Photographing through the sunset into the night

A blog about photography

Grand Teton National Park, USA
ISO50 F16 1/25th at 24mm

Photographing the sunset (or sunrise for that matter) is one of the most difficult times, but in the same time, the most beautiful times to photograph!

It's the most beautiful time to photograph because the landscape and sky changes all the time with all kind of different colors like red, purple, yellow and even pink if you're lucky enough! But it's one the most difficult situations to photograph, because all the elements have to be in place, at the right time. To many clouds? No colors and no sun! No clouds at all? You'll have some colors in the distance, but it won't be that epic sunset you were hoping for. Only low clouds? To bad, you won't have that epic sunset you were waiting for. 

When photographing the sunset (or sunrise) ideally, you want to have some interesting high clouds with a lot of detail in it or some crazy shapes and you wan't a break in the clouds just above the horizon. That way the clouds will get all those awesome colors and those will change during the sunset. In the image above I have some high clouds, with some movement in them, but those clouds aren't that super interesting, but because the sun is right on the mountain line, you get that starburst. You see that  the sky is stil nice and blue and the only color you have is yellow. Pretty nice, but we can do better right!? 

The Watchman, Zion National Park, USA
ISO50 F11 0.4" at 24mm

When you wait a little longer, while shooting a ton of photos, the sun sets some more, the color will come. This will happen because the sun gets les strong and gets more orange and red. When you have that break above the horizon, those high clouds, you will get those orange looking clouds! Awesome right? At the image to the right, the sun is a lot lower, than on the image above and you can see the difference between the colors in sky. When photographing the sunset, remember that you can bring back the shadows a lot better, than the highlights when you decide not to use multiple images (like me). 

Grand Teton National Park, USA
ISO50 F11 30" at 24mm

But when you wait even longer (but don't stop shooting while waiting!), the sun sets behind the horizon (or mountains in this image), and having those high clouds, the magic happens. During those few minutes the sky goes crazy and you can get truly iconic and unique images! When you add a extreme long exposure of a minute, the photos you'll get are something different and you'll be the only one in your group who gets an image like that that night!  Like the image on the left, the sky gets multiple colors. On the left, the sky gets yellow, orange, red-ish, but on the right side of the image the sky gets dark blue, grey and a bit purple. Honestly, this happens not every night, not even once a week, but when you're there, and you're lucky enough the witness something like this, don't stop photographing until all the light is gone. 

When photographing through the sunset of sunrise, one of the things that will make live easier, is use a tripod! When you're on a tripod, it's easier when you're at home and when the sun sets and the lights fade, you don't have to stop shooting images. 

Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park, USA
ISO1600 F2.8 8" at 20mm

When the sunset is done, there's no light left to work with, you can wait for clear skies and photograph the night. Photographing the night and the stars with it, it's a completely different ball game. 

When the time goes by, the light fade and the stars shows up. But to photograph them, you need to how. 

First, you need a tripod, but you should have that already set up from you sunset shoot. Because you're on a tripod, you can find the perfect composition for your starshots. Try to find something awesome in the foreground that is complementary to the stars. Don't just turn your camera to the sky, and take a shot. 

Second, drop your aperture. When photographing the sunset, you're at F11 to F16, but when you're photographing the stars, you need to be wide open. The wider the beter and don't be afraid of blurry images. The shot at old faithful is shot at F2.8. Because you're on a very wide lens, your Depth Of Field (DOF) is really large. 

Lastly, increase your ISO. During shooting the stars, your ISO needs to be between 1600 - 3200 (depends on your location) because you need all the light you can gather.  

And when you're lucky enough to have completely clear skies, no light pollution and the right time of year, you can see and photograph the Milky Way. For the Milky Way you even need ISO 6400 ideally, but know your camera. If ISO6400 isn't that great don't use it. Use ISO3200 and work at it in post-processing. 

The Rocky Mountains National Park, USA
ISO3200 F2.8 20" at 20mm 

While shooting the Milky Way and the stars, remember that the earth rotates pretty quickly. To compensate for that and get those nice star points and a sharp Milky Way, you can't have a shutter speed longer than 25"-ish (sometimes 30" will work). If you go for a 60" or even longer shutter speed, you'll get star trails, but when shooting the Milky Way, that is something we don't want. 

But how do you know what shutter speed works for your camera? There is a simple formula for and it goes like this: Shutter speed = 500 / (focal lengt * crop factor)
When you are using a full frame camera with a 20mm lens like me, your shutter speed is 500/(20*1) = 25". Ideally, you'll stay at a max 20" for this, because 25" is cutting it close and you will get some moving stars at the edge of your frame. But when you're using a APS-C camera (like a Canon 80D or Nikon D7200 ) you have to use the crop factor in this formula. When using the same 20mm lens, your shutter speed is going to be this (for Nikon) 500/(20*1.5) = 16,67" and for Canon 500,(20*1.6) = 15,63". So, you'll end up with using 15" as your shutter speed. That's almost a 10" difference! You can see why it's important to ad your crop factor in this formula. 

The last tip I'll give you is, try to plan your Milky Way shoot around the moon fase. If you have a full moon, you'll not see many stars, because the moon is to bright. You can see the difference in the 3 images below (click on the images below, to see them full screen).

Full moon

Half moon

No moon

The last thing I have to say is, good luck, have fun and show me some of your awesome images you were able to capture! Let me know if you used some of the tips I have given you through this post!