MR. LONG BEACH: Picturing Sunsets


Here is my sixth Sunday Column.

Put away the menorah, hide the Festivus pole and say goodbye to St. Nick. It’s that time of year again – time to take pictures of sunsets. At least that’s what Mr. Long Beach’s Facebook feed is telling him.

Of the many years Mr. Long Beach has been covering the city, there has been one photographic constant – beautiful winter sunsets. Show up at Rosie’s Dog Beach or Hilltop Park in Signal Hill any afternoon around sundown and the shutterbugs are everywhere.

The sun sets every day, so why are some evenings better than others?

First, let’s get the scientific stuff out of the way. During the day, the sky appears blue because the light has a short path through the atmosphere. The selective scattering of sunlight by air molecules – yes, scatter is a scientific term – and the human eye’s ability to see certain colors give us blue sky.

The late-afternoon light has a longer journey, giving the blue more time to scatter out of the spectrum of visible light. So basically, the red and orange light travel farther than blue.

What makes a good sunset picture?

There are a couple factors that go in to a good sunset picture. Most important are people – or dogs – and clouds.

Clouds create a ceiling and give your picture depth. Because of Long Beach’s position on the West Coast, the city often misses big winter storms, but it gains the high-level clouds from the outskirts of those storms.

People in the picture will give you a personal connection and help set scale. The easiest thing to do is a silhouette. If you’re adventurous with camera gear, try using a flash to light up your subjects.

What about sunrises?

If you’re a morning person, you can get some great sunrise photos, too. Some of the same principles apply.

When Mr. Long Beach consulted his colleague, former Long Beach photographer Bruce Chambers who shoots for the Orange County Register, he says the key to great sunrise photos are thin clouds in the east and being prepared to photograph long before the sun appears.

Chambers added, “You can also improve a sunrise/sunset if you chose an interesting foreground. Shooting in a wide-open area such as hilltop, beach or river allows you to declutter the foreground.”

What else can I shoot at sunset?

Photographers call it magic hour – that time of day when, for a short while, the light is soft and warm and makes everything look pretty. It’s a great time to photograph your family.

Instead of shooting the sunset, turn around, put the giant flaming ball behind you, and watch the golden light bathe your subjects.

Most importantly, make sure you know how to use your camera in manual mode. According to Chambers, under-exposing a sunrise or sunset image tends to produce richer colors.

The light changes rapidly as the sun goes down and the more familiar you are with your camera, the better pictures you’ll make. Smartphones are a little trickier, but not impossible. Download an app that lets you control your camera settings and, most importantly – have fun!

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