Why I Still Shoot Sunsets (Even If the Internet Says It’s Lame)

1-160 sec at f - 9.0 ISO 400, Sony FE 24-70 f/4
Sunsets are just beautiful.

For some, shooting a sunset/sunrise is a big cliché. Online wisdom will tell you that if you want a strong portfolio or website, that you should avoid the overused sunrise and sunset shots. I agree that if you want to stand out from all the other photographers in the world, you may want to put something with more of your personality and vision on your site.

But, I still love taking sunset and sunrise photos.


I still shoot a lot of photos that are not ‘portfolio worthy’, just because I like to shoot. If a particular type of shot is totally overdone, does that mean that you shouldn’t shoot it? Should you just avert your eyes and not look at the natural beauty of the interplay of light and color?  Is it worth getting up at the crack of dawn for the sun as it rises off the horizon in a colorful fury?

sunset sarasota with grad ND
It’s the colors that keep me coming back.

I say shoot it, whatever it is. I don’t really care if everyone shoots the sunset/sunrise. First of all, the sky is never exactly the same and it changes minute to minute. There may be a day, hopefully long from now,  when no one can see the sunrise (e.g., massive volcanic eruptions, asteroids, etc.). The point is, enjoy it while you can.

Why do we still look at pictures of people long after we know what they look like? Why do we still shoot anything that we have seen before?

I think there is because there is always a chance to find something new, even if it is just new to you. Like a child that seems to change by the minute, nature is constantly changing and coming up with new surprises. The internet has given us almost unlimited access to all the best photography in the world, and that affects what we think is novel and what we think is worth emulating.

So, if we decide that we are not going to be ashamed of shooting the sunrise or sunset, how do we make the most out of the opportunities that we have to shoot an epic sunrise/sunset shot?  Shooting sunsets is pretty straight forward, but there are some tricks that can maximize your chances of getting the shot you want.

sunset sarasota with 2 stop grad ND
Using a graduated ND filter is great because you can see the image right as you shoot it, so you know if you have the shot.

This is where filters come in handy. The graduated neutral density filter is probably the most useful sunset/sunrise tool you can use. Especially if you are like me, and you do not like to spend extra time post-processing your images.

The graduated neutral density filter has been around for a long time, Almost since the beginning of photography. Although some of the effect from graduated ND filters can be duplicated with a high quality RAW image file and a good software, it can still be difficult to retain the most image quality and dynamic range in your shot. That is where using a grad ND comes in.

Vü Filters
Vü filters are made out of high quality Schott glass, with anti-reflective coatings.

According to Wikipedia:

A graduated neutral-density filter, also known as a graduated ND filter, split neutral-density filter, or just a graduated filter, is an optical filter that has a variable light transmission. Typically half of the filter is of neutral density which transitions, either abruptly or gradually, into the other half which is clear. It is used to bring an overly-bright part of a scene into the dynamic range of film or sensor.
Vu grad ND mounted on a Canon 5D Mark III.
Vu grad ND mounted on a Canon 5D Mark III.

The Vü filter holder allows you to situate the darker part of the filter over the brightest part of the sky and the clear portion over the much darker ground. You can adjust it up or down or tilt left to right, depending on your composition. This allows you to get the filter exactly where you need it for the correct exposure.

The photos below are right from camera. The photo on the left shows what the scene looked like with out the filter. I just pulled the filter higher on the filter holder.  You can see it darkening the top portion of the shot. I used the Hard Grad 2.5 Stop ND Filter from the Vü Sion line, because I knew that the horizon is a pretty clean line. When you would like the neutral density to fade more you can use a soft grad, in which the darker portion of the filter gradually gets lighter.

The filter holder also lets you stack filter for even more filtration and for different filtering effect.
The filter holder also lets you stack filter for even more filtration and for different filtering effect.

A lot is said on the internet about doing this type of work in post and it can be done. Personally, I like to get the image as close as possible in-camera, so all I have to do is touch it up in post. Some people love to spend time on the computer. Although, most of the time the image quality can be better using a physical filter. The filter also prevents the ghosting problems that are inherent with bracketed and HDR photography from stacking multiple images.

sunset sarasota with grad NDsunset sarasota with grad ND
HDR would not have worked well here because of the people in this shot. When things move in your bracketed photos, it takes additional masking and post work to remove ‘ghosts’ or unwanted blur.

I don’t always like to bracket and merge into HDR. I feel as though the extra post-work does not pay off in image quality. Using a physical filter, as opposed to a digital filter in post, prevents the ghosting problems and cartoon-ish colors that are inherent with  HDR photography. I feel that most of the time, a single-image solution produces better results than the HDR methods. Some software programs do the HDR merge better than others, but there is something about using a physical filter that I personally like.

With the use of stack-able neutral density you can use multiple ND filters to allow for very long exposures. Using a filter holder like Vü filter holder above, allows you to achieve long exposures in almost any condition or lighting situation. Using filters in this way allow you to create effects that are not able to be recreated in post-processing.  I used a long exposure to  create a glassy look to the water in the below. I was able to expose for 5 seconds because of the graduated neutral density filter blocking the bright light from the sky.

sunset sarasota with grad ND
This image required very little editing because of the use of a Vü Sion 3-stop graduated neutral density filter.

The point is, no matter what your subject matter, if it gives you the satisfaction of a job well done, you should shoot it. Sunrise, sunset, your dog, your kids or even (if you must) your half-eaten meal at that new restaurant in town. You might love to look back at those pictures one day… even if the internet tells you it’s lame.


TJ Hansen

Photographer at MPEX.com

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