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How to Photograph Sunsets and Sunrises with Vibrant Colors using Exposure Compensation (EV)

Updated on November 30, 2012
Sunset over the Raritan River.
Sunset over the Raritan River. | Source

The colors at sunset or sunrise can be really beautiful to see, but can pose a challenge to capture with your D-SLR. Oftentimes the colors may appear burnt out, faded and not as nice as how you see them naturally.

Deliberately Underexpose

Nonetheless, this is an easy technique to do. Most times when you use automatic settings on your camera the sky is overexposed causing the ‘washed out colors’ look. With this in mind, by deliberately underexposing your images the colors will appear more vibrant in the early morning or late evening when the sun does its magic. An added plus is that objects in the foreground will appear as attractive silhouettes, drawing more attention to your subject pops.

To deliberately underexpose your picture, you’ll need to use your camera’s exposure compensation settings. Most D-SLRs show this feature as a scale on the LCD and which you can see when you look through the viewfinder. If your D-SLR has an additional screen on top of it, then the feature may be shown there as well. You may not see this scale in certain camera modes including Automatic (A). It is when you change the mode to a more semi-automatic mode for e.g. Time Value (Tv)/Shutter Priority (S) or Manual mode, that you may see it.

Shortcut to Change Exposure Values (EV)

There may be a button on your camera to quickly access exposure compensation. You may need to check your manual for it. Press and hold it in while you turn the dial in the negative direction (left) or towards the positive direction (right), and let go when you have turned it to the value that you need.

The exposure scale usually runs between -2 and +2. Each value is known as an EV (Exposure Value). Setting your scale to 1 causes the exposure to drop by ½ causing the image to come out twice as dark. If you move it to -2, then the image will turn out 4 times darker than when the dial is at 0. On some D-SLRs, you can make micro-adjustments in increments of ½ or ⅓.

Experiment with EVs to Find Exposure that You Like

You may need to play around with these settings and see what value meets your desire for a particular scene. In some cases you may even need to slightly push your exposure compensation value positively. It depends on the results that you want. Sunsets and sunrises may change very quickly, but the general rule of thumb is to underexpose a bit to make sure that the beautiful colors are not washed out.

Taking a Picture of a Person Against a Sunset or Sunrise

Beyond this, you may want to photograph a person using the sunset/sunrise as the background. In this case, you can take the same approach but also using fill in flash with either your pop-up flash or speedlight to properly expose the face of the person. You can read more about how to use flash in the daytime to get great portraits on ….

Remember that once you’ve completed taking your photographs with EV settings to change it back to zero. Underexposing using these EV settings is both simple and crucial in preserving colors in the sky.


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