Take a look at the two photos below. Believe it or not, I shot both of these sunsets on the same day standing in essential the same place (on the shore of Long Island Sound) with the same camera (an Olympus UZ-810) and they were shot only about 10 minutes apart. Yet, the photos look very different from one another, and that’s due largely to three choices that I made for each shot: when I took the picture, the focal length that I chose and, very importantly, where I placed the horizon for each shot.
Two Approaches, Vastly Different Results
The top shot was taken first and was made with a zoom setting (in 35mm equivalent) of 159mm. That’s on the long side of the medium telephoto lens range (typically a medium-telephoto lens is in the 85 to 135mm range, so this is just outside that, but not yet in what I would call the super-telephoto range). You can see in this shot that space has been compressed and that the stone jetty (that dark finger sticking out into the water) is much closer and larger. Also, by aiming the camera down at the foreground the shot emphasizes the foreground, not the sky. And finally, the sun was still a few degrees above the horizon when I took the picture. The thing that I like about the shot is that the color of the sky is reflected nicely in the little tidal area in the foreground. What I don’t like is that the sunset sky seems awkwardly cropped out of the frame. Probably a better choice would have been to widen the zoom setting a bit to take in a bit more sky while still keeping the foreground dominant.
In the second (bottom) shot, I waited until the sun was just touching the horizon – which is my favorite time to shoot sunsets. You have to shoot quickly when the sun gets this low because there is an odd little phenomenon going on: the closer the sun gets to the horizon, the faster it disappears from view. Also, I switched to the widest setting of the zoom lens (around 24mm – and that Olympus has a huge 36x optical zoom – it goes from about 24mm to nearly 900mm!). I also aimed the camera upward because I wanted to emphasize the sky and that beautiful, wispy cloud pattern that was happening. The clouds look to me like an artist had put some dabs of white paint in the sky and then smeared them a bit with a wide brush or a comb – and I guess that’s exactly what happened with Mother Nature being the artist. Whenever you place the horizon low in the frame you emphasize the sky.
‘Point of Tension’
So there you have two very different looks at one sunset based on three simple technical and creative decisions. Both of these shots were made hand-held, by the way, something I almost never do. But the camera has image stabilization and I was out for a ride with a friend and just didn’t want to inflict a tripod on him. Oh, by the way, you’ll notice in the bottom shot that I lined up the sun right over the tip of the jetty. In art terms, that’s known as a “point of tension” and it’s a small compositional trick that really works – your eye naturally goes to that spot because the tight spacing and close alignment create a kind of visual anticipation that something is going to happen there.