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Creating compelling images of landscapes and nature scenes is often not as simple as it might appear. What we take in with our eyes is much more vast and intense than what we are able to capture with a camera.

However, once you understand the limitations of your camera and learn how to work creatively within its parameters, you'll be well on your way toward making compelling images that both "capture the moment" and express your vision.

This lesson examines how to prepare for landscape shots, addresses the fundamentals of composition, illustrates auto and manual exposure methods for shooting sunsets, and demonstrates the importance of timing and patience in capturing fleeting light conditions.



(Click on any image below for an enlarged view.)

Topics Covered:

  • Creating Compositions of Sunsets
  • Shooting in Sunset Scene Mode
  • Comparing Different Exposure Modes
  • Switching to Manual Exposure Mode
  • Monitoring Your Shutter Speed
  • Just When You Think the Show is Over
  • Stitching Images Together for Digital Panoramas

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Camera/Media

    Creating Compositions Of Sunsets
    While it's difficult to predict when beautiful sunsets are going to occur, there are some things you can do to plan for such a shoot. First off, it's good to check the weather forecast. The average person tends to think that cloudless blue skies are ideal for sunsets, but most seasoned photographers will beg to differ. Due to how the sun hits them when it sets, partly cloudy skies tend to yield the most striking results. Be sure to monitor the skies throughout the day of your shoot to see how they're shaping up.

    It's also important to figure out where the sun is going to set in the area you want to shoot, if you don't already know beforehand. If you don't have a sense of where the sun will set and how it will look, it doesn't hurt to plan an evening scouting locations prior to shooting to see what appeals to you. (Make sure to bring your camera along during these scouts just in case you happen upon the ideal conditions.)

    On a recent partly cloudy June afternoon here in Maine, we took our camera gear and headed to a local beach facing west where the sun would set. Once we arrived, we scanned the beach, took out a point-and-shoot digital camera set to "Auto-everything" and snapped a picture of a lobster boat anchored off shore the way most people would take it (figures 1 & 2).

     

    As you can see from the result, the shot is not very interesting. Most people, when taking pictures of people or objects, tend to place them in the center of the frame and do not consider the overall movement or the other elements of the shot. Because both the lobster boat and the horizon line are centered in the middle of the frame, it makes for a relatively static, boring composition.

    Another factor to consider is how tight you want to come in on your subject. Here, we decided to switch to a manual SLR with a zoom lens. We chose the Olympus EVOLT E-500 with a 14-45mm zooms lens (28-90mm equivalent) because of its ability to zoom in on far-away objects, as well as its ability to capture images in both a Sunset Scene mode and a Manual mode.

     

     

    Shooting In Sunset Scene Mode
    The Olympus EVOLT E-500 has a number of “Scene” modes that allow you to capture certain types of situations (Fireworks, Macro, Sunset, etc.) without having to make manual adjustments to your camera settings. One of these settings is the Sunset Scene mode, which works very well in most situations. Note, however, that most of the camera settings, such as aperture and shutter speed, cannot be altered while in the Scene Mode.

     

    To illustrate, we decided to start with this Sunset Scene exposure mode.

    To do so, first turn the camera on and then turn the Mode Dial on the top of the camera to SCENE (figure 3).



    Figure 3

     

    Once selected, the LCD will display a menu of Scene modes accompanied by photos and short descriptions. To select SUNSET from the selection, simply press the Up/Down arrow keys on the back of the camera until you arrive at the Sunset Scene (figures 4 & 5).

     

     

    Once the camera was set to Sunset Scene, we decided to compose the shot a little differently than the previous shot. First, we zoomed in about halfway to see more of the lobster boat. Then, we decided it would be best to shoot at a lower angle so that the top of the boat would appear slightly higher that the horizon line. Lastly, we positioned the frame so that boat and horizon line were off-centered to make for a more interesting composition. When the scene looked good through the frame, we took a shot (figures 6 & 7).

     

     

    In terms of composition, the result is a big improvement over the first shot. However, the lighting conditions are still fairly high in contrast, as the sun is still somewhat high in the sky and the colors in the clouds are still fairly neutral.

     

    Next, we waited about 20 minutes for the sun to get a little lower before taking the next shot. Still considering the composition, we walked down the beach a little so that the sun would be in the left-hand section of the frame and not directly in line with the boat, zoomed a little tighter and took another shot (figure 8).



    Figure 8

     

    As you can see from this result, the scene has become more interesting due to our zooming in, our change in composition and the fact that the clouds and water are becoming more colorful. Also note that the Sunset Scene mode has done a great job in exposing this very high-contrast scene.

    There may be times, however, when you want to adjust the exposure to modify the look and feel of the shot. In such situations, you will need to switch to the Manual Exposure mode in order to make adjustments your aperture and shutter speed.

     

    Comparing Different Exposure Modes
    For this next example, we waited for the the sun to drop a little lower, zoomed back out and took a wide shot of the scene in the Sunset Scene mode (figure 9).



    Figure 9

     

    Again, the exposure here is very good, but let’s say that you wanted to create a more dramatic, moody feel and cut down on the overexposed levels of the sun. In that case, you would need to be able to adjust the shutter speed and aperture settings manually. But before you switch over to the Manual mode in a high-contrast situation like this, it’s a good idea to first review the tonal values of your image in the playback mode. This will give you a sense of how far you will want to make adjustments to your exposure.

    The EVOLT E-500 has an advanced playback function that allows you to see if there are areas in your shot that are either overexposed or underexposed. After pressing the green playback button on the back of the camera, press the INFO button five times until you see the HILIGHT mode, indicated in the bottom right section of the LCD. If any areas are overexposed, you will see these areas flashing in black. Press the Info button again, and you will see the SHADOW mode, which will flash underexposed areas in white (figures 10 & 11).

     

     

    As you can see from these camera shots, there are small areas on and around the sun that are overexposed and areas of the boats and horizon that are underexposed. Okay, now on to the manual settings.


    Switching To Manual Exposure Mode

     

    In order to switch over from the Sunset Scene more to the Manual mode, turn the Mode dial on the top of the camera from SCENE to M, or "Manual" Exposure (figure 12).



    Figure 12

     

    In this case, we knew that the light levels would fall rather quickly as the sun made its way toward the horizon. So to prevent any motion blur toward the end of the shoot, we decided to keep the aperture set to its widest setting in order to allow the maximum amount of light in. This would ensure that we would have the fastest possible shutter speed for these lighting conditions.

    To adjust the aperture setting in the EVOLT E-500 to its widest setting, first press and hold down the +/- button on the top of the camera and then rotate the Control dial until you reached the lowest aperture number, in this case f/3.5 (figures 13 & 14).

     

    With your aperture set to its widest opening, you can now choose your exposure levels simply by adjusting your shutter speed setting. And your shutter speed setting is actually easier and faster to adjust than your aperture setting, as you only have the Control dial to contend with.

    To make adjustments to your shutter speed, simply rotate the Control dial until you reach a shutter speed you want to try (figure 15).



    Figure 15

    In this case, we decided to set the shutter speed a little faster than what the built-in light meter indicated would be appropriate for a good exposure so as to render a slightly darker, moodier look. The settings ended up being f3.5 at 1/3200th of a second. For comparison purposes, we composed the shot similar to the previous frame and took another exposure (figure 16).



    Figure 16

     

    As you can see from the result, this minor adjustment in the exposure level significantly affects the richness of the mood, particularly in the sky (figures 17 & 18).

     

     

    Interestingly though, when we reviewed the highlights and shadows in the playback mode, we saw that the underexposed and overexposed areas of this last shot had not really changed that much from the previous shot. Keep in mind, however, that it's a good habit to check your highlights and shadows when you can, particularly in high-contrast situations such as this (figures 19-22).

     

    Monitoring Your Shutter Speed
    As the sun approaches the horizon, you really need to be aware of your camera exposure levels -- more specifically, your shutter speed settings -- as the ambient light levels will drop very quickly. As you can see from the following images, we went from 1/2000th of a second to 1/400th of a second in the span of just nine minutes (figures 23-27).



    Figure 23

    Just When You Think The Show Is Over...
    One of the biggest mistakes you can make when photographing sunsets is stopping too early. In most cases, the sky will be most dramatic and saturated with color after it has dipped below the horizon. In this type of shooting, patience is truly a virtue.

    For example, take a look at the following series of shots taken over the course of just half an hour. During the second to last shot (figure 30), the light was absolutely beautiful, but it wasn't until about six minutes later that the color just came flooding in, and we were just glad we'd waited those extra minutes to capture it (figures 28-31).

    Stitching Images Together For Digital Panoramas
    As mentioned at the beginning of this lesson, there are often times when the camera is limited to what it can capture. For example, the scene on the beach at this moment was beautiful in every direction, not just in the area of the frame we were using. So, we decided to take a series of shots laterally so that later we could digitally stitch them together to create a nice wide panoramic shot of the sunset.

    We used the methods illustrated in the Creating Panoramic Images Digitally lesson on Web Photo School to create this final result (figure 32).



    Figure 32

     

    Be sure to check out the full version of this lesson, as well as the following lessons on Web Photo School for more tips and techniques on creating digital panoramas:

    Creating Panoramic Images Digitally
    Improving Your Scenic Shots

     


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