Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Perfect Sunset Portrait

I apologize for my lack of posting recently. I have been doing a lot of senior portrait work, including a lot of sunset/beach stuff. I spend a lot of time shooting and editing. My session and shooting methods are definitely not set up for high volume! But I do really enjoy these long sessions with seniors, hitting many locations and lighting situations. And in this journey, I continue my quest for the perfect sunset portrait.

If you recall the last post, I was trying to come up with the right formula for shooting in a sunset situation. I have shifted all of my daytime shooting to manual mode with exposure metering and manual color balance, but once I get within 15 minutes of sunset, the world changes too quickly for me to track with manual exposure. When dusk approaches, I must change my approach.

So when sunset is imminent, I switch to Aperture Priority with a -1.5 to -2 Exposure Compensation. That sets the higher saturation and darker exposure for the background sunset. Then I dial in the flash.
In the past I use my 430 EX with Gary Fong Lightsphere (too dark) or bare bulb (too hot). It was a Goldilocks moment. I needed something in the middle - good light dispersion without sharp edges or too much attenuation.

I picked up the Lumiquest Sotbox III last week ($39). It attaches to my camera mounted flash, and provides an 8x9" rectangular surface in front of the flash. In fact, it velcro attaches to my flash using the same velcro I use to attach gels for specialty colors.
This image shows the clear close illumination I get from the Lumiquest for beach work. The flash is really working, as the camera EC is -2 and the flash compensation is between +1 and +3 depending on my distance to the subject. In landscape orientations, I still need to tilt the flash up a bit to keep from overlighting the sand at the girls' feet. But other than that, I can get good even coverage of the subject.

I do have my flash cable so I can move the light off of the camera plane for additional impact. Perhaps I'll try that on my next beach shoot.
So for those of you keeping score, here's my cheat sheet for sunset portraiture:

  • Aperture Priority
  • -1.5 to -2 Exposure Compensation of the background, to get good saturation
  • Shutter speed 1/250 or less (1/250 for movement; slower for posed shots)
  • Lowest ISO to make all this happen
  • Lumiquest softbox on my Canon 430EX flash
  • Typically f/5.6 to f/11
  • Flash Compensation around +1 to +2
  • Tweak the flash position about 10-15 degrees above horizontal to keep the sand from blowing out

If this stuff still confuses you, get and read "The Hot Shoe Diaries" by Joe McNally. It is totally worth the money and time to buy and read. I don't start a shoot without mounting my external flash on my camera. I don't use it on every shot, but now it's an option for me every time I start to frame an image.

Shooting subjects at the beach during sunsets is a very challenging but rewarding situation. If you get it right, you will make the subject and their families very happy!


  1. You have put some great advice on this blog! I have learned so much. Thanks for taking the time to share this with us!

  2. I really like the image at the top of this post. Ironically, I think it probably would have worked just as well as a silhouette.

  3. adamp, I shoot most of these leaps in two phases, one lit from the front (so everyone knows it's them who's leaping), and another one with no fill light, for the dramatic silhouette. I agree that the silhouettes usually look better...but Mom and the senior often like to see an image with their face lit.

    Thanks for commenting.