The allure of sunsets

I know, I’m supposed to be a real photographer: I studied Contemporary Photography – I’m supposed to look for edgy subjects, treated in a modern style.

But there’s something about a sunset. It seems to drill deep into our primitive aesthetic senses and command our attention. Sometimes, the search for new things to photograph, and for new ways to photograph them, has to take a back seat to the urge to record one of nature’s most flamboyant (earth-bound) displays.

And I’m going to take my photographer-cred down another few notches by admitting to using <gasp!> the automatic functions on my cameras. I mean, I’ve lost count of how often I’ve read or heard someone say something whose subtext is generally “you’re not a real photographer if you use any automatic facility on your camera”.

The fact is that auto exposure and auto focus are so good these days that it’s actually quite perverse to do either of them manually, except in a few, closely delineated, cases.

Case in point: sunset photography is commonly put forward as an example of a situation that the camera’s auto exposure has difficulty with. I shot all the pictures attached to this post  with the OM-D set to aperture priority (ESP mode, where it studies many points in the image and works out the best exposure based on subtle algorithms). The equivalent mode on the D-800 is even better at nailing the right exposure.

I hasten to point out that I don’t use Program mode. I haven’t stooped that far. But I do generally leave the camera in Aperture priority mode. This allows me to decide on a suitable aperture – whether for the depth of field it gives or simply to control the shutter speed – which usually means f/8, because that’s the sweet spot of the lens, unless it’s really dark when I’ll set f/1.8 to get the fastest shutter speed.

Yes, I have post-processed these images, meaning the ‘vanilla’ exposure needed a bit of tweaking. Of course it did: sunsets have a very high dynamic range, from the shadowed ground to the disc of the sun. Inevitably, the sun was overexposed; but one of the tweaks is to bring back a bit of detail there, which I was able to do because I Always Shoot RAW.

Oh, and another myth that needs to be squashed: the one that says landscapes need a wide-angle lens. All except one of these pictures was shot with a 45mm lens on the OM-D (that’s equivalent to putting a 90mm lens on a 35mm camera – i.e. medium telephoto). The one exception was shot with a 17mm lens (equivalent to a 35mm moderate wide angle)

This illustrates one of the differences between the way cameras see the world and the way people see the world: cameras see what’s there, human brains process the image coming from the retina. When we look at a sunset, the sun itself is an important component and the human visual system interprets important things as being larger than they really are. It’s why so many sunset (and moonrise) pictures are disappointing – our memory is of this big ol’ sun or moon sitting majestically on the horizon, but the picture shows this tiny white blob. Using a wide-angle lens makes that blob even smaller, but using a longer lens makes it bigger and so the result more nearly matches our memory of what we saw. (Compare the fourth picture with the ones either side of it.)

They’re all cropped to the cinematic ratio 2.35:1 because it just seemed right.

Anyway: yes, I know that these are twee, chocolate-box pictures, but I don’t care. Sunsets are always cool and always different. There are three separate sunsets in this gallery – see how different each one is from the others.

For the terminally interested:

Olympus OM-D E-M5; Olympus.M 45mm f/1.8; Olympus.M 17mm f/1.8


† Tongue. Cheek. Inserted.

Serious point, though: I can do this because I understand at an intuitive level how the exposure triangle works and how the aperture affects the depth of field.