Cornish Sunsets

We had pretty varied weather for our week in Cornwall last month. We saw sunny days and rainy days (often on the same day, just to make dressing appropriately all the more difficult). We even had a thick fog descend on us whilst we were driving over Bodmin Moor, reducing visibility to barely ten metres making for a really interesting but thoroughly enjoyable drive.

On a couple of evenings, however, the conditions were just right to see some pretty impressive sunsets.

The first occurred on our second evening, as we relaxed on the farm at which we were staying. I kept an eye on the deepening sky and as soon as it became apparent that the prospect of a decent sunset was in the offing I grabbed my camera and pottered down as far through the farm as I could to capture the moment.

1/10sec, f/13, ISO 100, 20mm
1/10sec, f/13, ISO 100, 20mm

I quickly decided that I wanted to get something more impressive. The only way I know to do that is to use HDR photography.

HDR (high dynamic range) photography is the process of joining together several shots taken at different exposures into a single frame that contains more information. Usually you expose for the sky and, like above, the foreground is too dark. Expose for the foreground and the brightness of the sky gets blown out. HDR solves this by taking a normally exposed shot, an underexposed shot and an overexposed shot, and combining the information from all of them into a single image that contains a wider range of light that a camera can normally capture.

Whenever I use HDR, I’m usually thinking of the work of Dan Jurak, who is quite a master at early morning or late evening natural-looking HDR shots. One tip of his that has stuck with me is to find something in the foreground to anchor the image. So I decided to use HDR to bring out the farmyard that lay between me and the sunset.

f/14, ISO 100, 26mm (HDR)
f/14, ISO 100, 26mm (HDR)

I liked the small puddle, one of the few remaining signs that we’d had rain that day.

As I’ve noted in the past, there are two main kinds of HDR photography you usually see. The first uses the technique to create a realistic image that is closer to what the human eye actually sees (something beyond the capability of today’s cameras). The other creates a surreal image that is clearly not natural but which can be an interesting result (which many people hate).

I was definitely aiming for the former with these images. I next tried closing up the shot a little to remove the barn to the right of the frame.

f/14, ISO 100, 33mm (HDR)
f/14, ISO 100, 33mm (HDR)

I’m not certain the framing an improvement, but the sun definitely looks better. On the flip side, a closer examination of image reveals that the HDR software I use struggled a bit with the puddles.

I then swung the zoom out in the other direction to capture more of the foreground environment.

f/14, ISO 100, 18mm (HDR)
f/14, ISO 100, 18mm (HDR)

By this point the sun was already disappearing behind a line of cloud on the horizon. Just before the tip disappeared I grabbed a standard, single exposure shot of it dipping behind the sky.

IMG_2705 (1)

It’s difficult to make out the hay bales in the foreground. The image had a tricky balance; I didn’t want the bales to be well-lit as in the images above, I want the bales to be only visible by the crescent of light on their tops. To that end, I’ve brightened up those little strips of light, but it was easy to overdo it so I haven’t pushed it too far.

And with that, the sun was gone.

A few days later, on another day that had started out with a fair amount of drizzle, we found ourselves in Trebarwith Strand at a rather nice pub enjoying a post-dinner drink. The view was already pretty good from where we were sitting, and I grabbed a shot of the few buildings there were as the light faded.

1/40sec, f/4, ISO 400, exposure bias -2.0, 26mm
1/40sec, f/4, ISO 400, exposure bias -2.0, 26mm

Just as we were leaving, the sky was turning a brilliant orange again. Feeling confident after successfully shooting the sunset a few days prior, I immediately started shooting. The first few shots were just standard single exposures.

1/125sec, f/3.5, ISO 400, exposure bias -2.0, 18mm
1/125sec, f/3.5, ISO 400, exposure bias -2.0, 18mm
1/250sec, f/3.5, ISO 400, 18mm
1/250sec, f/3.5, ISO 400, 18mm

The latter image, although having a shorter shutter, is brighter simply because I’ve played about with it a little more in post.

It wasn’t long, however, before I started shooting HDR in order to capture the light hitting the beach.

f/3.5, ISO 400, 18mm (HDR)
f/3.5, ISO 400, 18mm (HDR)

I also tried one of the more stylised HDR processes, to see how it turned out.

f/3.5, ISO 400, 18mm (HDR)
f/3.5, ISO 400, 18mm (HDR)

Whilst processing some of the triple exposures for HDR images, I began to be a bit dissatisfied with the results. I felt that the HDR images were losing too much of the sharpness and deepness of colour of the sky in the processing (the sharpness is, I guess, because I’m shooting handheld and the auto-aligning algorithm in the HDR software I use can only do so much). So I also attempted to adjust the standard, single exposures by upping the brightness of the shadows to get a sharper result that was not as eye-catching as the HDR images, but is perhaps a better shot overall.

1/80sec, f/3.5, ISO 400, 18mm
1/80sec, f/3.5, ISO 400, 18mm

In another shot, I was even able to bring out the detail of the beach.

1/30sec, f/3.5, ISO 400, 18mm
1/30sec, f/3.5, ISO 400, 18mm

As a point of comparison, below are two versions of the same shot. The first is adapted from a single exposure, the second is a ‘full’ HDR process which clearly brings out the foreground but I think damages the all-important skyline. What do you think?

1/100sec, f/3.5, ISO 400, 18mm
1/100sec, f/3.5, ISO 400, 18mm
f/3.5, ISO 400, 18mm (HDR)
f/3.5, ISO 400, 18mm (HDR)

Remembering Dan Jurak’s advice, I moved round and found a nice fencepost to stick in the foreground. By this point, unfortunately, the light was fading enough that the foreground images had a distinctive blue tint, which I guess I can probably fix if I go back to the original source images.

f/4, ISO 400, 22mm (HDR)
f/4, ISO 400, 22mm (HDR)

That said, having the post in silhouette with a single exposure shot seemed to work quite well.

1/80sec, f/3.5, ISO 400, 21mm
1/80sec, f/3.5, ISO 400, 21mm

We soon jumped in a car to try to get a better vantage point for the setting sun. We ended up atop a hill, but there was still a fair amount of land in the way. This did give a decent thing to frame in the foreground, however.

f/3.5, ISO 800, 18mm (HDR)
f/3.5, ISO 800, 18mm (HDR)

I tried two attempts at capturing this shot. The second is not as well framed, but does appear to be sharper: the droplets on the gate are clearer (and have caught the light better) and the dots of life in the town behind are clearer.

f/3.5, ISO 800, 18mm (HDR)
f/3.5, ISO 800, 18mm (HDR)

I made one last attempt at capturing the sunset before it disappeared.

f/5, ISO 800, 48mm (HDR)
f/5, ISO 800, 48mm (HDR)

I don’t often get a chance to shoot sunsets, especially not when I’m in a place where there’s such a small amount of land between me and the horizon that the sun is heading for. I really need to get more practise at them, because there are far better examples of this sort of thing out there.

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Related Posts:

Country Sunset
Quick Sunset
Along the Thames

2 Comments

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  1. Wonderful post! Showing all the different photos and talking through the process is very interesting to read. I’ve heard about this technique in the past and a friend also did a lot of photos with HDR. So what kind of software do you need to actually achieve this kind of effect?
    Glad you got some beautiful weather in Cornwall. Seems the heatwave was not as consistent in the south west as in the south east! Hope the puddles did not get in the way of your enjoying a good break 🙂

    Like

    • Thanks!

      I use a plugin for Aperture called HDR Efex Pro 2 to create my HDR images. There is also a plugin called Photomatix that works really well also, and it has a standalone version if you don’t use Photoshop, Lightroom or Aperture (although I’m pretty sure Photoshop has it built in if you use that).

      I really loved our break in Cornwall. It was actually before this heatwave hit, and in many ways I’m quite glad for it, it may have been a bit much to be 30°C all the time…

      Like

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