Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Sunset in Monochrome

At the 2012 Western Idaho Fair there were nearly 1500 entries. One of the categories was "Monochrome Sunrise/Sunset." There were exactly ZERO entries in that category. So I decided that in preparation for the next time I enter photos in the fair, I would work on how to create the perfect image for that category. It's been more difficult than I anticipated.

Like many people (if not most) when I think of sunsets, the first thing that comes to mind is brilliant colors: vivid orange, fiery red, and warm yellows. That's kind of what defines a sunset. So the question then: How to photograph a sunset without the colors?

What are the essential characteristics of a sunset? And, how do I capture those characteristics in a photograph?
1. I think one obvious characteristic is that the sun is low in the sky. That doesn't seem too difficult.
2. In the best sunset images I've seen, there's almost always water involved. Not always, but sunset over the ocean seems somehow more 'sunsetty' than sunset over a mountain, or a meadow.
3. Sunsets create long, deep shadows. It hides behind buildings and trees, peeking out through all the gaps in the landscape.
4. When the sun is low in the sky the quality of the light changes. It becomes softer, warmer, longer.

Here you see three attempts at creating a monochrome sunset image. In the first, I focused on the silhouette created by the sun dropping behind the trees. In the second, I focused on the reflection created across the lake (no ocean in Idaho). In the third, I focused on the depth of layers attempting to maximize the gradation from black to grey to white. Which is the most successful? I haven't yet decided. Each still needs work, some edits here and there to maximize the image.

The first three characteristics seem pretty straight-forward to incorporate into an image. Having the sun low in the sky is easily done, in color or in monochrome. Reflection is also simply done - just set up with some body of water between me and the sun. Lastly, finding long shadows is just a matter of timing, and assuming I'm working on the first characteristic - sun low in the sky - long shadows will be automatic.

The issue of sunset then comes down to the quality of light. What is it about light at sunset (or sunrise) that is essentially different than the light during the middle of the day? We photographers call those times just after sunrise and just before sunset, "The Golden Hour." The name implies color is part of what makes it a special time. 
But it can't be just the color. The light waves are longer, adding a reddish tint to the sky (more atmosphere to pass through). 
But it can't be just the color, can it? I'm searching for what it must be.

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