Many people have asked me what the trick is to getting awesome sunset shots.
It’s a basic combination of things: timing, composition and standing in the right place. I also happen to know of the best smartphone app for capturing sunset shots, Adobe Lightroom Mobile.
I’m not a big believer in altering reality. I don’t want to add colors that weren’t there. I don’t want to Instagram/Filter my shot at all into a colorful piece of art. I’m taking a photo.
But I don’t mind accentuating what was already in the image, like I used to do in the darkroom when I was a kid.
Back then, we used a technique called “dodge and burn,” where you would selectively darken portions of the image by leaving the enlarger light on a little longer on a specific spot, or dodge it, a.k.a. lightening it up, by covering up a spot the light was on.
Now I can do that with an app, and it’s free. It’s called Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, and I highly recommend it to anyone who would like to enhance their photos.
If you’d like to go one step further, I’d move you to Lightroom on the desktop, which isn’t free. It costs $9.99 monthly. And then I could take you one more step, to Color EFX, a plug-in from Nik Software, which is sold by DXO. It sells for a hefty $75, but is often discounted. Try the 30-day free trial here.
But let’s start with free, and let me tell you how I do it.
Manhattan Beach sunset in November by Jefferson Graham for the Photowalks series
Remember to check your sunset times before you leave the house. For the next week, it’s around 4:45 p.m. in Southern California.
Pick your spot for the sunset. Figure out where the sun is setting and make sure it will fit in your frame. If you can find something cool to add in the foreground, like a pier, jetty, rocks, people enjoying the sunset, etc., it will add a lot to your image and make it come alive.
Remember to not be in a hurry to leave. The best colors appear after 20 minutes after the sun sets. Take your best shots.
And now the fun begins.
My magic formula with Lightroom Mobile is pretty simple. Adobe gives you a set of sliders. I’m all about exposure/Blacks/Whites and Dehaze.
I up the exposure a tad, bring the Blacks down (to the left) as much as I can, to enhance the color, and bring up a little whites to soften it. Then I go to the Effects tab, and click the Dehaze slider to the right, to darken the sky, which in turns make the colors a little stronger.
You also have basic tools like crop, white balance and some presets, which let Adobe automatically shift things. I prefer the manual approach.
Move up to the desktop version of Lightroom, and the tools work exactly the same way. But think of them as the “extra-strength” version. They’re richer, as they should be. They cost money. (If you shoot a lot of photos, like I do, Lightroom is also a godsend for photo management, for sifting through hundreds of pix and winnowing them down.)
Take a look at these images of the same sunset: one is regular, the second is with mobile filters, and the third is a mix of Lightroom desktop plus my favorite plug-in, Nik’s Color EFX.
You can tell that the mobile one is more subtle than the over-the-top Nik version, right? What’s your pick?
With Nik, I like to use the “Graduated Neutral Density” filter, which mimics what many photographers put on their lenses to make the sky darker. Except with the plug-in, you can choose where to darken the sky, where to lighten it up and such.
In other words, it’s a “dodge and burn” plug-in.
We’ve been talking in November about the amazing sunsets, produced by the position of the sun at this time of year. Can’t wait to see what December has in store for us!
P.S.: Many of you know that I love running around with the new iPhone 12 Pro Max. I shot the above video—every frame of it, on the Max, and here’s some raw video straight from the camera, below, as well.
Also—I completed my November photo project—shooting L.A. County Piers at sunset with the amazing 11th month skies. (I hit 7 of the 8, skipping on San Pedro’s Cabrillo Pier for a very good reason. The sun sets behind the hills of Palos Verdes, so no sunset over that pier!)
Now it’s a different take for December. Any suggestions?