There are two ways to think about sunset images: see the sun in the picture or see the effect of the sun in the picture. Both types of photographs are okay with photographer and photo instructor Jim Harmer, but he'll tell you that the latter requires that you spend a little more time on the scene.
"Don't take a shot or two of the sun going down and think you've got it," Jim says. "I used to live in Florida, and I'd see tourists line up on the beach ready to take a sunset photo, and as soon as the sun dipped below the horizon, they'd vanish; the beach would be empty."
It's not that Jim doesn't like having the sun in the photograph, it's that he knows the most vibrant colors usually appear after the sun's gone from view. "The sky will calm down after the sun sets, and then, all of a sudden, it will light back up with the most amazing colors. You'll get photos with a lot more mood because they're almost night photos. That's my favorite time to shoot—about 15 to 20 minutes after the sun's gone."
Jim began photographing sunsets because of the disparity between what he saw in the sky and what he viewed on the screen.
"There'd be a beautiful sunset the night before and everyone on Facebook posted their cell phone pictures of it. I saw the photos and thought, that was an incredible sunset, but these pictures don't even come close. So I sort of set out to look at every website I could and find out what makes a great sunset picture. Little by little I found out what works and what doesn't."
First he found that while the colors in the sky are the obvious attraction for most people, what drew him was a sense of urgency and excitement. "It's that the light changes so quickly. I arrive to shoot a sunset and have maybe 20 minutes to make something happen, and from one minute to the next the photo can be dramatically different because of the way the light reflects off different things and how its intensity changes. You have to react quickly—this is not landscape photography where you sit around all day."
Then he found that to produce really effective, dramatic sunset images, he needed more than just the sunset. He needed shapes, shadows, details, textures. He needed other subjects.
"The sky will calm down after the sun sets, and then, all of a sudden, it will light back up with the most amazing colors. You'll get photos with a lot more mood because they're almost night photos. That's my favorite time to shoot—about 15 to 20 minutes after the sun's gone."
"I'll go out to shoot a sunset, and it'll be a beautiful sunset, and when I come home my wife will say, 'That was a great sunset, you must have gotten some great pictures.' And I'll say, 'I didn't even take out the camera.' And that's because I didn't find the right thing to put in the foreground. It doesn't matter what's happening in the sky—if I don't have something happening on the land or in the water as well, it's just going to be a snapshot."
What he's looking for is...well, almost anything. A pier, a farmhouse, rocks, flowers—"anything I would have taken a picture of anyway. That's the most important thing I do to make pictures: find a really cool rock formation, a barn, even weeds on the prairie that'll be blowing in the wind. I see that and I think, it'll be even better with a sunset behind it."
Then he found the indicator of a promising sunset. "It's all about the clouds. The sun will set the same way every night, but you've got to look for the right clouds. I'll come outside and see the clouds a couple of hours before sunset and I think, okay, cancel whatever's on for tonight, I'm going to shoot the sunset. What I'm looking for are high, spotty clouds with lots of space between them. The pattern of those clouds will dictate how the light's going to come through, and each one of those separate clouds will grab a little bit of light and color. A sheet of clouds? Not good for photography."
The rest is timing and technique.
"You kind of get used to knowing where and when the sun's going to set," Jim says. When he lived in Florida it was easy enough to know the vantage points because the land was flat. Now he lives in Idaho, and that's a different story. "Knowing the where and when of sunset is really tough because there are mountains everywhere," he says. "The sun might actually disappear long before the official sunset time because while it's still technically above the horizon, there are mountains between me and the [setting sun]. So the official time for sunset is more or less a guideline. If you can expect a clear view, look up the sunset time online, but if buildings or mountains are going to come into play, be ready to adjust."