Being a severe weather photographer can be very frustrating at times. Storms don't happen every day. Shooting sunrises and sunsets are how I make lemonade from the lemons weather throws at me. During Winter, or as I prefer to call it, "Sunset Purgatory", a sunrise or sunset may be the only interesting thing weather wise to capture. By Spring, I'm usually sick to death of shooting sunsets. Since I have photographed so many of them, I am very picky. On occasion though, a sunrise or sunset stands out as something I think is special enough to capture and share. I tend to shoot 100 sunsets or more for every 1 sunrise. I'm not a morning person...at all.
To me, clouds make the sunset, especially ones that bring out the sun's crepuscular rays. It is still possible to capture a great sunset without a cloud in the sky, but finding something interesting in the foreground becomes more important to the composition. My favorite sunset photos tend to have the best of both worlds, great clouds and interesting foreground objects. Cars, architecture, and especially reflections in water are some of my personal favorite foreground subjects to use in my sunrises and sunsets.
I shouldn't have to mention that it is NOT a good idea to stare into the sun. Using a camera's LCD screen in live view mode is a much better way to compose your shot. A neutral density filter can help as well to prevent you from having to use too high of an f/stop. I don't use an ND filter often though. When not using an LCD screen & the sun is partially obscured, I tend to manually focus out to infinity if wanting the clouds in crisp focus, or focus on a foreground subject if I want to draw attention to that. My aperture or f/stop can vary. If the sun is unobscured and bright, I will sometimes use f/16 or higher.
HDR can come in very handy for sunsets if not overdone. HDR = High Dynamic Range, a method of using multiple exposures to increase the contrast range in your photos. A camera's image sensor is not as sensitive as the human eye. It doesn't have the same contrast range. Shooting multiple exposures and combining them can allow you to show viewers the image as you saw it with the naked eye. This comes in handy when there are interesting foreground objects you want to show without having to blow out the highlights in the sky. Many times, HDR is way overdone. When I first experimented with the technique, I went way overboard with it as well. I've mellowed thankfully and now use a more realistic approach when using HDR.
HDR isn't always needed. Sometimes, having dark silhouetted foreground objects makes for a great composition and adds a dramatic effect to your images. The lesson here is to not be afraid to experiment and find your own style. I will shoot dozens of photos of the same sunset, using different settings, in order to capture one image I think is worth sharing. Don't let anyone tell you that you have to shoot something a certain way. Take tips and suggestions from others and adapt them to your needs and goals. What works for one may not work for another. There's nothing right or wrong about that.
Shooting sunsets is great practice for documentary photography as well. The light is changing by the second as the sun rises or sets. Shooting in manual mode, like I do, you really have to be on your toes and aware of those changes in light and shadow. Adding foreground subjects that are in motion adds to the challenge and exercises your photo skills that much more. It keeps your shooting skills sharp. After a while, you will see its effect in all your photos, regardless of what you shoot.
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