Plan Ahead

If you are sitting in your lounge room watching TV and you glance out of the window and see the clouds lighting up in shades of pink, red and orange – then stay seated, because you’ve missed it. To ensure you capture a decent photograph of a sunset you need to be out and on location at least 30 minutes before the sun sinks below the horizon.

Pick your location before-hand and try and decide where you’re going to put your tripod. This may mean you arrive an hour before sundown so that you can find some likely locations with all the visual elements you’ll need.

So if you’ve decided you’d like to try and snag some good sunset shots in a particular week – set the time aside, be ready, have your camera equipment ready to go, make sure the mosquito spray in on-hand and make sure you’re on location in plenty of time.

Do not place too much stock by the forecast as even on days when the sky shouldn’t, by rights, be lit up – you’ll often find the opposite. Commit to going out on specific days and go no matter how unpromising it looks (caveats below).

How do you know when to go?

While there are methods you can use to predict a colourful sunset, none of them are foolproof and your best option is to simply get out as often as you can and let the law of averages work in your favour. Or as I like to say, you’re not going to catch a fish if you don’t go fishing. Obviously a completely clouded over sky is not going to produce any colour and you can stay at home. Similarly a completely cloud-less sky might not have enough visual interest to make a compelling sunset photograph. However if I’ve decided I’m heading out I go whatever the conditions and sometimes Lady Luck smiles on me. One thing you learn pretty early is that you pay for the good sunsets with all the awful ones!

On the technical side there are obviously some tools we can use to work out if there’s a chance of some colour in the sky. The most useful of these is a satellite image which shows you cloud cover. In order for there to be colour the sun needs to be able to back-light the clouds as it descends towards the horizon. If there are clouds all the way down to the horizon then the light cannot shine through and the clouds will not get back-lit. You may still get a cool shot of the sun shining through the cloud, but the colour palette is likely to be fairly simple – usually just one shade. What you need is a gap about 90km from your location, so check the satellite image and if the cloud looks clear that far out then you could be on to a winner.

I use the online weather website Windy.com prior to heading out to photograph the sunset. The desktop version is particularly good because it shows current and predicted levels of low, medium and high levels of cloud. From a photography perspective, low level cloud is usually bad, medium level cloud is usually ok and high level cloud is usually excellent. If you have just low cloud, then the sunset isn’t likely to be great, but if you have a mixture of medium and high level or just one or the other then the odds are better.

In terms of working out precisely where the sun is going to set, you can’t go past suncalc.net. Simply navigate to the location you’d like to photograph and you can see the direction of the sun at any time of the day.

It’s a Low-Light Environment – Stick it on a Tripod

The biggest issue with photographing landscapes at either end of the day is the reduced amount of light. Cameras these days cope well in low light environments and it’s entirely possible to photograph sunsets handheld, but if you want a crisp image it’s always best to use a tripod.

Having your camera on a tripod means you can keep the ISO at its lowest to ensure the highest quality image. It also means that you can set your exposures for any length you fancy. Really long exposures work particularly well as you get cloud movement and beautiful saturated colours.

Settings

If your camera is on one of the afore-mentioned tripods then you don’t have to worry too much about things like ISO – just set it to 50 or 100 or whatever your camera’s lowest number is. I photograph primarily in aperture priority mode, meaning that I choose the aperture (usually f/8 or f/11) and let the camera work out the exposure time based on it.

If I’m aiming for a more creative sunset shot, using foreground detail such as dune grass or a tree branch then I’ll often use a wide open aperture such as f/2. I can then set the focus on either the foreground or the background and get a dreamy soft-focus image that blows out the detail and accentuates the colour.

Sometimes of course, nature will place an interesting feature in front of your camera lens and you need to quickly change settings to capture it. For this reason I use the custom settings on my camera to have two main landscape setups – one with a low ISO for longer exposure shots and one with an automatic ISO for shorter exposures to capture things like pelicans that suddenly appear in the scene. I can quickly and easily flick between these two modes knowing that everything will be setup for me.

To HDR or to not HDR – that is the question

About 95% of the shots I take are bracketed. That means I take three shots, instead of one – one under-exposed (to ensure the highlights are correctly exposed), one over-exposed (to ensure the shadows are correctly exposed) and one normally exposed. Quite often I will simply use the single (middle) correctly exposed shot, but I like to have the option of using tone-mapping to capture the full range of light in a scene.

The light is often at its most extreme at the end of the day and while most recent DSLR cameras have a wide exposure range, they usually can’t capture all of the light in a single shot. With a bracketed shot you can combine them using a number of techniques or plugins to get the most out of the scene. I find the built-in Lightroom HDR does a very good job combining multiple exposures and often it is all I will use. Occasionally it fails to work (with heavy banding at the edge of objects) and I will use digital blending techniques instead.

However the point is that storage space is not an issue and you have nothing to loose by shooting bracketed.

Take your concrete shoes off

Remember that you do not have to stand in one single place for the duration of a sunset. The temptation is to fire off exposure after exposure of the same view, particularly when the camera is on a tripod. Move around, move the tripod’s location, tilt the camera up or down, try putting the camera really low down, try placing it behind interesting foreground objects – increase your chances of getting a keeper by adding some variety to proceedings.

Try different lenses

I often use three lenses using a single sunset shoot. I shoot with an extremely wide 10mm lens, I shoot with a 50mm prime and I shoot with a 70-250mm zoom. If you’re not getting interesting results with a particular lens then switch it out. I’ve found that some of my best shots have happened when I zoomed right into a scene and focused on one single element of it. Details that would otherwise have been lost in a large frame can take centre stage if you pull them right into the sensor. And of course, if you have a drone then get it up in the air and photograph that sunset view from an entirely new angle.

Look behind you

It’s very easy to get lost in a sunset and spend your whole time looking in a westerly direction. However you really need to get into the habit of looking over your shoulder occasionally. Quite often the light behind you will be better than the light to the front or something cool like a rainbow will have appeared.

Don’t pack up too soon

Typically speaking the best colour hits about 10 minutes after sunset. That seems to be when the angle of the sun and the clouds works to produce the most vibrant colour palette. However it’s always worth sticking around for a while longer to see what happens. I’ve taken awesome shots as much as 45 minutes after sunset.

Persistence counts above all

The biggest key to photographing good sunsets is simply to get out as often as you can. Get into the habit of going out. Go out when it’s cloudy, go out when it’s not, go out whether you’re in the mood or not. Go out often enough and you will get great shots.

I've been lucky enough to witness bioluminescent algal blooms on several occasions and have had camera to hand when it has occurred. Of all the photographs I've taken they are easily the most popular and generate more interest (and copyright theft) than anything else I've ever photographed. So I thought I'd give everyone the low-down on this amazing natural occurrence, from a photography perspective, in order to answer everyone's questions about it.

Where to find it

The main issue with photographing bioluminescent oceans is finding the algal blooms in the first place. I've had emails from people in places like Japan and America who admired my images and then asked me where and when it occurs. They seemed to believe that this was a regular occurrence, like the tides, that could be easily predicted and viewed from specific locations. Unfortunately that is most definitely not the case and far and away your biggest problem will be finding the algae in the first place.

There are some locations worldwide where bioluminescent algal blooms has been known to appear and visiting one of these locations is definitely the best way of maximising your chances of viewing it in the wild. It has been regularly seen in Puerto Rico, the Maldives and America (particularly Florida) and also in several hot-spots around Australia.

Here in Oz, the bioluminescence has been seen in Tasmania, Cairns, Port Lincoln, Port Phillip Bay and the Gippsland Lakes - but I'm lucky enough to live a very short drive away from one of the most reliable hot-spots - Jervis Bay.

The common link between these locations is that they are at the end of a tidal circulation area, in which flotsam and jetsom traditionally washes up. The dinoflagellates in the water accumulate and get deposited in these areas on an incoming tide. In the case of Jervis Bay, the natural circulation of the bay often leads to the depositing of ocean matter on the beaches on the southern side.

"The primary source of flow-agitated bioluminescence is dinoflagellates. These single-celled organisms are common members of the plankton—tiny marine plants, animals or bacteria that float on or near the ocean’s surface."

So to maximise your chances of seeing the bioluminescence, concentrate on an area where there has been more than one previous sighting. Do proper research though, because there is a lot of misinformation out there. For instance the tourist authorities in the Maldives (and several hundred tour operators and tourism websites) have been illegally using one of my photographs (taken in Jervis Bay here in Australia) for years, so don't believe everything you see online - particularly if you're expecting to see it in the Maldives!

When to find it

In order to see those glowing blue waves you need to be on the right beach at night and that means doing a bit of homework during the high tide that same day. Walk along the beaches where there have been sightings before (as the daytime tide is coming in) and look for a red algal bloom in the water. It's not a dark red colour, more of a light purple, but it is very distinctive.

There are various theories on what causes the algal bloom. I've spoken to researchers on the subject (who have used my images in their scientific works) and the general consensus is that they are a sign of imbalances on the water. This means that when there is one showing of algal bloom, there could well be another not long afterwards, because the water simply does not recover that quickly. So if you hear of a sighting, it's well worth checking out the same location a couple of days after that too.

How to spot it

Note where you see the red algae and then return at night. Bear in mind that tide and wind can easily move the algal blooms and you should be prepared to walk along the beach searching for it. On one occasion I saw a red algal bloom in some rock pools at a particular beach during the day, but when I returned at night I had to walk 2km to the east before I found the bioluminescence.

Also bear in mind that dinoflagellates only bioluminesce when the water is agitated. Therefore if there are no waves (such as at a lake) then you probably won't see a thing. So grab a stick or chuck a rock in the water and see what happens. If you're at the beach then take off your shoes and walk through the water along the beach and your walking will trigger the lightshow. The algae also gets stuck to the plant-life and animal life and I've seen neon blue fish swimming through the water before.

How to photograph it

Typically speaking the same rules that apply for any long exposure/low light photography apply here. That means you need to open the aperture up as much as possible (fast prime lenses are excellent), use a high ISO and expose for 10 seconds or more. I always experiment with my exposures,starting off with a relatively quick long-exposure of about five seconds and then balance exposure time and ISO to get as clean and colourful an image as possible. You'll definitely want to be shooting in RAW so you can get as much light information out of the shot in post.

With regard white balance, I find this much easier to handle in Lightroom and do not concern myself with getting it right on the beach. To the human eye, the algal blooms are actually a greeny/blue colour, but since most photographers typically use an automatic night-time white balance setting (which will be very cool) they look dark blue in most photographs. I prefer the blue colour myself and typically have my temperature set around the tungsten end of the scale at the 3100k mark.

Obviously you will be shooting all of this on a tripod but, in your excitement, remember to mix things up a bit. Try shooting from very low angles, instead of head height. Remember that you can also alter your perspective too - my best shots were taken in the ocean looking back on the beach - to keep the tripod steady I pushed it as hard I could down into the sand and, as the waves were only ripples, it stayed perfectly stable for the duration of the exposure.

Including humans in your shot is perfectly possible by light-painting them with a torch once you've exposed for the algae. Alternatively, try and include the night sky in your shots - my favourite bio shot is one I took showing the Milky Way arching overhead.

Remember to take your eye away from the viewfinder occasionally

As photographers we often forget to drink in the scenes that we are photographing, so focused are we on capturing it in the best way possible. And since natural phenomenon such as bioluminescent algae are rare, it's entirely possible that you'll only see it once in your entire life. So remember to look up from the camera occasionally and take a few shots with your mind's eye for the memory bank in your head.

I certainly wouldn't consider myself a storm-chaser, but if nature decides to throw a bit of weather in my direction than I'm not averse to going out and photographing it. Consequently I've photographed quite a few storms over the years and have arrived at a technique I'm happy with that requires nothing too fancy in terms of either hardware or technique. I make a point of heading out when there's the best chance of colour or drama.

When

I quite often head to out to photograph the sunset and always check out the clouds before-hand to see if there's a chance of the setting sun back-lighting. I do this firstly by simply looking out of the window. From my back garden I look south-west and check out the clouds and look for a gap on the horizon which will enable back-lighting. I also look at the type of clouds - high level are best. Then I check out the satellite image (using Windy) to see if my assessment of the clouds was correct. Finally I check the weather for the location and see if it's going to be windy or if we're due for some precipitation.

On the day I took this photo I didn't have to look at the sky for long to know that it was likely to be a great sunset. When I then checked the satellite image (which you can see on the left) I saw the line of electrical storms which stretched all the way down from Sydney to Eden. As I was checking my camera equipment I wondered if the sunset would coincide with the arrival of the storm at Gerroa and, as it turned out, it did.

In this particular case it was a happy coincidence that the line of electrical storms were making their run out to sea right on sunset at 5pm. However I suspect that a lot of people would have looked at the sky and checked out the forecast and decided not to go out and take photographs. I always try and making a point of heading out when the weather's bad because that's often when you get the most dramatic shots.

Because I was quite excited by the cloud cover and the impending storm I made sure I was on the beach a good hour before sunset. That gave me plenty of time to consider where I was going to go, to prepare myself and my kit, to find some good tunes to listen to, to make sure I had an SD card and a fully charged battery and to get set-up.

Where

The photograph was taken at the very southern end of Seven Mile Beach in the holiday village of Gerroa. This is a location I am extremely familiar with - it's my go-to sunset spot and I've taken over 20,000 photographs there. I keep going back to Gerroa because it's one of the few places on the east coast where you can photograph the sun setting over the water. The beach here curves back around on itself and the land extends out at Black Head meaning you have lots of options in terms of the location of the sun. It's also, obviously, a photogenic location and, whatever the time of year, I always find something cool to photograph.

There are numerous places to situate yourself on Gerroa to capture great photographs, but in this particular instance, I was standing right next to little Crooked River just in front of the boat ramp. The storm was already very active and I didn't want to get too far onto the beach and leave myself without an escape route should things get too crazy with the electrical activity. I also knew that rain was coming and, while my camera is weatherproof, none of my lenses are, so I needed to know I could get under cover quickly when the rain front hit.

The bottom line is that this was a place I knew extremely well and, having solid knowledge of the location was instrumental in capturing the shot. If I had gone to a location I wasn't so familiar with I would be playing a guessing game, working out where best to position the camera.

How

Once I was set up on the beach and had the camera on the tripod I composed my image to include the seabirds on the low-tide sand bar. I check the hyperfocal distance for my chosen aperture, lens and camera in the Photopills app and then focused about 7 metres into the shot. Finally I turned off auto-focus and set the camera running its intervals.

The bottom line of storm photography is that you should aim to have your shutter open for as long as possible. I'm not talking about very long exposures (although they're fine too) but the frequency of shots. Every time your camera's shutter closes there is a chance an amazing bolt of lightning will strike and you'll miss it. One of the ways to avoid this (and to keep from hitting the shutter button) is to use an interval timer. My camera (a Canon 7D Mark II) has an interval timer built in but you can buy an intervalometer for next-to-nothing (around $12) to use with pretty much any DSLR. Obviously you'll want to put your camera on a tripod too and, since you'll probably be shooting fairly long exposures you should make sure it is as stable as possible. There are devices you can buy that detect lightning and fire the shutter automatically and I've heard these work fairly well, but I prefer to keep things as simple (and old school) as possible.

Finding the right image settings is often a case of trial and error because you need to account for the ambient light, the sun and the lightning bolts. In the box on the left you can see the EXIF data for my lightning shot. I was shooting in aperture priority mode because the light is constantly changing and it's easier to react quicker when you're just tweaking aperture. I set the aperture to f/19 because firstly I wanted a crisp shot and secondly I wanted to stretch out the exposure time. In this case, with the available light, the camera exposed the image for 1.5 seconds at f/19. I also kept the ISO as low as possible to reduce the noise levels.

The lens I use for 90% of my photographs is the 10-22mm EFS, but as you can see from the EXIF, this shot was taken on my 50mm prime (nifty-fifty) lens. The reason I switched from wide angle to narrow was that I could see the lightning striking in roughly the same area fairly consistently and I knew that I could get a much closer shot with the 50mm. The risk of narrowing your field of view is that you'll get a bolt off to the left or right of frame, but sometimes you have to take a chance. In this particular instance, these bolts of lightning hit about 30 seconds after I switched to the 50mm. As soon as I saw the image appear on the screen on the back of the camera, I knew it was a keeper. I carried on with the 50mm until the storm was upon me and then I switched back to the wide angle lens for the subsequent shots I captured as the storm headed out to sea.

Afterwards

I take a lot of bracketed shots and often combine them in Lightroom or Photoshop using HDR or tone-mapping techniques, but this particular photo is one single RAW shot,  processed in Lightroom.

In terms of sliders, you can see what I did to the shot in the screenshot on the right. Highlights dropped to better define the lightning along with a bit of dehaze to make the lightning sit proud of the cloudy background. Everything else is fairly standard for a RAW shot.

Other tweaks were some targetted sharpening to just the edges of the lightning in the Detail tab and a small vignette in the Effects tab to draw the eye inwards. I made no changes to Tone Curve, HSL/Color, Split Toning or Calibration tabs.

I've often found that the best images are the ones that don't need a massive amount of tweaking and that was certainly the case with this shot, to which I applied my usual baseline RAW tweaks. The fact that I shot the image on my 50mm lens made a huge difference to image quality - it's such a high quality lens that good images just seem to fall out of the camera.

Thinking back to the evening of this storm I wondered if I would have done anything differently and the truth is that I wouldn't. I had about 25 minutes on the beach before the storm got to me and I captured some great shots in that timeframe and even shot some video. I was pleased with the way I set up, I was pleased with the composition I chose and I was pleased with the results.

The problem is that, unless you're flying a professional machine with a DSLR strapped underneath it, the modern drone does not have a very good sensor. For the most part, the sensors are small and exhibit heavy noise artifacts at anything above baseline ISO levels. You only start getting decent quality from drone/lens combinations once you head into DJI Zenmuse territory. Yes, drones are excellent during the day - great colour rendition and clarity - but in low light, at sunrise or sunset or heavy cloud, they suck.

There is however, a way of getting decent quality images from a consumer drone in low-light. You need to be a little bit organised and there is some post-processing involved afterwards, but it's not technically difficult. Here's the process.

Choose the right conditions

Low light photography works best in drones in still air or very light winds. As soon as the drone has to start compensating for wind, it will be in constant motion and picture quality will degrade slightly as a result. Since we will be combining images later any movement between frames also results in reduced image dimensions. So having the drone as stable as possible is important. Perfect conditions are quite rare of course and all of these techniques still work perfectly well when there is wind.

Shoot Bracketed Shots

The key to getting the best possible low light photographs with a drone is to shoot bracketed shots in RAW mode. Bracketed shots are a sequence of photos taken at a variety of exposure levels in order to capture as much of the dynamic light in the scene as possible and RAW images contain the unmodified sensor information that enables you to get the most possible information from each capture as possible. Typically bracketed shots are taken in sequences of three or five depending upon the circumstances. I would advise you to shoot in sequences of five because the end result will have a more subtle transition between the dark and light areas of the image.

The good news is that the ability to take bracketed shots is built into all the popular drone apps. In both the DJI and Litchi apps, it can be found in the photo settings section under the heading AEB. Simply select the five shot AEB option and when you press the shutter button on your remote or app the drone will quickly take five photographs at a variety of exposures instead of just one. If I am shooting towards the sun then I often take two sets of five AEB shots, one with automatic exposure and then one with the exposure meter centred on the sun.

If the conditions are good and wind levels are low then it's entirely possible (and sometimes more desirable) to manually bracket your shots using the apps histogram. To do this you simply need to set an exposure that correctly exposes the shadows in the image and then work your way through the dynamic range to ensure that you have frames in which neither the highlights or the shadows are clipped and in which you have a full range of image data in the mid-tones as indicated by a histogram with a smooth 'hill' shape.

If you have a fairly slow SD card in your drone then remember to give it time to take all of the images before you move its location or gimbal angle. Wait until the progress indicator has finished rotating on the shutter button before moving.

The Process

1 Shoot in AEB to capture a scene's full dynamic light range

2 Here is an example of an image I took with two sets of five images shot in AEB mode. If I had left the drone to meter automatically then the highlights would have been blown out (as per the lower set of five) so I manually set exposure for the setting sun to ensure I captured the full light range (as per the upper set of five).

3 Tone-mapping the bracketed shots in Photoshop

4 Before and after.

Tone-Map Your Images

Once you've imported your photographs from the SD card onto your computer you can begin processing them. There are many options for combining bracketed images and I've tried pretty much every single one of them over the years, but for drone shots I feel that the best look is achieved by using HDR blending using one of Adobe's applications. In many cases the HDR blending in Lightroom is all you will need and you can achieve superior results using it. However you may want more flexibility and in that case the HDR blending in Photoshop is a good choice.

To blend your images to HDR in Lightroom, simply select all the exposures and either select Photo > Photo Merge > HDR or press Command or Ctrl+H. When the preview window appears I always deselect the ghosting option and auto-tone but I do leave auto-align enabled. Click the Merge button to begin the HDR rendering process.

If you're using Photoshop's HDR option, then you should first select your exposures, right-click and then Edit In > Merge to HDR Pro in Photoshop. Ensure that the HDR Pro window has 32-bit selected and click the Tone in Adobe Camera Raw button at the bottom of the screen. You can now post-process the image to your own personal tastes using the 32-bit image file which will generate a much more subtly processed image than the straight 16-bit HDR in Lightroom.

Remember when you are processing the image in Adobe Camera Raw that you have far more latitude with the sliders than you would with a single RAW image. For example, you can alter the overall exposure of the image to a far greater degree than you can with a single image but still retain full control over the shadows and the highlights using the global sliders or individual modifications using the brush, radial or graduated filters.

For a full walk-through of the whole process including the settings to use in your drone app, please check out my tutorial video below:

© 2021 Andy Hutchinson
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