If you want to give an extra edge to your urban images, the lighting conditions need to be interesting. Sunset is a very interesting time to shoot cityscapes but it can be tricky. Here are a few tips.
What to look for during sunset?
You have to think pretty much like for the golden hour (see my cityscape tip #2). Don’t forget that the sun sets in the West (North or South depending on the season and the location) and you can find out precisely at what time the sun sets in different ways (including The Photographer’s Ephemeris app).
The difference with the golden hour is that you will most likely be shooting towards the West to capture the colors of sunset. There are a some exceptions depending on how the city is located (wide spaces, close to the ocean, etc…): if you can get the last rays of the sun on some buildings, it’s even better. But if you’re near hills, or mountains or in the center of the city, chances are the buildings will not be illuminated anymore as the sun sets.
The most important thing about sunset is clouds. It may seem counter-intuitive, but you need some clouds. Obviously not too many of them, but a few nice little clouds in the sky will change your image. They will take the color of the last rays of the sun and get wonderful colors between orange and purple. So next time you see some little clouds in the sky, be ready to go out and shoot the sunset!
In terms of composition, you will need to find a nice foreground for your image. You can get some nice vertical compositions with a very close foreground, a interesting background and the sky (see image above). If you can find some leading lines it’s even better. Also, you don’t need to shoot straight towards the sun: clouds are illuminated in all directions and often you can find a very nice composition to the East too.
Shooting and processing sunset
The main difficulty of shooting during sunset is the very wide dynamic range: you will most likely have a very bright sky and some dark buildings. While your eyes can see both without too much trouble, your camera can’t. If you expose for the sky the buildings will be really dark and if you expose for the buildings your sky will be close to white. With nowadays tools like Lightroom 5, you can manage a pretty decent result by getting back most details in the blown out sky and the darker areas.
If you want to preserve the details and the quality on the overall image, you will need to use more complicated techniques. Basically, you need to shoot in HDR (High Dynamic Range), which means several exposures. I usually bracket 3 shots (I can’t do more at once on the Nikon D7000) with exposures at -2 / 0 / +2. This way, you get details in the highlights on the -2 exposure and details on the buildings on the 0 or +2 exposure. Keep an eye on your histogram to be sure not to lose any details.
Once you have two, three (or more) images, you will need to merge them. There are several techniques you can use and it’s pretty much up to you. You can do tone-mapping or fusion in Photomatix or Photoshop, but you can also manually mask parts of the image in Photoshop to keep a more realistic look. I use both techniques depending on the dynamic range and the number of exposures.
For the rest of the processing it’s up to you! Many different effects can be achieved depending on the image you want to obtain. I usually work on the colors with the Color Balance and the Selective Color tools in Photoshop. Then I do a little vignetting and a little sharpening. Sometimes I use some plugins from Nik or from OnOne Software.
Sunset is an obvious choice when it comes to urban photography. But it’s not so easy to get the beautiful image you have in mind. With some preparation and careful settings, you will be able to achieve a very nice and colorful image. And don’t forget: no sunset is perfect without clouds!