Anatomy of Light in Sunset Photography
In outdoor photography, the sun is the predominant light source with the earth’s atmosphere acting as a giant diffuser, softening the light as it passes through. Because of the position of the sun in the middle of the day, sunlight travels through the atmosphere almost vertically, taking the shortest distance to reach the surface of the earth. The effect of the atmosphere as a diffuser is minimal.
The midday light produces photos with harsher shadows and stronger highlights.
Before sunset in the evening, the sun is low to the horizon and, as a result, sunlight travels a much longer distance through the atmosphere. The diffusive effect of the atmosphere is more prominent and produces an image with much softer light that creates softer shadows and highlights.
It is easy to understand why the most favorable times for photography are the hours around sunrises and sunsets, which are also known as the “Magic Hours.”
Magic Hours consists of Golden Hour and Blue Hour. It starts with the Golden Hour approximately 30-60 minutes before sunset. After the sun disappears behind the horizon, the Golden Hour transforms into the Blue Hour. The Magic Hours end approximately 30-60 minutes after sunset, which gives us about 1-2 hours of favorable light.
According to Photopills, the Golden Hour occurs when the sun is 6 degrees above the horizon and it ends when it falls to -4 degrees below the horizon.
The characteristics of the Golden Hour are soft, diffused light with a warm golden glow that produces long, soft shadows.
The Blue Hour occurs after sunset when the position of the sun is between -4 and -6 degrees below the horizon.
The characteristics of the Blue Hour are the much darker sky, especially when compared to the Golden Hour, and soft textures that feature predominantly cool, blue hues.
The beauty of sunset photography is that it produces different visual effects in a very short period of time because the quality of light constantly changes. At the same time, it creates complexity. And you, as a photographer, must be ready for the changes and adjust your photography technique accordingly
Sunset Photography Tips
To help you take control of your sunset photography, I put together a list of sunset photography tips.
Tip #1: Invest in Scouting and Research
I consider scouting and research to be the most critical part of sunset photography. Because the duration of favorable light during sunset is limited and the lighting condition changes every minute, we are not given any extra time for experiments and tests.
Ideally, you need to know where to show up, exactly when and what to shoot.
I have the most success with sunset photography when I have a chance to scout the location during the day prior to the sunset shooting. In the middle of the day, I have plenty of time to evaluate the location for the composition, the potential camera placement, lens selection, focal length and so on. Often, as a visual reminder, I snap a few shots with my cell phone with potential composition choices.
I use the Exsate Golden Hour smartphone app to identify the sun’s sunset trajectory and the exact spot where the sun will touch the horizon.
I also use Exsate Golden Hour to pinpoint the exact time of the beginning of the Golden Hour, sunset, and the end of the Blue Hour.
Normally, I show up 1.5 hours prior to sunset to ensure that I have enough time to set everything up. I leave around one hour after sunset.