Magazine article Geographical

Following the Setting Sun: Sunset Has Long Been a Favourite Time of Day for Travellers and the Breathtaking Colours and Light Conditions Make It a Photograph Many of Us Wish to Take, Wherever in the World We May Be

Magazine article Geographical

Following the Setting Sun: Sunset Has Long Been a Favourite Time of Day for Travellers and the Breathtaking Colours and Light Conditions Make It a Photograph Many of Us Wish to Take, Wherever in the World We May Be

Article excerpt

Watching the sun's fiery descent over the sea to the horizon, creating a myriad of flame-coloured highlights on the water's rippled surface makes westerly coastlines a particularly favoured viewpoint for sunsets. The intensity and scale can vary enormously from day to day. The height and density of any cloud cover, air temperature and air pollution, all play a part in how the sun's rays are scattered and colours rendered.

Some of the most memorable sunsets occur the day after a previous evening's firework displays, due to haze and smoke particles scattering light waves more than usual. In fact, when the Indonesian island of Krakatoa blew asunder in one of the world's biggest volcanic eruptions in 1883, spectacular blood-red sunsets occurred for months afterwards, half a world away in Europe and North America.

Although an extreme event, Krakatoa demonstrates how atmospheric conditions influence the 'colour quality' of sunsets. More obviously apparent to current times is how the ever-present air humidity in equatorial regions serves to further scatter the red light waves of the spectrum, ensuring sunsets of saturated colours on a regular basis.

Compared to the world's cooler temperate climate zones, the other advantage of equatorial locations for witnessing memorable sunsets is the minimum of variation in sunset time and direction during the year.

By contrast, in the more distant latitudes of the northern and southern hemispheres, there is a huge variance in the sun's journey across the sky and in the number of daylight hours from one season to the next. After all, it is the tilt of the Earth's axis that determines the seasons and the changing length of the day, and therefore the time and direction of sunrise and sunset times. These differences become more marked the closer you travel to the North and South Poles, to the point where the sun can disappear for weeks at a time during winter and never set during summer.

In the weeks surrounding one of the twice-a-year equinoxes in March and September, the duration of night and day is of similar length wherever you might be in the world. For this reason, an equinox is one of the most convenient times of year to photograph both sunrise and sunset as neither occurs at a particularly early or late hour of the day! It would be a mistake to think that the light and colour of a sunrise and sunset are much alike.

Sunrises tend to produce a less dramatic sky because the cooler night air doesn't carry the same level of dust and other particles as the atmosphere at the end of a warm day. Consequently, light waves are scattered less at dawn than at sunset.

CHOOSING A POSITION

Photographing a sunset is fairly straightforward, but it still requires considered planning and preparation. You should find out in advance where and at what time the sun will meet the horizon to enable you to choose your position, select your focal length and compose your picture before the sun enters the frame.

It is important to have the horizon perfectly level, especially if the sun is setting over the sea or a flat open plain. For this reason, it is vital that you secure your camera on a tripod and use a remote release or self-timer to trip the shutter for maximum image sharpness. This is one type of photography where autofocus doesn't give the photographer any advantage, as the subject to lens distance is infinity, so it's best to switch the AF off.

More attention needs to be given to your meter reading, which should be taken from the sky, so try to ensure the sun is not included within the frame. This exposure value needs to be locked so you can recompose to include the sun and then fire a sequence of images with different exposures bracketed around your metered value. By making so many different exposures, you will produce a choice of images with varying degrees of colour saturation.

METER MATTERS

It is important not to totally rely on your camera's meter reading in scenes of high contrast or extreme brightness, such as your typical sunset. …

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