Composing a Sunset Photograph at the Beach: Tips and Tricks

Pacific Sunset with Random Guy

Originally uploaded by gregmeyer

What’s the recipe for a successful sunset photograph at the beach? Clearly one prerequisite is a clear sunset — not often found at the Oregon Coast — and another is a camera. But there the easy point and shoot ends. While I’ve sometimes gotten good results from the “automatic” point and shoot setting, this time I got much better results by focusing on aperture, composition, and repetition.

Setting the right aperture is key for allowing enough light to expose your photograph but not too much to wash out the color. You can find lots of opinions on the internet, but the one I liked suggested setting the F stop to F11 and maintaining a shutter speed that won’t cause hand-held blurring (let’s say faster than than 1/250). Using aperture priority mode (on my d5000, that’s the A mode) allows you to force the camera into automatic mode for the other parts of the exposure and still provides rich depth and color.

I also considered composition when I was thinking about a good sunset picture. Unless you use an ultra-wide angle lens or have a landscape feature (rocks, lighthouse, etc) to provide contrast and scale, it’s difficult to tell how far away the surf is crashing. It’s also incredibly boring just to look at waves and sun (we’ve all seen this picture, and probably taken lots of versions of it before). In this photo, a lone beach walker provided an excellent scale for the sun and waves. Using the small aperture also helped the subject to appear in shadow, increasing the drama of the composition.

The final suggestion I have for taking a good sunset photograph at the beach is repetition. Over the span of 30 minutes, I probably composed and shot 70 images — settling on 12 or 13 that I liked later — and didn’t worry whether or not I was getting the perfect shot. Fail early and often, and you have a better chance of succeeding (either by accident or by design).

I’m happy with the result, though I’ll be back out at the beach the next time I’m at the coast. Next time I think I’ll take a tripod, and work on the other parts of the exposure that I didn’t consider. I’ve also had many friends suggest shooting in RAW format to take advantage of the bracketing that can be harnessed after the fact. The purist in me hates the idea of manipulating the image later; the technologist in me thinks, “I ought to try that … next time.” First, I have to find the next sunset.

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