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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.