12.17/Sunrise, sunset

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Featured for December: Here comes the sun

Anyone who has ever held a camera — anything from a Brownie or Instamatic or Polaroid all the way through the high end film or digital single lens reflex cameras — has likely taken a picture of a sunrise or sunset.

Check your iPhone or Android phone — that camera/computer/communications device that’s always with you. I bet you have at least one attempted sunrise or sunset photo stored there.

After all, every day has a sunrise and sunset, some more photogenic than others. And if you happen to be outside during an especially colorful sunrise or sunset it’s only natural to try to capture it to save forever.

But you are often left to wonder why the sunrise/sunset captured by your camera or phone isn’t nearly as impressive as what your eyes saw and your brain remembers.

The reason: Your camera’s (or phone’s) brain doesn’t work like the human brain.

When you look at a sunrise, sunset or other landscape, your eyes and brain work in tandem to comprehend the scene. Your pupils adjust as your eyes scan the scene, allowing you to see the deep colors in the bright sky as well as the detail in the shadows as your brain stitches it all into one image.

But a camera — either digital or film — isn’t nearly as flexible as the human eye and brain. The dynamic range — the total range from the darkest shadow to the brightest highlight that the camera can resolve in a single shot — of a digital sensor or film is much more limited. You can get the sky but everything in the shadows on the ground and in the foreground turns black, leaving you with a silhouette. Or you can get recognizable detail in the shadows and the sky turns white. Or, if you are using autoexposure, you often end up with pale color in the sky and little detail in the shadows — the worst of both worlds — as the camera attempts to achieve an acceptable compromise between the bright and dark areas.

In the old pre-digital days, you were stuck with what you got.

But digital photographers with access to software like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom or users of smartphones of recent vintage have a relatively easy way to address the overly bright and overly dark issues created by sunrises and sunsets. It’s called HDR — high dynamic range. You’ve probably seen the HDR letters show up on your phone’s camera screen.

Simply put, HDR used multiple photos taken at different exposures and blends them together, using one shot to preserve the color in the sky, another shot to capture the mid-tones and another to save the detail in the shadows. It’s technology defeating the dynamic range limitations of a camera to create something more similar to what our eyes and brain see.

I used the HDR technique for about half of the photos in this gallery, blending the multiple exposures in Photoshop or Lightroom. I went “modern-day old school” for a number of others, setting the camera so I could maintain as much detail as possible in both the sky and shadows, knowing I could use Lightroom or Photoshop to rescue those areas. And I went true old school on one, the carnival sunset that was shot on film in 1977. I had to decide whether I wanted color in the sky or detail in the shadows. I went for color in the sky and let the rest of the scene become a silhouette. It works, but I wonder how it would have looked in HDR.

Just as technology has made sunrise and sunset photography easier, it has also made finding the best location to photograph a sunrise or sunset easier. Last year I started using an app on my iPhone — The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) — that is a great tool. Using TPE, I can quickly identify exactly where and when the sun (or moon) will rise or set on any day and in any location. That allows me to plan sunrise/sunset compositions in advance because I know exactly where to set up the camera to place objects like trees, fountains or piers in the composition. I can drop a pin on a map in TPE showing where I want to set up, days/weeks/months before I plan to be there. The app tracks my current location, allowing me to walk to the exact location I selected in advance. TPE even lets me know how far the sun will be above the horizon at different times, the direction and length of shadows at different times of the day for any past or future date, phases of the moon and many, many other things. TPE can be overwhelming when first used, but it’s become a valuable tool.

I add a new featured gallery the first of each month. The numbers in the gallery title represent the month and year it was featured. Last month’s featured gallery, with photos of American Robins, has been moved to my featured gallery archives.

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