning and at dusk can be stunningly beautiful. Sunsets over water are especially effective for two reasons. First, that you will get a reflection and second, that the sun will set as low as it is possible to see it, which means that the distance the sun’s rays travel through the Earth’s atmosphere is at its greatest.

As light passes through the atmosphere there is scattering that is greatest for lower wavelengths of light. As blue is less than 500nm and red is greater than 600nm it follows that blue light is scattered more, which explains why the sky appears blue. At dusk or dawn the direct light from the sun has had much of the blue scattered from it so it appears red to orange.

The basics of photographing sunsets and dawns

Serious landscape photographers are always prepared to rise early and are prepared for sunsets. A useful tool is the ‘The Photographer’s Ephemeris’, an application that is available for Android and iOS devices. Once you have entered your location you can find out the exact time of sunrise and sunset and where in the sky the sun will appear or disappear. It will even show you how light will fall on the land and where shadows will be cast from hills and mountains.

If you know where the sun will set then look around for places where there are possibilities of including foreground features or silhouettes; photographs always benefit from a point of interest; it may well be the sun itself but think about a tree, mountain or a person. To include people fill in flash is useful. Next decide whether you want to use a telephoto to get a tight shot of the setting sun or a wide-angle panorama. To make the sun a real feature use a 300mm lens or more and a sturdy tripod.

Sunset or dawn set in a clear sky can be beautiful but the real drama is to be had when clouds or landscape features are bathed in reds and oranges. As with most landscape photography a tripod is useful to allow a ‘shake free’ image. If you don’t have your tripod with you brace your elbows on anything firm, even if you have a camera or lens with image stabilisation.

Before you start do make sure that the front of the lens is clean. Direct light from a rising or setting sun will create flare from any fingerprints or greasy marks. The coating on modern optics is designed in part to minimise internal reflections in the lens. However, a direct shot of a bright sun can still cause a degree of flare. You may find when shooting a featureless sky that autofocus doesn’t work as it should, so check this and if necessary focus manually.

For exposure I usually start by making no adjustment at all. Metering will attempt to give an image that is averaged to be of a mid tone; so pointing the camera at the setting sun will force it to give a lower exposure than if you did not have the sun in the frame. That lower exposure should give you a good balance for a sunset with rich deep colours. I shoot in RAW mode rather than JPG, which means that I have much more control of exposure later when I process my images. However, for sunsets it is usually worthwhile to alter the exposure to get different effects; if you can only shoot JPGs then do take bracketed exposures of +/- 2 stops. Many Digital SLRs allow automatic bracketing; when set a single press of the shutter takes three photos with a predetermined exposure difference.

Most photographs are taken with automatic white balance (AWB). Try selecting the ‘cloudy’ white balance setting to avoid losing the warm golden tones.

Remember that the rising or setting sun gives such wonderful light and that there may be stunning images to be had behind you or even directly above you! Once the sun has set don’t put your camera away. The character of the light and especially the play of light on clouds will change, often quite rapidly. Some of my most rewarding images have been taken after sunset.

When editing your pictures make sure you haven’t shot with the horizon in the centre; it will look better if it is above or below that, depending on other ‘highlights’ of the composition; remember the ‘rule of thirds’. A beautiful landscape or sunset photograph will look wrong if the horizon is not horizontal; all photo editing software will allow you to adjust that. After adjusting composition you can, if you wish, start to get creative by increasing vibrance and or saturation, but don’t overdo it as it will look artificial.

The light after sunset can be quite extraordinary (View East across the Andaman sea from Ko Yao Noi in Thailand)

The light after sunset can be quite extraordinary (View East across the Andaman sea from Ko Yao Noi in Thailand)

This shot was taken a few moments after one above. It would have been a lot better if the boat that made the waves had been included.

This shot was taken a few moments after one above. It would have been a lot better if the boat that made the waves had been included.

Lens flare is evident here, although it is a ‘feature’ together with the cloud formations and the reflections off the water.

Lens flare is evident here, although it is a ‘feature’ together with the cloud formations and the reflections off the water.

You have to be lucky and ‘quick on the draw’ to get a photograph like this (Near Sydney Australia). Photo: David Ellis

You have to be lucky and ‘quick on the draw’ to get a photograph like this (Near Sydney Australia).
Photo: David Ellis

The Photographer’s Ephemeris. A useful tool for the Landscape, Dawn and Sunset photographer.

The Photographer’s Ephemeris. A useful tool for the Landscape, Dawn and Sunset photographer.

When it all goes wrong! The horizon is crooked, the tree silhouettes are out of focus and the oblong silhouette adds nothing.

When it all goes wrong! The horizon is crooked, the tree silhouettes are out of focus and the oblong silhouette adds nothing.

Another shot opposite the sunset; with the clouds reflected off the water.

Another shot opposite the sunset; with the clouds reflected off the water.

The beauty of this image is much enhanced by the clouds and the tree silhouettes. Photo: David Ellis

The beauty of this image is much enhanced by the clouds and the tree silhouettes. Photo: David Ellis

The stunning sky would not be enough to make this interesting. In this case geometric shapes add the points of interest (Parachilna Australia). Photo: David Ellis

The stunning sky would not be enough to make this interesting. In this case geometric shapes add the points of interest (Parachilna Australia). Photo: David Ellis

Always remember to check behind you! This was Dawn in Ireland near Kenmare. Photo: David Ellis

Always remember to check behind you! This was Dawn in Ireland near Kenmare. Photo: David Ellis

Check above you as well…

Check above you as well…

About the Author:

Brian Ellis

Brian Ellis

Retired Consultant Surgeon Brian Ellis has been an enthusiastic amateur photographer since the age of 8, when he was given a Kodak Brownie 127 camera. As a teenager he kitted out a darkroom above his parent’s garage where he produced many large prints.

Armed with two Nikon Fs he shot with Ilford FP4 and Kodak T ri-X, excellent B&W films of the day. Fifty-five years and many cameras later he now uses a Canon 5D Mk III. His lenses include a Canon 17-40mm L series, the popular 24-105 L series and the Canon 70-300mm DO telephoto. He also has a Canon 24mm series II tilt-shift lens. In this series of articles Brian hopes to share his enthusiasm and tips picked up over many years.