This is such a common issue, especially with those who vacation and come home thoroughly disappointed with their sunset photos. You’re visiting a tropical destination, beautiful coastal community, or any other scenic location. You see a stunning landscape, especially around sunset or sunrise…photograph what you think is a beautiful composition, and find out that your sky looks white, not capturing any of the great cloud detail – not the best way to remember your vacation.
If you read my Photography 101 Series, you’ll learn that when a photo is overexposed – that is, parts of your image that had great detail in person comes out looking washed out – it means that your shutter was open too long for your scene and let too much light into your camera.
If you’re not looking to expose your ground well – i.e. you’re going for a silhouette and just want to capture the sky – you can either speed up your shutter speed manually or use a smaller aperture to allow less light into your camera. An easier way would be to set your metering mode to spot and aim for the sun – this means your camera will adjust its exposure based only on the sun and won’t take the rest of your frame into account (read more on spot metering and how your light meter works here). This is the way to capture your sky in great detail.
The image below shows what happens when you reduce the exposure of an overexposed sky – much more detail is present. I used spot metering mode here.
However, if you’re looking for a more advanced way to capture both sky AND foreground detail (as seen below), there’s a different approach to take….
Sunsets and other landscapes that compose both sky and ground work on the same exposure principle – exposed too much and you get a washed out sky, too little and your foreground is dark. Simply adjusting your exposure to fix this won’t work since the sky is almost always brighter than your ground- there’s no way to improve one without making the other worse.
Since your camera can not force two different exposures into one image, you need to improvise by using one of two methods:
Either method will work well for your photography. I usually use the latter – manually blending two exposures into one. I wrote an in-depth tutorial on blending different exposures in Photoshop located right here. If you have Photoshop, it’s a great way to capture a surreal sunset without having to use an ND grad filter.
I also wrote a sunset photography tutorial which discusses ND grad filters and other sunset methods which will help, located here.