Shooting The Sun; The Digital Darkroom Meets An Intense Sunset…

Late in the afternoon til sunset has always been the holiest, most amazing time to be in the outdoors doing any sort of physical activity: hiking, jogging, mountain biking – or just sitting on a well-placed deck. Even just going outdoors as twilight approaches can be magical as low angle, extra warm light casts long, contour-defining shadows as the sun sinks to the horizon. With a good vantage point like these hills we hike and ride, life can be utterly magical on the hillsides at sunset and twilight. Great for the soul AND great for the prepared photographer!


This image of the lovely bride and Prudi hiking into the sunset was created via a very “flat” RAW file, successfully managed with Adobe Photoshop CS6 Mac(see original RAW file below)

Late yesterday the lovely bride and I – along with my old bud John Frusha – took a hike up the mountain at the old Quicksilver mines, heading out maybe 90 minutes before legal sunset with 3-4 miles to cover up semi-steep hills which traverse the hilltops and dip into heavily wooded areas, as well. I carried my Canon 5D camera with a Canon EF50mm f/1.2L series lens since this camera is lighter than my Canon 1D and this particular focal length lens is one of my favorites.

Dense shade during the low light of sunset – especially when hills block part of the sunset – can make it ridiculously dark even when it’s still a nice, bright sunset in the exposed areas on the hilltops.

As we hiked under the trees down by the creek, I had to jack the ISO on my Canon 5D to 1250 at f2.2 just to be able to “attempt” to get a sharp frame of our canine family member playing in the creek, with 125th of a second the quickest shutter speed I could get in that light. At such minimal depth, it was tough shooting a black-faced dog frolicking in the creek; darkness was upon us so we hiked onward.

As we walked in fading light, under dense trees, Johnny and I lagged behind, shooting the bull, as the lovely bride and Prudence walked briskly ahead of us. Suddenly we rounded a corner and – HOLY WOW!!!! – an intense sunset smack on the rim of the horizon beamed straight into the camera lens, a tough photographic scenario, yet a spectacular backlit scene of the lovely bride and dear Prudence!!!

I yelled to Johnny – STOP!!! – simultaneously tossing up my camera, getting off 4 frames, hoping one would be sharp–enough or “image-able”, as the lovely bride quickly walked through that “sweet spot”, a small area where the almost-orange light of sunset was lovely.

Since I’d just stepped out of dense shade where photographing a black-faced dog was tough, my camera was still set at f2.2 at ISO 1250 when that sun smacked me in the face and I saw the glow of ultra warm light rimming around the lovely bride and Prudence!

Using aperture priority, my shutter speed leapt to 1/8000th second, still at f2.2, since there was no time for making adjustments. This was a “throw up and fire” scenario which would last only a couple seconds.

Over years it has become my philosophy that capturing a sweet “moment” which might easily have escaped, is infinitely more important than maintaining highest image quality, certainly in tough, unexpected situations where pausing to change ISO settings would result in totally missing the photograph.

Shooting directly into the sun created a “flat” RAW file – an original lacking in contrast – just as it created flat negatives back in darkroom days. I generally set my cameras’ “Picture Style” to a somewhat flat, low contrast setting so the RAW image file lacks contrast but contains a ton of digital information. I can easily add contrast…


This un-imaged RAW file is filled with digital information, enabling the creation of a compelling image in Adobe Photoshop CS6 Mac (see final above)

Over years of using Photoshop, it became apparent that it’s easier to add contrast than to remove it – so selecting a Picture Style from the Menu which creates a flat RAW file – NOT pretty straight from the camera – actually allows more detail to work with in Photoshop, aka the digital darkroom.

It’s common for non-professionals to think Photoshop is synonymous with a grossly altered “faked” image when, in fact, the Photoshop process is no different than the old-school black & white darkroom. Yes, you can make pigs fly with Photoshop but the majority of Photoshop users create relatively “straight” photographs where only basic contrast and color adjustments have been made – just as in the traditional darkroom.

Although many who appreciate photography regard black and white as almost “holy,” one should remember a black & white negative is NOT reality and the process of making fine prints includes a ton of image manipulation. In order to approximate reality, a negative had to be placed in an enlarger then manipulated a LOT in order to create a fine quality black & white or color print. We used dozens of heavy-handed techniques in the black & white & color darkroom to make a lousy negative created in weak light look great by the time we were finished making a fine quality photographic print. Photoshop is no different… It’s a basic processing tool for digital negatives…not so different from the old school darkroom…

One difference when working with color, as these two images illustrate, is adding contrast to a very flat RAW file can also tweak the colors, that is, it can make the color much richer and more intense than the original, almost ugly RAW file. Yet that original RAW file did NOT represent the reality we witnessed with our infinitely perceptive human eyes. To the human eye – forget photography – this scenario was HOLY WOW!!!! Gorgeous light backlighting lady and dog was easily perceptible, at a glance. The final image here simply displays my vision of what I saw in reality.

No major tricks were used in transforming this RAW file from being like a flat “negative,” so to speak, into this brilliant final result. A lot of contrast had to be added – which I do selectively to multiple areas of the image – while color saturation actually had to be decreased since, in adding the required contrast, the almost orange light of sunset initially went too-red, requiring the selective removal of red to more closely approximate my memory of how the scene actually looked!

MORAL: Always carry a camera for unexpected moments like this one. Learn Photoshop or the image-processing software of your choice since, just as in the days of darkroom legends like Ansel Adams, the adjustments applied in the traditional OR digital darkroom make ALL the difference between a mediocre and a special photograph!

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