During the days of shooting film, sunsets and sunrises were easier to shoot correctly. Your image had all the color and vividness you remember standing there witnessing the scene. There is no question that digital cameras have made taking most pictures easier, however this isn’t always the case when it comes to sunrise and sunset. This is because the camera gets fooled into thinking the vivid colors are an undesired colorcast over your image and therefore tries to correct them out. This results in the colors being different from image to image as you shoot.
The solution here is to study white balance and how to set it using the WB button on your camera. In the olden days of film, the white balance was built into the film. You bought either daylight film or tungsten corrected film and then used filters for any further color correction. In digital cameras today, the white balance is selectable at anytime. Adding to possible confusion, there is also now an automatic white balance mode where the camera automatically selects the setting it thinks is right. Well, despite modern advances in state of the art cameras, auto white balance or AWB is not accurate in certain shooting scenarios including sunrise and sunset.
Did you know your camera came with a manual? All kidding aside, inside your manual you can study different white balance settings that include auto, daylight, tungsten or incandescent, shade on a blue sky day and several settings for florescent lights. If you are new to this don’t worry! Your camera may have scene select modes like portrait, landscape and night scene. If it does, it more likely than not has a sunrise/sunset mode inside the menu. If so, that mode does exactly what we are about to learn.
The key for beginners may be to shoot images in auto white balance. Then when the colors go haywire, use that sunrise/sunset scene mode or learn to set your camera to daylight white balance. The icon for this is a sun in your WB settings area in your camera. What this does is set the camera to a known value of white balance, in this case daylight. With this reference, your camera will capture great colors in your sunrise and sunset images like the ones you remember standing there.
Now that we know the color will be correct. The final piece of the pie is to use your over/under exposure compensation to dial in the exact exposure you want. I find in this situation that under-exposing by 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop or 0.3 to 0.7 on the compensation reading in your camera, results in images that most resemble the scene as it was when I was standing there. Also, try under-exposing more to create a silhouette with foreground objects such as trees as I did in the last example image. This is a good thing to do as the sun sets behind the ridgelines. As you do this for a few minutes you will come to a point where the images are too dark. At this point, start moving the exposure compensation back toward neutral or 0.0, reviewing an image every couple of minutes, keeping your trees silhouetted, but the sky as bright as possible. With a little practice, you will have it down. It’s important to remember to change the settings on your camera back to their neutral or automatic positions if you don’t want to encounter a surprise at your next shoot.
These images were taken in Pike National Forest in the Rampart Range of Colorado with the Tamron 18-270 VC PZD. This can be a difficult area to shoot in because you are in the forest with few open areas to the sky. Forest roads work best for finding optimal spots to shoot. Use a tripod and a hot-shoe bubble level for best results. A circular polarizer is also handy for removing undesirable atmospheric particulate reflection if the sky seems hazy. Bring your coat, its cold this time of the year.