Not quite the illustration

At one point last summer the Incorruptible Mr Bugg and I did a photo session in pursuit of sunset shots, which is the kind of thing that always makes me a little uncomfortable. Let me explain. As a photo instructor and an “experienced” nature and wildlife photographer, I am expected (or at least, I believe I am expected) to demonstrate how to accomplish certain styles of images. When it comes to, for instance, good shots of a great blue heron, there’s a bit of leeway, because everyone understands both the variability of finding one, but also the bird’s own attitude towards close approaches, and the “hit or miss” aspect is known – if we see nothing at all, well, that’s how it goes, and this is recognized by everyone. But then a student tells me they want to learn how to shoot good sunsets, and that pretty much takes having a good sunset – and this isn’t something that you can plan. Even a perfectly accurate weather report (I can’t even type that without twitching) isn’t any kind of guide, because good sunsets rely on skies that are not perfectly clear – you want a little high scattered cloud cover to catch the different colors, and a certain level of humidity to induce those color changes in the first place. Not long after a storm is often a good time. But predicting these, to the point where I can say, “Thursday looks good – let’s aim for that evening”? No way. It’s much more likely that nothing is going to come of it.

By the way, it’s the same discomfort that has made me shy away from the prospect of arranging group photo tours of, for instance, the Outer Banks – I don’t want to be held responsible for, or judged on, what turns out to be a shitty outing that people have dropped a chunk of change on. But guaranteeing a productive outing pretty much means a ‘safari tour’ type of experience, using someplace where the animals are captive and more-or-less always photogenic, and I don’t consider that very appealing or authentic. So would the majority of people who sign up for a guided tour be okay with the possibility of a weak outing? You’re welcome to offer your feedback on this idea.

Anyway, on this particular session, we had a mixed bag. There were some colors, even though the sun had technically ‘set’ without making a direct appearance. Witness:

moody sunset sky over Jordan lake
That’s… okay, but nothing to write home about (a blog post is just ducky though.) Even getting this involved a certain amount of luck as the sun ducked out from underneath a scattered overcast, someplace way off in the invisible distance, to shine onto the undersides of the cloud cover we had locally. But it was this little patch on the horizon, and this image was only achieved with a slight telephoto focal length (72mm,) rather than a wider one that would have shown more of the landscape. And I was conscious of all of this while I was there, because I purposefully shot some wider angle frames to illustrate what the overall sky looked like:

wider angle view of sunset sky and cloud cover
Now, this kinda works to illustrate how little of the sky was sunsetty, but it doesn’t covey the specific illustrative value that I was after, because the cloud layer directly above us, unable to capture the sunlight when it emerged from under the overcast someplace beyond our horizon, nonetheless set up a contrasting blue color that kept the photo from being as bland as the sky appeared while we were there. With this framing, the clouds have a very low appearance, with even a hint of direction from their shapes pointing down and to the right in the direction of the missing sun. To me, there’s now a faintly oppressive and ominous mood that comes from it, a Mordoresque pall chasing the sun and/or the filthy hobbitses. More expressive than I’d intended it to be, anyway.

Another student outing was specifically aimed towards sunsets, and at almost the same location, we got good enough conditions to experiment with and to demonstrate techniques, while still not producing anything worthy of hanging on a wall.

okay sunset colors over Jordan Lake
At this point, of course, I’m simply trying to drive the image count higher for April, my own personal measuring stick of bloggish value. The colors aren’t bad, but they’re a combination of very selective framing, underexposure to enhance their depth, and boosted saturation and contrast in-camera because that’s how you shoot for such conditions. Nobody standing out there would have been saying, “Wow, what a gorgeous sunset!”

And one more.

clouds and lake ripples at sunset
For this one, I selected an angle that caught the lines of the clouds and the ripples on the water in a more-or-less complementary way, though looking at it now I tend to feel that the lines going in opposite directions would have given a ‘mirror’ feel to the photo, though of course this wasn’t an option at the time. Aiming solely at the water would produce some nice abstract shapes, but I’m obligated to point out that what you see here is a fraction of a second captured in time, and while standing on the lakeshore, the shapes and colors of the water were constantly changing and not giving this impression at all; sometimes you have to recognize what the conditions will produce when the camera freezes the motion. In the same way, shooting something within the water will prove to be markedly distorted the vast majority of the time, because our minds piece together the averaged visual aspect through the ever-changing ripples into something that we recognize, but the camera will once again only get a tiny portion of that.

So, yeah, I’m always happy to provide guidance on how to capture sunset colors and conditions, but I’d far rather do it with pre-existing examples rather than on demand during an outing.

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