Africa, the continent of perfect sunsets – and as it seems, every single evening. The term sunset photography must have been coined in Namibia, where light and shadow merges in the red glow of the sun.
On a typical sundowner tour you drive, in your private car or in the open vehicle of a lodge, to a beautiful spot, usually an elevated one for a good view of the landscape. Accompanied by oohs and ahhs a bar is set up.
Then, enjoying a drink, everyone waits for the silent event that works its magic on the sky and gently envelopes the landscape in darkness. Cameras are at the ready at the exact moment, settings are checked, pictures are compared… and there is some ranting about technology.
That done there is usually some haste to get back to camp in time for dinner. On the way you often find that the sky is turning absolutely magnificent right then, with delicate clouds like pink candyfloss on velvety dark blue.
What to do better? I always drive to the sundowner location ahead of time, look for a good spot with an interesting foreground silhouetted against the sky and set up my camera well before sunset. I take the first pictures before the sun touches the horizon and then, while changing position, again and again until the last colourful beam of light has disappeared.
You don’t do anything wrong if you choose the sunset auto mode. Small cameras rarely offer much possibility to adjust the settings manually. But you stay in control by taking a picture in sunset mode and checking the settings afterwards. Then set the same aperture, shutter speed and ISO in manual mode and change the individual parameters. That way you can gradually feel your way to the perfect image. The changes can be seen directly in Live View.
- I usually use maximum aperture closure (e.g. F22/) to prevent overexposure of the sun. This way I capture beautiful rays, caused by the closely positioned blades in the lens. It also gives me a wide focal length.
- In order to prevent noise in my image, I choose a very low ISO setting (ISO 100-400). Sometimes I use a tripod because exposure becomes longer as the sun goes down. The shake reduction of the camera or lens should be switched off, as it can counteract the steadiness of the tripod and pictures can become blurred.
- If I want the sun to have the typical yellow-red colour, or if moving objects such as people, animals or grass swaying in the wind are silhouetted against the sunset, I always try to underexpose the image. As a result of shorter exposure the image does not blur so easily, the colours become more vivid and the sun does not turn a burnt-out white. Parts of the picture can be brightened up again on the computer with an editing program. PLEASE NOTE: If the image is overexposed in just one spot, there is no image information and colours and structures cannot be recovered. I use only one focus point, usually the one in the middle, to be able to decide for myself which part of the image should be the sharpest.
- Interest is created if a foreground feature stands out against the bright sky. It can also give the beholder a clue as to where the picture was taken and it sets the tone and provides depth.
- Also in sunset photography the most harmonious images come about if the rule of thirds is taken into consideration: usually two thirds for the sky, while the very dark ground in the fore is sometimes reduced to a sort of frame for a paper cut.
Photography with the light
These days I rarely aim my camera directly at the setting sun.
While everybody is watching the sunset, I study the fellow travellers, the vehicle, rocks or animals illuminated in warm shades by the wonderful soft light which sometimes makes them look as if they shine from the inside.
When you are on a trip you have the opportunity to practice every evening. Make time to do so, it’s worth it.
At sunset the light changes from bright white to various shades of red and all the while it is fading steadily. The intensity of red depends on the atmospheric density. In Africa the air contains more dust particles than in Europe. The evening sunlight hits the earth at an oblique angle and travels a longer distance through the atmosphere. Since blue light scatters more than the longer wavelengths, we only see the red light.
Author: Lambert Heil
He has been photographing wildlife, nature, people and typical situations on trips in Africa and Europe for many years. He portrays the space in which the life of people and animals happens. Usually it is nature and sometimes urban surroundings which provide the backdrop for the motif. Heil works at Hellabrunn Zoo in Munich as a zoo educator. A former travel editor, he has organised nature tours for almost 30 years. As a result he is well-versed in people, nature and animals. During photography courses in game reserves and enclosures as well as on photo journeys he shares his practical knowledge with other photographers. Being a passionate wildlife photographer himself he leads several photo tours to destinations in Africa every year. He also gives talks on nature in general and Africa in particular.