David Smith, a world travel & fine art photographer from Vancouver, is joining Insignia on several segments of the 180-Day World Odyssey, which departs July 8. His photography has been published in the Wall Street Journal, National Geographic Traveler, Geo Saison Magazine and USA Today. Below, David shares the key to taking gorgeous sunset photographs.

Sunset Over Rethymno, Crete (David Smith)
Sunset Over Rethymno, Crete (David Smith)

On a recent visit to the Greek Islands (happiness is a scooter, sandals and a bathing suit!) we watched an amazing sunset being created from our balcony in Rethymno on the northwestern coast of Crete. This sunset was visible all over Crete and the locals still talk about it weeks later. Casual travel photographers rarely capture sunset sunsets properly since the camera light meter gets confused by the combination of bright, bright sun and dark clouds. One needs to underexpose sunset photographs to create a dramatic sky, better exposed sun and bright highlights and increased color saturation. In the film camera days, good photographs would set exposure to the sky behind the sunset and then set cameras settings in manual to -2 stops. With digital cameras its easy, just set your exposure value (UV) to – 2.0 but you have to be off automatic mode on most digital cameras to be able to change your EV settings.

Istanbul Sunset – A Call to Prayer (David Smith)
Istanbul Sunset – A Call to Prayer (David Smith)

When the captain moved Marina from the pier in Istanbul, he could not have picked better timing. As she swung about to slip by the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace, an intense and vivid red sunset was punctuated by a Muslim call to prayer echoing among the minarets. On deck, some tears were shed, cameras clicked furiously and it was all over in a few minutes as dusk faded into night and the ship moved southwards down the Bosphorus. Being the start of a memorable voyage to Turkey and Greece, is this memorable event a sign of more to come?

I cringed as I saw most cameras capturing this lifetime moment with just a few shots in automatic mode. Light meters, even in today’s sophisticated digital cameras, can’t handle the complexity of both the intense bright spots around the sun lit clouds and the dark moods of the burnt ember colored sky. In automatic mode, the inability of a camera’s sensor to capture both bright and darks at the same time results in a rather flat looking image with blown out bright areas and not so colorful clouds. To capture better sunsets with your camera, you must underexpose the shot to reduce blown-out brights and increase the saturation of the brilliant colors.

EV control button
EV control button

The magic elixir that makes this happen without having to know anything about shutter speeds and f-stops is the Exposure Value (EV) button. Often a plus/minus symbol with a diagonal line or a menu setting control in almost all digital cameras have this control, sometimes enabled only when you are NOT in automatic or scene modes.

To underexpose your shot set the EV control to a negative number. The default setting is EV=0.0 so take a shot at the auto or default setting, then move the EV setting to -1.0 take a shot, then move it to -2.0 take a shot, etc. Better cameras have EV setting ranges of up to + or – 5.0 so go lower than EV=-2.0 if you can. An EV of -2.0 is the same as underexposing by 2 stops in the old film camera world. You can see the results instantly on your camera’s LCD. By bracketing you can select the best shot to show later. This sequence of photos of the same scene shows the dramatic difference of the sunsets by underexposing the shot in 1 EV increments. In my honest opinion, the most dramatic image is the -2 EV shot.

Underexposing sunset shots increases color saturation and adds drama
Underexposing sunset shots increases color saturation and adds drama

David looks forward to meeting many of you aboard Insignia very soon. For more photo tips, visit David’s blog. Also explore more of his beautiful photography on his gallery and his Fine Art America website.