I wanted to shoot a sunset. I had already decided I was going to visit Stockton, NSW, so it was just a matter of waiting until the end of the day. As my luck would have it, the clouds rolled over and completely obscured the sky. My plans are ruined.
Find Another Subject
Not to be deterred, I took this as an opportunity to challenge myself and find something else to photograph. With only a few hours to go before sunset I headed off to visit the Adolphe Shipwreck (GPS: 32°54'50" S 151°47'50" E).
Finding a great composition was difficult because of the surrounding man-made structures. Not being completely satisfied with anything I decided to use today as an opportunity to test my camera's performance when exposing an image based solely on the highlights (the setting sun), right at the moment the sun hits the horizon.
I had my tripod leveled about 15 minutes before sunset and was ready to shoot a panorama that I would later stitch from several vertical images.
The next step was to prepare an appropriate exposure.
When a composition contains both bright highlights and dark shadows it can be difficult to determine what exposure you should use. As a general rule, there are two commonly used approaches:
- Take multiple exposures that covers the range from bright highlights to deep shadows. These images are then later blended together to produce a final image. It's recommended to shoot in RAW mode to capture as much dynamic range as possible. This approach requires a lot more editing effort but it can be beneficial if you're trying to create a HDR image, or you want to blend different portions of the image using luminosity masks.
- Shoot a single (RAW only) photo that is exposed for the highlights. This approach is well suited to situations where the exposure difference between highlight and shadow is within a few stops. This is because lost highlights are unrecoverable whereas shadow detail can be extracted reasonably well from a RAW image. You could use this technique when there's a broader exposure difference (say 3 or 4 stops) but you're increasing the chance of noise appearing in the shadow areas.
I'm using the second approach today. I've only had my current camera (a Panasonic GH5) for a few months and I want to become more familiar with its capabilities (or limitations). What I learn today about my camera will be beneficial in getting the most out of my photographs on future shoots.
Monitoring The Exposure
To get started, I took a number of 'throw away' photos that included the sun and adjusted my exposure until the highlights were no longer blown out. As the sun descended I monitored the scene by taking more sample images just to make sure the image wasn't becoming unnecessarily under-exposed (since this will increase noise in the shadow areas).
This approach may seem odd at first because the images will look a lot darker than what you're expecting the final result to be. Don't be tempted to increase your exposure as you'll only be throwing away detail in the brighter parts of the image.
So, at the very moment the sun reached the horizon I began taking the individual images that would make up the panorama.
Each of these images were shot at ISO 200, 0.8 sec at f/22. I've only shown 4 images here but I took 7 in total. As I am positioned extremely close to the shipwreck there's an increased risk of heavy distortion. If there's insufficient overlap between subsequent images it can become very difficult, if not impossible, to stitch them together. Better to be safe than sorry.
The Final Edit
This is what the image looked like after the initial stitching and making some minor adjustments to the highlights, shadows and contrast (just to get away from the flat look of a RAW photo) using Lightroom.
At this point we can see the highlights of the sunset are well retained and we're starting to pull out some of that shadow detail. But, because I shot in RAW format I know the image can be enhanced a lot further. At the moment, everything looks flat and lifeless.
After a few more tweaks I was able to get a more dramatic, stormy, appearance in the image. If you compare this result with the previous you'll notice there's a lot more contrast and colour separation in the foreground, the clouds are more differentiated, and the ocean has a lot more texture and detail. This was all hiding in the RAW data.
Be An Artist
While the previous image is where I wanted the final result to be, using RAW images allows you to experiment with different options because it contains so much data. The previous image is intentionally dark(ish) but what if we wanted to bring out even more of that shadow detail. No problem.
The next image is an alternative version that pays less attention to the clouds, brightens the overall image, extracts more shadow detail, and accentuates the blues and greens. Yes, the image is less realistic (over processed) and has a lot more noise, but it also works. It's less moody, more artistic.
The primary purpose of this shoot was to expose a series of images using a single exposure, stitch them together, and see how well (or poorly) I could extract the shadow detail to produce a decent photograph.
I quite like the outcome. What do you think?