Are Sunsets Overdone?

Sunset, Deception Pass, WA

I have a thing about sunsets.  As my friends will testify, I have been known to rant about how we're being inundated with endless pictures of sunsets, and landscapes bathed in dramatic, richly-colored light (and don't get me started about digital exaggeration). So what's my problem?  Simple: I believe that this obsession with sunsets can make us lazy photographers. It is too easy to take shortcuts on composition, or subject matter, simply because we are too dazzled by the light.

Don't get me wrong;  I love great light. I worked for several years for Galen Rowell, a breakthrough photographer who was among the first to realize that the quality of light was a key element in the success, or failure, of an image. He often spoke of finding the light he liked - and then running around trying to find a subject worthy of it. His best pictures, and everyone else's for that matter,  are those that marry great light with a graceful or surprising landscape.

Galen was immensely talented, and to my mind, changed color landscape photography forever. But even he was not immune to what I call "Sunset disease."  He often encountered beautiful light, particularly in his beloved Owens Valley, but failed to balance it with a strong, earthbound subject, resulting in a poorly organized, uninteresting foreground.  Maybe it was because he couldn't find a composition in time, or maybe he was simply so determined to capture the light that he was less fussy about what he put in front of it . The end result was invariably pretty, but those pictures rarely became his best-selling icons. His truly memorable images had great light - but also a strong visual structure.

I have served many times as a judge for photo competitions - for NANPA, and BBC  among others - and all too often see the results of this affliction: a picture of a gorgeous sunset with no other definable subject. You'd be amazed how many pictures are submitted like this, with a sinking sun and crimson sky, and nothing else. It is as if the rules of composition and design are rendered obsolete, overwhelmed by the sheer awesome-ness of the sky.

I guess my point is this: we should never allow ourselves to be blinded by color.  A great sunset  with a boring composition may be pretty, but it makes a boring photograph. (In a way, sunsets are like empty calories - satisfying, but no substitute for real food..)

As for the picture above, which I took this most recent Friday evening, I will admit that I was dazzled by the color and clarity of the sunset - a rarity here in the Pacific Northwest.  I saw it coming, and, like Galen, ran around like a madman trying to find a composition to do it justice. The result is far from perfect, even a little trite, but it got me thinking about sunsets again. And about Galen: I would have loved to have seen what he came up with that evening.

Deception Pass State Park, WA

Nikon D800 with Nikkor 70-200mm  f2.8 lens

p.s. Meanwhile, I simply have to give a shout-out to my colleague, and fellow-blogger, Ian Plant. His work is uniformly superb, but also helps make my point. Yes, a lot of his pictures take advantage of the subtle (and not-so-subtle) colors of dusk, but he never compromises on design. Yes, his images are pretty - but they're rich and satisfying as well. There is always something else going on.


    I must respectfully disagree with Kevin. Albeit a poorly composed and standard sunset can be trite, it is possible to achieve wonderful effects at the sunrise and sunset bewitching hours. To the imaginative photographer there are endless possibilities, including angles of view, foregrounds, use of silhouettes, and use of perspective. As a photographer much influenced by the Hudson River School of painting in mid 19th century America, I never cease to be amazed by this wonderful gift that nature bestows on us twice a day. My 19th century friends saw sunrise and sunset as the deity shining on earth. With this dictum in mind they achieved marvelous effects in their art (e.g., Frederick Church). Twenty-first century landscape photographers have much to learn from these great painters.

    I completely agree that sunsets are both beautiful and inspiring. My point is simply that it is possible to be so enchanted by the light that photographers sometimes forget about things like composition and design.

    I absolutely agree with Kevin, there are so many people wit cameras going for usual stuff like sunsets in the hope that when they capture this beautiful natural phenomena they instantly will create state of art photographs. Without strong composition line we can’t even speak about artistic photography, composition and the light are going hand by hand together and although sometimes we can compromise on light, as it isn’t in our power to control natural light, composition is the factor that shows how good we are as photographers to put the story together in such a limited place as the rectangular shape of the frame.

    Kevin, I agree that sometimes we can get so caught up in one element of the scene that we forget about the rest. Sunsets are a prime example but this goes for all scenes. I think its always important to remember your subject and your purpose, even if your subject is the light itself.

    I agree with Kevin, and might even go further – even if the composition and design is great, often sunrise and sunset photos just all end up looking the same! In fact, I find that almost all landscape photography these days is taken during the golden hours, and this can often just makes photos look formulaic, even in spite of wonderful scenery & composition etc. Sometimes dramatic daylight can be much more effective, yet this is frowned upon! Yup, I think that sunsets are overdone.

    Sophie, I think you are precisely right – it has gotten to the point that everything is shot at sunset, ignoring the rest of the day, and the rest of the color spectrum. My chief concern is that this obsession with intense color can overwhelm the composition: just making it red doesn’t make it a great picture. Appreciate your weighing in!

    Interesting point, Luca. All of these can make for wonderful pictures. With the aurora, which I’ve shot a lot, it is equally important to look at what else is going on the frame. Too many people are blown away by the lights and fail to use trees or bold foreground shapes to create an effective photograph.

    I have realized that I have been at fault at the “captured-by-the light-and-oops-lost -the strength-in-composition-syndrome”. I wondered about some recent criticism about a few of my sunsets images. Now, after reading this blog and discussion, I have been ” struck by the light” and I could have done much more with composition. I thank you kindly for giving me pause to be critical of my own work and, hence, improve. With my “sunset struggles” I have to share my success with “Moonrise, Colorado”

    Hi Kevin, thanks for the very kind words. Great image and great point you are making here. Too often, I find myself only going out to shoot at sunrise and sunset. However, great compositions, magical moments — and even great light — can happen ANY time of the day. Your post is a great reminder to us all.

    Personally I think every photography should practice with their own versions on sunset images, especially if they are exploring at the beginning or if its just a new subject matter.

    However we can get easily too repetitive in our work and this is true. But in my opinion dawn and dusk like are the only times you should be bothers with taking landscape images in the first place.

    Personally I am getting into those images that show both sunrise or sunset with astronomy layered together, I am really loving them.. like this one for example..

    Thank you, Kevin. My good fortune with NG has a bit over-whelmed me, pleasantly so! Thank you for your encouragement and acknowledgement! Artistically it is good to be recognized, but that recognition, hopefully, will not slow me down in my quest to find and take “My Next favorite Image”. Imogen Cunningham, when asked what her favorite image was, replied (paraphrasing) that it would be the image will she take tomorrow. I surely feel that way. Thank you for TONS of inspiration with your photographic work and your kindness in your reply here, as well as your sharing in the blog that will help me to improve my craft and passion for photographing. Looking forward to seeing more of your photography, and, of course, reading your blog!

    Hi Kevin! Love your work! You mentioned Galen Rowell and I was trying to remember the word he used to discribe the color layers on a really clear sunrise or sunset!?! It’s driving me crazy!

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