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Sunset Photography Flight

Photographing in low light scenarios like a sunrise or sunset may be difficult enough, so what happens when you try and photograph from an airplane during a sunset flight over Toronto?

I found this out in my last flight over the downtown core with FlyGTA. I’ve received a number of questions on what my settings were when I shot certain photos so I hope to go through all of them in this post. If you have additional questions, please feel free to comment on this post below.

Things to Consider

Time of Day

Time of day will dictate how much light you have going to your sensor. Taking photos from an airplane will be much easier when you have more light available, so consider this when you decide on when to go.

CN Tower and Roger’s Centre. ISO 200, 1/400 sec., f/8.0.

Flying over the city during the day (above) provides enough light for a fast shutter speed. In contrast, shooting in the evening (below) will require a higher ISO and/or shallower depth of field to achieve the same shutter speed.

The CN Tower and city from above. ISO 800, 1/125 sec., f/2.8.

My last flight was supposed to be a flight over the downtown core shortly before the sun was to set below the horizon. However due to various circumstances, our flight time got pushed back and we ended up flying well past this time.

The airplane we took for the sunset flight over the city.

The sun had already set a while before we went up in the air, making our flight more of a blue-hour session. This may make things more difficult, but it also makes things more interesting. Why? Because at a certain point in the evening, the city lights will have turned on, making the landscape even more colourful to shoot.

The Bloor viaduct lights up in purple down below. ISO 800, 1/80 sec., f/2.8.

Lenses

I wondered about this too before my first flight, since I had no idea how close we would be to any buildings, the CN Tower, or anything else.

I opted to bring my 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom lens, and my 20mm f/1.8 wide angle lens in case I wanted to capture the huge expanse of land you get to see while you’re up there. During another flight, I took with me my 70-200mm f/2.8, which enables me to capture objects further away, or closer objects in more detail.

The Toronto FC played against the Ottawa Redbacks at the BMO Field seen above. ISO 800, 1/80 sec., f/2.8.

For a sunset flight, you’ll want a fast lens (lower f-number) since you will need to open up your aperture to get in as much light as possible. Keep in mind though, that if you want an entire building in focus from the top to somewhere near the ground, you’ll probably want to use a higher f-stop like f/8 or f/10, forcing you to boost your ISO higher than you may want.

20mm f/1.8

Great lens if you want to capture the large expanse of land or water that you can see from above. Keep in mind since this covers a wide angle, you will more than likely catch the wing in your photo too. If that’s your intention, that’s fine—otherwise you’ll need to crop it out afterwards. With a wide angle lens, objects will be much smaller in your photo as well.

The west shores of Toronto with Ontario place seen at the bottom of the image. ISO 800, 1/80 sec., f/2.8.

24-70mm f/2.8

This is probably the optimal lens to use in this case as it’s the most versatile. You have plenty of room with your zoom, and it’s a fast lens at f/2.8. If it’s only one lens you carry on, I would recommend this lens.

Swimming pool in the beaches. ISO 800, 1/125 sec., f/2.8.

70-200mm f/2.8

This is another possible lens to use, but it’s very limiting because you see everything so close up. Use this if you’re after the details of the city in the sunset. For me, I would find it too limiting within a city environment, which is why I left it out of my bag during my sunset shoot. When I flew over a wide expanse of farmland and water, however, I found this lens to be more useful.

A pool sits in the middle of greenery. ISO 400, 1/400 sec., f/9.0.

Camera Settings

Camera settings will vary depending on the available light. As a general guideline though, for a sunset flight over the city, you’ll need to keep your ISO high and shutter speed fairly fast.

The best way to figure this out is to see the photos themselves. Let’s take a look at the following photos and settings to see what happened.

The downtown core. ISO800, 1/80 sec., f/2.8.

With a shutter speed of 1/80sec. you can see that everything is slightly blurred—take a look at the Sun Life Financial lettering. The airplane was moving so fast that a shutter speed of 1/80sec. wasn’t fast enough to freeze the moment.

To compensate for this, I should have raised my shutter speed to something like 1/200 or even faster. But if I did that, I would have to change my ISO or aperture to compensate for the lack of light coming in from the faster shutter speed.

During my flight, I didn’t change my ISO value of 800 simply because it would have taken me too long to change the value back and forth depending on my scene. I paid the price because of this, as you can see.

What could I have done? I could have set my camera to auto ISO to a maximum value of 800 or even 1600. Then with my shooting mode set to shutter priority and shutter speed to about 1/200, my aperture and ISO values would be constantly changing depending on the scene in front of me. I would have achieved better results this way.

Many of these photos were still brightened up in Lightroom afterwards to keep the shadows from being too dark.

Aura stands tall. ISO 800, 1/125 sec., f/2.8.

This photo above was taken at a shutter speed of around 1/125sec. which was fast enough to get a relatively sharp subject. Depending on if the plane is moving fast or if it’s flying on a curve, you can still get away with a relatively slower shutter speed. To minimize the risk though, I’d stick with a shutter speed of about 1/200 at the very least.

Composition

You can have a lot of fun with composition inside an airplane. It’s not something you normally see, so take advantage of the fact that you’re there and use what is there to your advantage.

Taking photos through the window.

Shooting without a window between our subject and lens would be the ideal circumstance since windows will lower the light coming in, have scratches that may get in the way, and almost certainly will produce reflections in the evening. However in this case, we had to manage with what we were given.

Frame your subject using the window.

Our first instinct is to shoot out the window to get a clear shot of the outdoors. However, an equally pleasing composition might be if you were to include the window in your photo, which evokes a feeling of being right there inside the plane. Try it out next time and you’ll see.

Enjoying the sunset. Taken with the 20mm f/1.8.

Someone else in the plane with you? Feel free to use them as a subject in your photo (granted they are OK with it). A wider lens will enable you to get everybody in the plane.

Taking a photo of the CN Tower on your mobile phone.

Taking a picture of them as they take a picture of the outside can be interesting if creatively done—just remember to expose for the brightest part of the subject, which in this case was the screen on the phone she was using to take the picture outside.

Champagne and flying!

Or if you’re celebrating a special moment, don’t forget to capture that with the city in the backdrop.

Focus on the foreground element while keeping the background blurred but still recognizable.

Sometimes you have no choice but to include the wing, or part of the wing in your photo. If that’s the case, try focusing on the wing and have something interesting in the background. In the photo above, although the CN Tower and Rogers Centre are blurred, you’re still able to recognize the two iconic Toronto structures.

The pilot and his sunglasses.

And finally, you can’t forget about the pilot and dashboard. The latter lights up at night, offering a great subject matter as well. In the photo above, I let the dashboard lights and sunset lights take centre stage while keeping everything else darker.

The CN Tower divides the screen.

There’s lots of opportunities for creativity when you’re up there even though the light may be dim. Be mindful of your settings and be creative. If you have any other questions, or want to offer some more creative ideas, please feel free to comment below and let me know your experiences with a sunset photography session inside an airplane.

It’s hard being a photographer in the mountains

If you’re a photographer that loves to take sunrise and sunset photos, there’s no better place than to take them with powerful mountains and serene water as a backdrop. That’s what I loved doing during my brief stay in Banff and Jasper, Alberta. The scenery is so majestic and serene you really can’t take a bad photograph there.

As a photographer who loves the sun, my goal was to try and take as many sunrises and sunsets as I could. While I knew I couldn’t do this on a daily basis, I certainly tried as many times as I could.

Lake Minnewanka sunrise.

Lake Minnewanka sunrise. iPhone 6 Plus long exposure.

What I didn’t know until shortly before heading over there, was that the summer days are very long. The sun rises at 5:30am and doesn’t set below the horizon until at least 10pm. Even at 11pm, you still get that gorgeous blue hue in the sky. This is great if you love spending the days outdoors—which is what I did—but after a full day of hiking, you really do want to get some rest.

It was difficult at times, but I did do my fair share of sunrise and sunset shoots while in Alberta—sometimes waking up as early as 4:30am to drive to a lake. I can’t say that I came back with something dramatic and eye-opening as the weather didn’t cooperate with me most days, but I did enjoy being out there in the fresh air early in the morning. It is rather calming. Those days when I did both a sunset shoot and sunrise shoot the next day were pretty tiring to say the least. But the joy of being able to see this is what motivates me to get up so early and stay up so late.

Alpenglow on Mt. Rundle, Vermillion Lake 2, Banff National Park

Alpenglow on Mt. Rundle, Vermillion Lake 2, Banff National Park. iPhone 6 Plus.

As a bonus, a lot of the wildlife tend to be out during the wee hours of the morning and late at night. Those were the times when I got to see the mule deers, long horn sheep, bears, and more. It was an exciting drive to see animals popping up unexpectedly on the side of the road. You have to be extra cautious at this time too since the low-light may make it harder for you to see the wildlife.

Had I been living in the area though, this would be a whole different story as I would be able to take my time and spread out my sunrise and sunset shoots. With my limited stay of 10 days, I was eager than ever to get a great show of lights.

I wasn’t able to get one this time, but perhaps this means I’ll just have to go back at another time!

Silhouette by the sunset

When you’re faced with taking a photo against the sun, you’re subjects will no doubt be in the shadows. If you can’t do a whole lot with where the sun is in your frame, work with it until you get a pleasing image.

Nikon D800, 1/320 sec., f/6.3, ISO 400, 24mm

Nikon D800, 1/320 sec., f/6.3, ISO 400, 24mm

I intentionally took this photo so that the foreground would be in the shadows while the sailboats would be somewhat lit up from what was remaining of the sunlight.

The sailboats turned out a little darker than I had wanted to in the original image, so I did end up brightening the area up a little in Lightroom. But this is the image that I was envisioning in my head, so I’m quite pleased with how it turned out. I do like the details of the foreground that are lit up by the water in the background, in addition to the wispy clouds contrasting against the gorgeous blue and orange colours. It was a dreamy sunset, which made me happy I made the effort to get out this evening!

The sun shines in Ikebukuro

I was out shopping one fine early evening in Tokyo when I came to this roadway with people walking down it. Normally it would have been just a regular pedestrian-filled road, but I soon realized the sun peeking out of the clouds every-so-often, shining its glorious rays right down the centre of the street. The golden light it emitted when it did shine down the street was magnificent.

I only had a few short minutes to try and capture this golden light because the clouds would cover the sun after a short time. It was just one of those days where I was happy I had my camera with me that day.

Nikon D800, 1/4000 sec., f/2.8, ISO 400, 56mm

Nikon D800, 1/4000 sec., f/2.8, ISO 400, 56mm

What do you bring on your walks?

When I go out travelling, I often like to take my full gear with me because you never know what to expect. Even on casual walking days like when I took this photo above, I always loved to carry my Nikon along with my 24-70mm f/2.8 lens at a minimum. This combination, however, isn’t always so portable, let alone light on my shoulders.

With the advent of mirrorless cameras though, I’m beginning to wonder if that’s a better option for me to take on these casual walks. It’s something to consider one of these days.

What camera do you bring on your photo-walks? What lenses do you like to use? Let me know in the comments below, and feel free to suggest any great walk-around cameras that you like.

How to take photos of sunrises and sunsets

Sunrises and Sunsets

Sunrises and sunsets are one of the most favourite times of the day to photograph for many landscape photographers. The colours are warm and golden, the quality of light is just right, and really, there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing the first light or the last light of the day pass the horizon. Taking photos during this time is not very difficult, but there are a few things you should consider when doing so. This post will give you some tips on how to shoot that glorious sunrise or sunset.

How to take photos of sunrises and sunsets

How to take photos of sunrises and sunsets

Suggested Gear

I’ve listed my gear suggestions for shooting a sunrise or sunset below. While not all of these are requirements, each one serves a purpose and should be considered. I’ll explain each one in detail further below.

  1. Camera with RAW capture capabilities
  2. Tripod
  3. Shutter release cable
  4. Variety of lenses to meet your creative needs (bringing both a wide and a telephoto lens is ideal)

Shooting Tips

1. Always plan ahead

Sunrises and sunsets don’t last forever. In fact, the light changes so fast during this time that it’s crucial that you know what you’re doing if you don’t want to miss that golden moment. Planning ahead of time will always prepare you for the least expected and that’s always a good thing. Scout the location of your shoot well before your shoot. This will give you a good idea on composition and what’s around the area. If you want to find out exactly where the sun will rise or set on any particular day, there are several apps that will tell you this: Photopills, The Photographer’s Ephimeris, and more.

Selecting the exact point for a photoshoot

Selecting the exact point for a photoshoot using The Photographer’s Ephemeris

2. Focus

It’s important to keep your subject matter crisp, especially during this low-light period. If you have your camera set to automatically focus within a designated area of your frame, make sure to turn that function off and switch it to auto-focus single. This will make your camera focus on one specific area within your frame, wherever you choose it to be. This is much better than having the camera choose the focus point for you.

Your camera may have a hard time focusing if there’s not enough contrast within your frame. If this happens, switch to manual mode and focus yourself. Or, use Live View mode to see if you can pinpoint the focus that way.

3. Change your white balance from auto

If you have your camera set to Auto White Balance, take it off, and set it to something else so you can control how the image looks, and not rely on your camera. If you shoot in JPG, you won’t be able to change this afterwards, so it’s even more important for you to change this before shooting. For RAW shooters, you can change this after in post, but why do that when you can start off with the right white-balance mode? Typically for sunrises and sunsets, I like to use the Daylight mode. This gives the right amount of warmth to my images. If you really want to warm things up, try changing it to Shade or Cloudy. Experiment to your liking.

4. Speed up your camera

Cameras have many advanced features that are great for certain purposes. However, sometimes these settings can slow your camera from processing these files. For example, if you like to take long exposures, you may have the Long Exposure Noise Reduction setting turned on. This will increase the amount of time needed to process each shot, preventing you from taking the next one. Turn this feature off.

5. Use a tripod

I always use my tripod during sunrise and sunset shoots. It stabilizes my camera and helps me get sharp images. The period surrounding sunrises and sunsets are quite dim so a tripod is highly recommended, especially if you’re going to use a telephoto lens.

Using a tripod for both my Nikon and my iPhone when taking a sunrise photo

Using a tripod for both my Nikon and my iPhone when taking a sunrise photo

6. Use a shutter-release cable

A shutter release cable hooks into your camera’s 10-pin connector if you have one. This is a separate cable that allows you to release the shutter without having you press down on the shutter button itself, further eliminating any blurriness in your photos from camera shake. It’s not a necessity, but it does help in many cases.

Composition Tips

1. Horizon placement

You can refer to my previous post here on the difference your placement of the horizon makes on your photos. It does make a big difference so get to know when you want to place the horizon in certain areas of your picture.

As a summary:

  • Placing the horizon on the top 1/3 of your picture will evoke a sense of intimacy with your subject matter as the foreground takes precedence in your frame.
  • Placing the horizon in the centre of the picture works well when done right, giving a sense of symmetry and balance.
  • Placing the horizon in the bottom 1/3 of your picture will give a sense of vastness and emptiness as you fill the frame with the sky and clouds.

2. Change focal lengths

While changing lenses during your sunrise and sunset shots may take you away from taking photos for that moment, it’s worth experimenting with various focal lengths to get a little variety in your photos. I have a number of lenses in my collection, but the two I always use are the 70-200mm f/2.8 and the 24-70 f/2.8, with the 14-24mm f/2.8 coming in a close third.

Using a wide angle lens on the left gives a different feel than using a telephoto lens, as seen on the right.

Using a wide angle lens on the left gives a different feel than using a telephoto lens, as seen on the right.

Taking a wide shot gives a great view of the entire scene letting the viewers see the effects of the sun within the rest of your photo. In contrast, zooming in on the subject gives you more details so you can fully appreciate the sunlight shining on your subject. Or, if you zoom in right on the sun, that will also make for some dramatic imagery. Just be careful not to stare at it for too long!

Exposure Tips

I once read that during a sunrise and sunset shoot, there is never really a “correct” exposure. What the person meant by this is that many different exposures can work during this time—it all just depends on what you want to evoke from your image.

1. Silhouettes

A common thing to do is to make your subjects a silhouette with the glorious colours in the backdrop taking centre stage. Expose for the brighter areas of your image to get this effect.

Nikon D200, 200mm, 1/500 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100

Nikon D200, 200mm, 1/500 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100

2. Don’t expose directly into the sun

If you set your exposure directly to the sun, you’ll get an image with lots of dark shadow areas, and the ball of sun, a muddy gray colour. We all know the sun is a big bright ball of light so having this as the brightest part of your final image is reasonably acceptable in most cases. Instead, expose somewhere just slightly darker than the brightest part of the sun so the shadows don’t get too dark and the highlights aren’t all blown away.

3. Bracket your shots

Use your bracketing mode to automatically create different exposures. If you let the camera decide the best exposure, use your bracketing mode to create another image 1 stop under-exposed or 1 stop over-exposed. It’s a quick way to get three different types of images without fiddling with your settings so much.


 

There may be a lot of information here, but if you take things one step at a time and think through your shots, you’ll learn to quickly adapt accordingly and things like horizon placements and exposures will come naturally.

Do you have any additional tips you can add for taking sunrise and sunset photos? Let me know in the comments below!