A question that I am often asked is why does a captured photograph of a sunset (or sunrise) often not look like the scene directly in front of the camera. Sometimes the vivid colors of a sunset are not recorded correctly by the camera and the image may look pale and washed-out compared to the rich saturated colours visible in reality. How and why does this happen and how can this be fixed?
Why do colours can appear different and less saturated in your photographs?
Although frustrating, what our eyes see and the difference in what the camera captures can be due to a number of reasons. I will address some to the common causes below:
The most common reason the colours look washed out is usually due to incorrect exposure.
There is a direct relationship between colour intensity and exposure. Quite simply, overexposure weakens the intensity of the colours captured and underexposure strengthens them. Whilst these are very broad statements as it can be a little more complex. Generally speaking too much underexposure or overexposure will affect different colours in different ways and can result in some colours changing hue slightly whilst not affecting others. However in broader terms slightly underexposing your scene will result in richer more saturated tones.
Bear in mind that extreme underexposure will render all colours black. Conversely too much over-exposure will lead to colours being recorded as pure white.
Your camera’s ‘Auto’ white balance can often lead to washed out colours. The camera meter can easily be confused when metering and taking photographs at these times – especially where the camera is trying to evaluate the scene and calculate the average exposure for all elements within it. See below for how to deal with this, but I recommend to try out different white balance ‘modes’ to see how they affect the saturation of the colours in the image.
Photographing in RAW format will naturally lead to flatter images than capturing jpg files as they are completely unprocessed. These provide for greater flexibility in post-processing in bring back more accurate rendition of the colours in the scene, such as changing white balance and boosting hue and saturation without degrading image quality.. Click here to read more about the benefits of shooting in RAW.
How to capture more accurate colours in your photographs?
Correctly Meter for the Sky
Quite simply when we meter for the sunset or sunrise scene, it is important to meter the sky without the sun in the frame. This will enable the camera to calculate the relevant exposure settings without being affected by the brightness of the sun. Once we have these values, we can either recompose the frame to include the sun if required, or dial these in through manual mode and take the photograph.
A slight deliberate underexposure of the scene will usually intensify the colours in the photograph. You can do this using the exposure compensation controls. Click here to read my earlier article on exposure compensation. Any resulting lack of brightness can be corrected in post-production. It is important to remember that pure black or white cannot be fixed so where there is extreme under or over exposure and these colours are captured, any data of the scene will be lost. It is important to check the histogram to ensure that there has not been any true white or black captured. You can read more about histograms in my earlier article by clicking here.
Another important consideration is to note that where correcting an extremely underexposed image, adding brightness to a scene will inevitably lead to the introduction of noise and if the underexposure is severe then higher amounts of noise will be introduced which can be difficult to fix.
A circular polarizing filter can help to add darkness (by reducing the light that can enter into the camera) and saturation to areas that are 90 degrees away from the sun.
A Graduated Neutral Density (ND) Filter can be applied to help the camera balance out the brighter areas of the sky together with the correct exposure for the darker areas of the image.
Setting the camera to take a sequence of images can help create a more balanced image. The idea here is that the camera takes one image with the correct exposure, one slightly underexposed and another slightly overexposed. Then these can be combined in postproduction to create a well balanced image.
Playing with the camera’s white balance can result in a difference in warmth of the light. Often auto mode will affect the warmth of the tones (see above) and a cloudy or shade setting will add richness to the sunset hues. Photographing in RAW will enable the white balance to be changed in post production.
Other considerations when photographing sunsets or sunrises
Continue to Photograph After the Sun Dips Below the Horizon
There is a tendency for many photographers to pack up and leave a scene once the sun dips below the horizon. However, quite often some of the more pronounced colours appear at this stage and it is always worth staying at the scene for an extra period of time, as often this can be the most spectacular time to photograph.
As often underexposing will help saturate the colours of the sunset (see above), this can be a naturally good time to shoot silhouettes. Look for striking shapes that can be easily identifiable against the strong colorful backdrop of the sunset itself.
Don’t forget to look around, as often the light opposite the sunset can be equally beautiful with soft warm pink hues.
I hope that you find this article useful. For more detailed information on photographing sunsets, sunrises and other low light imagery including all other aspects of long exposure photography, please do check out my new book – Mastering Long Exposure Photography – A Definitive Guide, published by Ammonite Press and available at all good bookstores and online. https://www.ammonitepress.com/photography/photography-techniques/mastering-long-exposure/
Naturally please also feel free to contact me if you have any questions or comments relating to this topic or any other photography question. Please do pass this post onto any photographer friends that you think may find this useful.