The secrets of taking good pictures: Sunsets

Photography expert Tom Langford gives his advice on how to turn an average shot into the perfect photograph.

Lake Kinneret 521 (photo credit: Joe Yudin)
Lake Kinneret 521
(photo credit: Joe Yudin)
Tom Langford is a commercial photographer, professional retoucher, and a website designer.
I can well appreciate how difficult it must seem to progress and create pictures that really capture the imagination. Digital cameras are full of important-sounding menus and modes and it’s easy to believe that if you understand more of them you will be able to take better pictures.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Cameras don’t take pictures; they simply record whatever you point them at. You can only take good pictures if you understand what a good picture is and what it is not. A snapper will take snaps no matter what camera they use, but a photographer will create wonderful, memorable images, even with a cell phone camera.
They can do this because they have a good practical understanding of how background, distance, composition, narrative and position combine to create a compelling image. Anyone can learn this skill but unfortunately it’s not taught alongside reading, writing and arithmetic: Taking a good picture requires experience and practice, but it’s so much fun that you could be forgiven for enjoying yourself!
Let’s apply some of these basic principles and see how they can be used to take a better sunset picture. Sunset shots always turn out dramatic because the brightness of the sun causes the camera to under-expose and darken the sky as in this example submitted by Adrian Whittle from London.
This shot records what was there but doesn’t really spark off my imagination. Looking at the best sunset pictures you can almost feel the sand between your toes, hear the sound of the surf and sense the vastness of the ocean. Before taking one there are a few basics to consider if you want it to be really effective.
First: It can be best to crop the shot to suggest breadth and vastness. The photographer could have used the wide-angle end of the camera’s zoom lens, or take steps backward to get more of the ocean into the picture. Afterward it could be easily cropped using any photo-editing program to give the effect I have indicated below. I have also slightly increased the color saturation.
In this version I can sense the scale of the scene and am beginning to feel the warmth of the setting sun on my face.
Second: I would try to find something in the foreground to act as a primary focal point to catch our attention and give a greater sense of depth to the picture. Perhaps a bather emerging from the waves would do it, or a lifeguard’s hut, etc. Below I have retouched in two further suggestions.
In both of these versions I get a sense of really being there, and of greater depth and peace.
Of course you probably won’t find a primary focal point just when you need it most - this is an occupational hazard. If you were with a friend they could be enlisted to gaze out to see as in the lower example. Or you might spot some feature along the beach and alter your position to take advantage of it.
I hope you find these suggestions helpful and use them to make your next sunset shot not only dramatic but memorable too.
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Tom Langford is a commercial photographer, website designer, and professional retoucher. He teaches photography courses for beginners and advanced. Details of his next courses and field trips at: