Picture Doctor: 3 Ways to Get Good Sunset Exposures

Break the rules, rescue your batteries, and other ways to cure your photo ailments.


Fundamentals: Judicious rulebreaking, monochrome drama.

Breaking a rule: The horizon shouldn't be centered, right? (So say the composition snobs who do The Fix.) The reason: It usually balances the frame and removes visual tension -- your eye settles in one place. But here the frame is unbalanced by the greater visual weight at the bottom. Besides having more stuff (the canoe, the dock), the lower half is darker. And the dark band in the distance works with the canoe in the foreground to deepen the sense of space. Your eye wanders around the frame -- you feel as if you could step in.

Monochrome: Proof that you don't need color for drama. In fact, this is a b&w conversion from a color file, and we think it's better. Check out the original at www.flickr. com/photos/mr_fabulous. nLighting: Timing is everything in a shot like this, where the best light comes in the few minutes after the sun drops below the horizon. nRule of Thirds: Turn the picture sideways -- the clouds and their reflections, along with the canoe, form an "X" that lands on the grid intersection points. So, it doesn't break so many rules, after all!


Who doesn't love to take pictures of sunrises and sunsets? The tricky part is getting the right exposure: The extremes of the dark ground, the bright sun, and the variations in clouds can confound your camera's automatic metering system. A camera with exposure lock or manual aperture/ shutter control is invaluable. Here's how to use them:

1. Expose for the sky. To record vibrant colors in the clouds and sky, meter only on the sky: Exclude the ground by pointing the camera up, lock in the exposure (or set it manually), then compose your image, and shoot. The clouds will wind up with rich medium tones in the picture, a good choice. Sometimes a sky 1 stop brighter than medium tone is a better choice, achieved by adjusting the exposure manually or by setting the exposure compensation dial to +1.

2. Shut out the sun! If the sun is in the picture, set the exposure just as above, but absolutely keep the sun out of the frame when metering. If you meter with the sun in the frame, that supremely bright bad boy is going to fool your meter into saying "darker, please, darker," and your photo will be underexposed. This is where a spot- or limited-area meter comes in handy -- aim it at a light-to-medium tone in the sky and proceed as above. For the sunrise at Glacier National Park's Lake McDonald, above, I spotmetered the yellow clouds just above the mountains and added 1 stop of exposure.

3. Bracket, bracket, bracket! Bracketing means taking several otherwise identical shots at differing exposures. For sunrises/sunsets, bracket at least 1 stop on either side of your chosen exposure. One of them is bound to be good, and you can often get several different good images.


Easy cell: If you're like most serious photographers, you: 1) Have lots of gear that works on AA cells. 2) Use NiMH rechargeables to avoid bankruptcy. 3) Use an ingenious system for organizing spares involving old rubber bands and dog-eared labels that eventually break down into compost in the bottom of your gadget bag.

Here's a neat solution: the Personal Battery Caddy. Cells snap in and out of these plastic holders in either direction, with both terminals safely recessed. They are available for AAA, AA, C, D, 9-volt, or 123A cells, and in combination units to hold several types. Since they come in a variety of colors (including glow-in-the-dark), you could color-code your rechargeables -- green for good and red for dead, say. They range in price from $5 to $14, direct from www.personalbatterycaddy.com.