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My Five Secrets for Shooting and Retouching Sunsets with Drama!

by | 2 years ago

While most of the world is in quarantine and stuck at home, I’ve found that the best way to spend my time is by creating and retouching photos. In this article, I’m going to show you my secrets to getting perfect sunsets in-camera, as well as how to retouch them. I hope these tips will be useful and inspiring for you. 

#1: Expose for the Highlights 

I took this photo of the Pont Neuf and a beautiful sunset in Paris from the Pont des Arts. I shot it at 100 ISO, 1/12 second, and f/5.6, without a tripod. As you can tell, the photo is very underexposed. Why? Well, when you’re shooting a sunset, you want to expose for the highlights. You have to make sure that they have detail and aren’t blown out, and you also have to make sure you still have detail in the shadows. It’s easy to get detail back in the shadows, but if your highlights are blown out, the detail is no longer there, and you won’t be able to recover your sunset. Use your camera’s highlight warning, which will tell you if your highlights are clipping (blown out). 

Here’s another example of the same sunset at the Louvre, where, again, it’s very underexposed; maybe a little too much, as you can’t see much detail in the shadow areas. Because I shoot a Sony camera, however, I know I’ll be able to get detail back in those areas in post. Here, my ISO was at 100, 1/320 second, and f/8. Don’t look at your histogram or settings too much when you’re shooting; your main focus should be on not blowing out the highlights and keeping some detail in the shadows—that’s the key! 

This one is a sunset taken in Malibu. To preserve the sunset and the colors, I underexposed the photo. My ISO was 125, 1/60 second, at f/4. 

And here’s a panorama from Paris at sunset where, once again, all the photos are underexposed. No clouds in sight, but there was a nice gradient in the sky; to preserve it, I exposed for the highlights, and still had detail in the shadows. If you shoot with a Canon, you want to be careful when underexposing, because you might get a lot of noise. So, just make sure you don’t underexpose too much, but still save your highlights. 

#2: Shoot at ISO 100 

All of the photos you just saw (aside from the Malibu image) were shot at 100 ISO, as it really is the best ISO to get the highest-quality photo—even more so if you want to print. The only exception is when you’re in a location where tripods are not allowed; then, you’ll want to use the lowest possible ISO your camera allows. I would really advise you not to go above 500 ISO, but it’s still better to shoot at 500 ISO, have detail in the shadows, and get the shot, than not to get the shot at all. 

For the Malibu photo, I set the ISO to 125 because I wanted a fast shutter speed to freeze the water, and I had a lens that couldn’t open more than f/4, so I had to compromise on the ISO, and you can apply that, depending on the situation. To sum this up, use a tripod at 100 ISO, but if you can’t, shoot at the lowest possible ISO. 

 #3: Set Your Shutter to at Least 1/40 

Using your camera’s self-timer, set to 1 or 2 seconds, take your sunset shot at 1/40 second to get a sharp photo. The self-timer is useful because you’ll create motion by pressing the shutter button, so it’s better to use it than to have any movement. Getting a sharp photo is key; even more so if you want to print it! 

#4: Shoot When There Are Clouds 

You can see in the Pont Neuf and Louvre photos that the clouds really make the sunset glow and add a lot to the photos. If you don’t have clouds, you can take advantage of the nice gradient of colors in the sky as in this photo. 

#5: Find the Right Balance and a Simple Retouching Workflow 

Now, let’s go into the developing process! We’ll start with that shot of the Pont Neuf sunset in Paris. 

In the Develop module’s Preset panel, I’m going to apply my Sunset preset as a starting point to speed up the retouching process. (Note: I created a few simple basic presets that you can download for free by clicking here. To install the presets, click the + icon at the top right of the Presets panel, and select Import Presets. Navigate to the downloaded presets, select them all, and then click Import. By the way, this is the same set of presets I used in my article last issue, so if you read that article, you may already have this set installed in Lightroom.) 

Next, let’s fix the white and black points. In the Basic panel, press-and-hold the Option (PC: Alt) key while moving the Blacks slider to the right (to –16 here). Your image will turn white so that you can see the exact amount of black appear. You want to keep 1–2% pure black in your sunset. Similar idea for the white point: Press-and-hold the Option key (your image will turn black) and move the Whites slider to the right until you see some color appear. Then, drag the slider back to the left a little bit (I ended up dragging it to +56), and then release the Option key to see how it looks. 

Now, you can adjust the Exposure (+0.35) and boost the Contrast (+24).

The great part of using presets is that after you apply one, you can make little tweaks to the settings to really speed up your workflow. The Sunset preset includes a couple of Graduated Filters, one for darkening the sky, the other for darkening the foreground. Press M to switch to the Graduated Filter, and then click on a pin to make it active. Here, I clicked on the top pin and adjusted this gradient so that it goes from cold to warm by changing the Temp to –20. 

The Sunset preset also added a Radial Filter to the photo, so I pressed Shift-M to switch to the Radial Filter tool, clicked on the pin, and then moved it over toward the center to make the color of the sun pop. I suggest that you use the Range Mask settings (at the bottom of the panel) to make the circle more natural because, here, the tint of the sun covers the buildings. By setting the Range Mask to Luminance and moving the left Range slider to the right (to 76), it creates a much more natural effect. (Note: If you have an older version of Lightroom that doesn’t have the Range Mask feature, you can use the Temp and Tint sliders to lower the intensity of the sun to keep a natural look to your photo.) 

Here’s the final image. 

Let me show you another example of finding the right balance with an easy workflow. This is the photo taken at the Louvre in Paris, which is very underexposed. Let’s see what we can do. 

First, let’s apply the Sunset preset, and then, as we did before, adjust the white and black points by Option (PC: Alt)-clicking-and-dragging the Blacks slider (to –11) and the Whites slider (to +47). Then, boost the Exposure (to +0.50). 

This is already a big change! I was very lucky that night because the sunset was incredible. Another tip I wanted to share with you is that if you’re in a location and have an incredible sunset, take advantage of it: Move around, find different angles, try to find different subjects. A sunset only lasts 5–6 minutes, so you don’t want to stay still in one spot! That day, I shot the Louvre and the Pont Neuf and kept on going until it was too dark. 

Now you can adjust the Graduated Filters and the Radial Filter to finish up this beautiful sunset. I moved the Radial Filter’s pin above the sun, and then set the Luminance Range Mask’s Range slider to 57 to make it look more natural.

And here’s the final image. 

Let me show you one final example: the panorama with a gradient of colors in the sky. First, let’s create the panorama by selecting all the photos in the pano (down in Filmstrip here), Right-clicking on one and, under Photo Merge, selecting Panorama. In the Panorama Merge Preview dialog, turn on the Fill Edges checkbox, and click Merge. 

Here’s the result of the photo merge. 

Now, let’s apply the Sunset preset and, again, do some basic retouching. Here, I adjusted the Exposure (to +0.25), the Blacks (to –18), and the Whites (to +28). 

It looks very different already! Now to really give it that panorama feeling, let’s get the Crop Overlay tool (R) and crop the photo to 16×9. Near the top of the tool’s panel, choose Enter Custom from the Aspect pop-up menu, and then in the dialog that appears, enter 16×9 and click OK. Now, to straighten it out, drag the Angle slider to 2.03. While it looks really nice to have one-third sky and two-thirds land, depending on your view and sky, this crop works for this photo. 

Here’s the final image. 

I hope that you enjoyed these tips and will take full advantage of your time at home to create, learn, and practice as much as possible, because that will definitely keep your morale higher and make you happier. It has worked for me so far! 

ALL IMAGES BY SERGE RAMELLI