Do you suffer from the sunset fail?

Disappointed... The sunset photography auto white-balance fail!

• Disappointed…
• Auto white-balance fail! •
sunset photography can present colour and detail problems.
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• Disappointed – Auto-white-balance fail! • By Netkonnexion on Flickr External link - opens new tab/page

Flat sunset and poor colour – a beginners special.

My first digital sunset failed and it affected my confidence. It was flat, desaturated and the detail was lost. In this quick tip we look at how to fix it in one easy step…

The Sunset sunset photography fail!

In the picture above the flat, desaturated appearance caught me out. I sat there, after a 60 mile drive, for over an hour, and this flat failure was all I produced from hundreds of shots. For months I had this hanging over me. I had never had this problem with film. What was going wrong?

The problem was the auto white balance (AWB). In digital sunset photography the AWB tries to create a picture where the colours and the spread of light variations are balanced around a neutral grey. This reduces the shift in colour temperatures away from neutral. It has a very high impact on oranges and golden colours typical of sunsets (and sun rises). The upshot is you get a flat, cartoon-like, washed out colour range. This also reduces the detail in the sky.

The solution to the sunset photography fail?

Switch your colour balance to non-AWB settings. ‘Daylight’ AWB setting works well, giving realistic results.

However, if you select the ‘Cloudy’ setting this can have a spectacular pay-off. The ‘cloudy’ setting is used to off-set the coolness that clouds often give light. It warms the scene. So, if your sunset is already warmed by reds, oranges and golds the setting intensifies them.

You can intensify the colours in your sunset photography by using the White Balance ‘Shade’ setting. This adds an even greater warmth than the ‘cloudy’ setting. Be careful though, it can look unrealistically saturated. Run some test shots to be sure you have the right setting.

That’s it! Get your confidence back and increase the impact of your sunset photography in one easy setting.

By Damon Guy (author and Photokonnexion editor)

Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photographers.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.

8 responses to “Do you suffer from the sunset fail?

  1. Thanks Damon in your reply to cathy. I , too, have been advised by some ‘experts’ to leave it on cloudy! your comments make sense.

    • Damon (Editor)

      I think of it like this…
      Because you can do something in PhotoShop doesn’t mean you should do it in Photoshop. It would always seem prudent to do as much as you can in camera. Learning accurate camera control is always better than cleaning up afterwards.

      Thanks for your comment.

  2. Cathy Donohoue

    Keeping track is a great idea for me – maybe then I would more readily know what works.

  3. another thought if you are shooting RAW you can adjust the white balance in post and find which works the best for any particular image. The rapidly changing lighting conditions of sunset and sunrise are difficult to work with and so fleeting… shoot raw and that gives you the flexibility to work on your composition and find the best colors in post…

    • Damon (Editor)

      Of course you are right. And, I would always advocate RAW over *.jpg. The latter is a really impaired format. RAW gives you so much more ability to control the processing and prevent degradation of the image.

      However, there is no substitute for getting the picture as accurate as possible to the scene before you start post-processing. This gives you a starting point for your post processing.

      It is very common, particularly with starters at post processing, to over-process. if your RAW is a long way from the original it takes quite a well developed eye and quite a lot of colour experience to get the scene to look realistic. So, I always advocate getting the settings as correct as possible from the start – irrespective of any RAW processing you may do. This gives you a better and more realistic start for your processing (and less work to do).

      You are correct about the fleeting changes of light at sunset too. And here I have the same opinion. It is worth adjusting your settings all the time. Every shot is different.and getting it right in the post is one of the key issues. However, again, the more accurate your starting point the better able you are to be realistic in your final post processed shot.

      An interesting and well made point. Thanks Dennis.

  4. Cathy Donohoue

    A guy that a took a one evening class from last year said that for folks like me, forgetful, should put WB on cloudy and go with it unless something really jumps out at you.

    • Damon (Editor)

      Hi Cathy, thanks for commenting. Yes, I frequently use ‘cloudy’ as a way of giving a little warmth to the shot. However there is no substitute most of the time for getting the settings accurate. The scene is more realistic that way. Why not write a little list on a card of what settings to adjust for each scene. That will prompt you to do the things you need to remember each time.