The Blocked Sunset!

a tale of frustrated art

(Or:  How to Take Good Pictures of Sunrises and Sunsets)
February 2014

Call it Murphy's Law or whatever you like, but in photography there's one manifestation that's really been plaguing me lately.  (That's "lately", as in "for the past year or two".)   I call it the "blocked sunset".  It's a situation where you have clouds, or some other thing, preventing you from photographing a good sunset.  The most common kind of blocked sunset, at least for me, has been the kind where a band of low clouds is completely obscuring the horizon.  The sun goes down behind these, and basically you're done for the day.  They ensure there's really no sunset to photograph.

The blocked sunset has about an infinity of variations.  All of them are uncool.

After about a hundred and ninety blocked sunsets in a row (that's not that much of an exaggeration, believe me), I thought there might be a sunset today.  So I got to a location where I thought I might photograph the sunset. 

There was still some promise, so I said "That's it.  I'm going for it."  I ran through the deep snow-- about up to my knees-- towards a vantage point.  Jeans and boots now soaked-- a great setup for hypothermia-- I arrived at the not-so-great vantage point to find... it was still kind of a blocked sunset. 

Defiantly, the trees presented an "X" pattern to mess up my sunset for the hundred-and-ninety-first time, but I didn't care.  I had to get a sunset picture today. 

I can think of a few things I'd like to have changed about this scene, but deep snow makes it kind of tough to be choosy.
Oh, and see those low clouds on the horizon?  That's a second "blocked sunset" in the making...

The worst kind of blocked sunset is the one where you brought your 4x5 camera and its heavy tripod, and you've invested a good hour or so getting ready for the picture.  Actually I've had this happen where I've driven 150 miles one way, schlepped the camera gear to the spot, waited there for forty minutes, and watched the sun fade into... a blocked sunset. 

The more you want that sunset, the more it eludes you.  It will play games.  You get disgusted, go in the house, and you look out the window to see the most awesome purple sunset you ever saw in your whole life.  And it will happen several minutes later than the sunset should have even been able to occur.  I don't know why this happens, but it can drive you up the wall and probably eventually turn you into one of those guys who wears a knit cap and a lumberjack shirt and wanders around town all winter long, babbling about blocked sunsets.  Actually I already wear a knit cap and a lumberjack shirt, but I won't let the blocked sunset defeat me.  No way, man.

Another type of blocked sunset it what I call "jet smudge sunset".  You're all ready to get a great shot of the sun going down, and suddenly a jet pilot decides to release this big, fat, nasty contrail across your picture.  What puzzles me is why he wasn't releasing it before, when he was ascending that whole time.  Don't these things emit condensation trails all the time when the engines are going?  Especially when they're flying upward???  Nope, not in Blocked Sunset Land they don't.  Instead they emit no contrails at all, until they know you're setting up a camera and trying to get the ideal sunset you've always been chasing.  The farther you've driven to get a good vantage point, the fatter and nastier that contrail will be, and the harder it will be to retouch out of your photo or scan.  Guar-on-teed.

All this does is fuel my determination to get more and better sunset pictures. 

Toward that end, here are some tips you can use to fight the Blocked Sunset Monster.

A.)  Pretend you're not interested in sunsets... but carry a camera everywhere.

B.)  When you're at a good sunset place,  pretend to be doing something else like texting someone about your bad hair day.  If you hate smartphones like I do, pretend to like them.  Get good at fake texting about subjects having nothing to do with sunsets.  Pretend to be too distracted to get your camera set up in time for the sunset.

C.)  Wear a backpack big enough to conceal an entire 4x5 camera outfit, with tripod. 

D.)  Carry an umbrella to show that you expect nothing but rain. 

E.)  Put an orange or yellow filter on your camera lens to pretend you're out trolling for cloudy-day black & white shots.  (You need an orange filter or a yellow filter anyway, for days when it really is cloudy and you really are doing black & white shots.  When it's sunny out, these filters make black-and-white skies look much better, too.)

F.)  Bring a backhoe, because when the trees make a "hooked X" pattern like the one shown above, there could be treasure, matey!!!  The sunset you've always wanted will happen while you be diggin' for doubloons.  But by then, who cares?

Oh, you wanted some real tips for photographing sunsets.  Those are real tips, but here are some better tips.

1.)  Watch your white balance if using a digital camera.  Some sunsets will have way too much blue in them when you use Auto white balance (this happens a lot on a Canon DSLR).  You can "somewhat" correct this in post-processing, but not perfectly.  If you're not sure what to use, learn to cycle through your white balance settings quickly, and take shots using each one. 

2.)  Instead of a digicam, consider using a 35mm camera with Velvia film.  This is the king of color.  It is perfect for sunsets because it accentuates red and purple hues.  There's also Provia, Agfa Precisa 100, or one of the discontinued Kodak slide films.  (Not Kodachrome, obviously, because the K14 process is no longer available.)  Slide film is best for sunsets, even in 2014. I like the 5-roll pro packs of Velvia 100 for 35mm (available here) or 120 film (here).  Velvia 50 has the best color, but the 100 is very close and also offers a 1-stop advantage as the light is fading.  (If you have a tripod or are using a fast, wide lens, get the Velvia 50.)

3.)  Instead of a 35mm, consider using a medium format or 4x5 film camera.  Fujichrome Velvia film, of course.  The bigger your film, the more you can crop the scan and still get a nice photo.  Even the non-blocked sunsets are not always going to co-operate.   Then again, the negative space of the blue sky can look kind of cool.

You're not always going to get that sweeping, incredible, calendar-cover sunset you're after. Enjoy the picture taking process and hopefully get something cool.

4.)  I like a lens that has a wide range of focal lengths.  If you don't know ahead of time what your sunset vantage point will be, you don't want to waste time switching lenses.  Sunsets are about color and impression more than sharp detail, so you don't have to fuss about corner sharpness and all that.    Heck, use 110 film and it could be awesome.  

5.)  If you're stuck with one focal length, something around 70mm seems to be one of my most-used on a 35mm camera.  (On a large-format, I like 210 mm).  The classic 50mm prime lens on a 35mm SLR is certainly a good all-around choice, though.  It all depends on your favorite sunset vantage point, and what else you want to include in the picture.  Plan this ahead of time, so you're not switching lenses at the last minute.  It's not that you won't have time... it's that your vantage point could end up being some muddy hillside where you don't want to drop your lens.

6.)  If possible, carry a wide-angle lens for those rare, sweeping, panoramic sunsets where the whole sky is incredible red-orange.  (For me those are about 1/10th of 1% of all sunsets....)   Figure on 28 to 40 mm on a 35mm camera.   The 35-70mm AF kit zoom for the Nikon 35mm film cameras has awful bokeh, but for landscape use it's acceptable.  Just don't pay a lot for it.

7.)  Keep a halfway decent tripod in your trunk.  Digital doesn't really need one, but film cameras have no image stabilization.  Long focal length + film camera + sunset = tripod territory.  Especially with a 4x5.

8.)  Watch the weather.  Rainstorms ending in the late afternoon often make for good sunsets.

9.)  It ain't over 'til it's over.  Sometimes the best part of a sunset is after the sun goes down below the horizon.

10.)  When winter sunsets are good, they are really good.  Bundle up.  Metal tripods get COLD when they're outside for a while...

11.)  High-altitude clouds are preferable.  When clouds are too low, the sun will not have the chance to illuminate the undersides of them.  

12.)   If you can't get a day with good cloud patterns for a sunset, wait for a perfectly clear day and photograph the silhouette of some trees against the sky right after sundown.  Use Velvia here.  Digital can't hold a candle to it for color.  Another awesome one was Elite Chrome Extra Color, and then of course there was the even better Kodak Ektachrome 100VS.... too bad they're not available anymore, but since they were E6 process, a smart film company could start making them again......

13.)   If you're going to do a sunset shot that includes the disc of the sun in the picture, you're better off using film.  Digital cameras will usually have highlight clipping that makes the sun look not quite right.

14.)  If the sun is still above the horizon, wear dark sunglasses while composing your picture through the viewfinder.  I'm serious.  Otherwise you could cause eye damage.  Zooming in on the sun is not good for your retinas.  More powerful zoom can actually cause permanent eye damage if you look at the sun.  This is not the case if you're using an LCD screen to compose, obviously. 

15.)  With many digital cameras, you can set them to auto-bracket.  It's a good idea.  With slide film, I suggest using a camera that has matrix metering.  Bracket at 0 and -1/3 EV for slide film, and +1/3 EV if you can spare the picture.  If you have spot metering, pick a part of the sky that's about intermediate brightness.  In other words, not the darkest part of the sky, and not the lightest part of the sky.  The place where you really have to get this right is with 4x5 transparency film, because bracketing is not an option for most of us, especially in a rapidly-changing light situation (such as a sunset).  Well, if you're really on top of your game you could probably get one bracketing shot.

16.)  Don't wait until the sun is going down and you're still cruising around looking for a vantage point above the telephone wires.  Pick some likely destinations, watch the weather ahead of time, and decide where you should be.  This is the hard part, because in this age when a lot of people want to commodify photography down to zero, it can feel difficult to justify all this time and fuel expenditure.  That brings us to my last tip...

17.)  Don't give your work away for nothing.  I know, most new photogs want to "get their work out there".  (That's what gallery shows are for.)  The thing is, you're better off having works for sale and not making much money, than you are giving your work away and not making any money.  The one situation can get better for you, but the other one never will.  That nice sunset photo you made could be exactly the thing that some calendar company wants for their cover.  I've known too many photographers who have gotten suckered into a "photo contest" by some for-profit company, which then used that work to make money.  The photogs got nothing at all in return.   (Pretty grimy, right?)   Other people are free to go get their own cameras, drive to the locations, and photograph their own sunsets.  Let 'em.  Maybe they'll eventually learn what every serious photographer has already known for a long time...'s a lot of work to get good sunset photos.

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