When you are out to photograph a sunset, it’s very popular to make the sun the subject. However, consider using the sun as a design element instead of the main subject. While sunsets can be spectacular, utilizing both the sun and another subject will improve your photography.
In the photograph above, the fisherman is the subject while the sun acts as a design element. Try to always consider good composition when you are shooting. Using the sun as an element is no exception.
Using the Rule of Thirds
Using the Rule of Thirds is pretty easy. Some cameras come with a rule of thirds grid to help you position elements inside your frame. Essentially, divide your frame into three equal parts both vertically and horizontally. Then place your design elements where the lines intersect.
This is a simple way to improve your composition, using the sun as the brightest point in the frame. In the sea turtle image above, the eye is sent directly to the brightest point, (the sun) and the sun flairs and water reflections radiate out to the rest of the frame. The viewer then notices the sea turtle. Once those elements are seen, the viewer now has the freedom to roam their eyes around the frame and notice the palm trees, crashing waves, etc. With good composition, you can take a viewer on a tour around the image, leading them where you want them to go.
Look Behind You
When you are photographing the sun, whether it’s rising or setting, be sure to look away from the direction of the sun. Make it a practice to turn away from the sunset and see what’s being illuminated by the sun. In the above image, the rising sun was lighting up the aspen trees along the lake and making the water a vibrant mix of saturated, warm, hues. The contrast of the gray boulders at the water’s edge creates a pleasing design element that gives the viewer something to latch onto.
Be Sure to Wait
It is also very important to wait when photographing a sunset. Many, many times I see people photographing the sun alongside me and as soon as the sun exits the scene, so do the people. It’s understandable. Often that time of day coincides with dinner and people are ready to get on with the next part of their evening. However, the best sunsets can happen a few minutes after the sun is actually set. At this time of day, the sun falls behind the horizon and then a short time later, the light is reflected off of the clouds for sometimes a spectacular effect.
Here, the sun was dropping behind the clouds and not quite set yet. Not a very good sunset by most standards. However, after waiting five or ten minutes the payoff began. Those of us who stayed that evening could see the sun was starting to reflect off the clouds and sure enough a much better result was had, capturing a colorful sunset.
Waiting for the sun to drop completely, looking around, especially behind you and using the sun as a design element with other subjects in your images (and not just using the sun as the feature element) will greatly improve your images overall.