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Awesome Arizona Sunsets and Sunrises: Taking Spectacular Pictures
Sharing a few of my sunrises and sunsets, with tips
I hope to please you with a few of my sunset photos. I give tips for each photo. To see more of my sunset, sunrise, and cloud pictures, visit me at Webshots and deviantART. My webshots albums are here: patgoltz . I currently have three sunset albums, with lots more photos to add. You can see my deviantART sunsets here: my best sunsets.
Many of my photos are also available for purchase at deviantART.
All photos are mine.
Tips for making good photos of a difficult subject
The very first thing you should do if you want to take spectacular pictures of anything is to study the photographers you particularly admire, and see what makes their photographs memorable. Learn to observe, and notice details. Also learn some basic rules, like the Rule of Thirds. I will discuss this more in another article.
The best way to get spectacular pictures of anything is to take lots of pictures. This applies to all photography. It is easy to take more pictures if you have a digital camera; it doesn't cost nearly as much. But even when I was using film, I still took a lot of pictures. In a given afternoon, I usually took 14 rolls of 24 exposures each. Once you have lots of pictures, you cull like mad. If you get a couple of good pictures out of a collection of 25, you are doing very well. When you present a collection of pictures, don't duplicate. Pick the best of each, and then choose different photos to go with it.
Sunset and sunrise pictures present particular challenges. To begin with, you have to be in a place where you can observe excellent sunsets and sunrises. In many parts of the country, you just don't see them. For one thing, there is a lot of air pollution in many places, and this mutes colors and obscures cloud details. But there are ways you can still make excellent sunset pictures; it just requires a different approach.
Let's assume for the sake of argument that you live in a place where you get to see a lot of spectacular sunsets and sunrises. That's one reason I chose to talk about Arizona. I live in Arizona, and we have awesome sunsets and sunrises.
There are certain atmospheric and weather conditions that are absolutely required. For one thing, there must be clouds, but it cannot be TOO overcast. If it is, the sun's rays won't get through to light these clouds. Also, you should study the different kinds of clouds.
It is important to be patient. Plan on spending some time watching things change. Get in tune with what is happening. I tell people that when I take pictures, I become my subject.
Sunsets and sunrises are God using His paintbrush on the sky. Always be thankful for the many beautiful sunsets and sunrises God gives us.
Some people think having fancy equipment is important. And indeed it is, but far more important are the skills of the photographer, and the opportunity.
This photo, which I named The Heavens Declare the Glory of God, was taken with a digital camera that cost me less than $100. I used to carry that camera for opportunities just like this. This got special notice over on Webshots. You can see a larger image of this here: The Heavens Declare the Glory.
What produces the color?
Study cloud formations
There are several major kinds of clouds. The thin, wispy ones are made of ice crystals. They are high in the atmosphere, and they are called cirrus clouds. If all you have is cirrus clouds, and they're not too thin, chances are, you will get some good color. Cumulus clouds look like clusters of balls of cotton. They are thicker, so the sun will only light up the surface or the edges. These are lower in altitude. If you have both cirrus clouds and cumulus clouds at the same time, the cirrus clouds will tend to be lighter in color and more yellow than the cumulus clouds at a certain point. Stratus clouds are somewhat in between these two in appearance. If the stratus and cumulus clouds do not take up too much of the sky, the sun may light them up underneath. If you are between the sun and cumulus clouds, the sides of the clouds will take on color. Nimbus clouds are the heavy overcast storm clouds. They tend to block the sun too much, so if this is the kind of clouds you have, don't expect much. The sun will be below the horizon when the really good color comes, and you won't be seeing the clouds that are directly in front of the sun, so you have to wait and see what happens. This is particularly true if you have mountains in the foreground. If the ground is flat, you are more likely to see what the sun may have to contend with.
The picture shows the variation in color you can get when you have clouds at different altitudes. Notice that the cirrus clouds are yellow. Some of the cumulus clouds have red highlights, while some of them are already below the horizon as far as the sun is concerned, and appear dark because they are not being lit. The lower atmosphere has some dust in it, which turns it orange.
This photo shows how cumulus clouds are lit on the side when you are between them and the sun.
Cumulus clouds after the sun is low, cirrus still lit
Use of foreground objects
This photo shows that the cirrus clouds are still lit, while the sun no longer lights the cumulus clouds. This can produce some very interesting and unique effects.
In the foreground, on the right, is an ocotillo plant. (Fouquieria splendens). The ocotillo normally looks like a collection of dry sticks, but when it rains, it produces leaves along these branches. This one has the leaves. These branches are bound together to make fences, and sometimes they will take root and become living fences. The flowers are favorites of hummingbirds. They grow in a cluster that is at an angle to the main branch. I will show some ocotillos in more detail later. I like to use the flowers to make a delicate punch. The bark is used for female troubles.
Using foreground objects and keeping everything in focus is a bit of an art. This is because of the low light conditions. As many of you are aware, if you want good depth of field, you have to stop down your lens. This results in a need for a longer exposure. If it is windy, forget getting the plants in focus. They're moving. So you need a day with no wind for best results. Again, be observant. If there is wind, and you can photograph just at the split second when the plant is at one extreme end of its travel, you may be able to freeze the branches anyway. But when the plant is moving from one extreme to the other, it will be blurred.
This is a good example of some very well formed cirrus clouds. Once again, notice the tree in the foreground. You may not be able to see with this small size, but the cloud formation is made up of many tiny clumps of clouds.
When the foreground makes the sunset
The plants in the foreground are agaves. These are succulents which grow in the desert. Usually, they will grow for several years before they produce flowers. These are the flower stalks. If the agave is a species with a terminal bud (rather than a lateral bud), it will flower once, pour all its energy into growing that tall stalk in a few short weeks, and then die. Agaves are used to make tequila and agave nectar, which is a new natural sweetener. This sunset is nothing special by itself, but with the addition of the agaves, it becomes something more to rave about. This was shot as a result of an opportunity. I was driving along, watching the sunset, and saw these, so I stopped and took the shot.
These cumulus clouds are forming thunderheads. It is unusual to get this particular formation in just the right place at the right time to get this kind of color.
Rays are not so common. They are formed usually when there are scattered cumulus clouds, a bit of dust or mist in the air, and the sun in exactly the right place. I increased the contrast on this shot somewhat.
Birds are very difficult to photograph in a sunrise or sunset. You have to be very patient and take a gazillion photographs. If the birds are too close, they'll look like blurs because they are moving fast. If they are too far away, they will be too small to see. Fortunately, my neighbor feeds the birds in the morning, so lots of them fly by.
When I want to try for birds, I have my camera ready and right next to my face. When I see some birds at a good distance that aren't in my field of view yet, I put the camera to my eye very quickly, and shoot, hoping to get a decent shot. I tend to move my camera when I get excited, so that makes it even more difficult. On this particular day, I was lucky.
See a larger version of this image: Sunrise with Birds.
One final tip: if you are getting washed out color, underexpose your shot a little. I'll talk about using a polarizer to increase the color of the clouds in a future article.
To produce excellent sunset and sunrise pictures, practice, practice, practice! Be out there whenever there is a possibility. Take twenty gazillion pictures, and choose the best. Good luck!
Sunset with Saguaro Sentinels.
From time to time, I will put up new sunsets. I have hundreds. Here is the first one.
Learn to know the animals and plants in your area
The more you know about them, the more you will be able to get in tune with them. If you are on the lookout for other opportunities when you are photographing sunsets and sunrises, and you are prepared, you can get some very interesting shots.
This is a photo of two birds on a saguaro cactus. The saguaro is the tall cactus, which, incidentally, appeared regularly in the old TV western High Chaparral. The flower petals, I'm told, are edible, though I have never tried them. They are difficult to reach. But the flower petals of many species of cactus are quite delicious; they have a texture like fresh lettuce, but they're sweet. The top bird is a white-winged dove (Zenaida asiatica). It is named such because the leading edge of the wing is white. When they fly, they have a band of white across of each wing. This is one of three species of dove which are common in this area. The other bird is a Gila woodpecker (Melanerpes uropygialis). The red on the top of the head is a dead giveaway. The little specks are insects, but I can't tell what kind.
I would estimate this cactus was at least 20 feet away. I took this shot with my 100-600mm zoom lens at maximum zoom, hand-held. The way you can often hand-hold such shots successfully is to sit, and rest your elbows on your knees. This will make a tripod of sorts. Be very steady, tighten all your muscles, press your camera against your face, stop breathing, and shoot. This is especially important if you are taking shots that require a shutter speed of 1/4 sec or longer.
People are plagued with mosquitoes throughout much of the country. We have some trouble with them, but not a whole lot. Some people know you can use some rather nasty smelling stuff which is natural, to repel them. But why bother with things like that? Try lavender oil instead. Put a little on you, and they'll leave you alone. I have a little on me, for medicinal purposes, most of the time, so I no longer worry about insect bites.
New Sunrises and Sunsets
This one is called Fiery Gold Sunrise:
And this one I named God's Paintbrush:
This one got an Approver's Choice over on Weather Underground:
I just recently started posting photos there. My nickname is DesertNomad.
If You Can Find Some Water...
take advantage of it!
It is not too often that I get the opportunity to photograph a sunset over water. I live in the desert, you see. But when I have the opportunity, I will take it. This photo was taken over Cochise Lake in Willcox. I was there to do some birding, and it was getting dark, and the clouds were nice, so I waited for the sunset and took numerous pictures.
If you don't have a convenient lake, look for a puddle.
Often, a sunset looks like it won't be very promising. You may see a little bit of color, and think that's all there will be, because most of the clouds are already dark. Here is an example:
But just be patient. Wait. The sun has to get UNDER the clouds to produce good color. Here is a hint that ail will be well:
See that there is just a hint of color starting under those hopeless dark clouds.
In just a few minutes, this is what it looked like:
The color hit the clouds even beyond that view of this picture; ALL the dark clouds lit up!