I'm Not Afraid of the Light Any More
Hello, my name is Mike. I'm a landscape photographer and I really, really struggle with sunsets. They should be the easiest things in the world to photograph, right? Anyone can take a decent photo of one of the most regular photogenic phenomena. Everyone has a folder of cool photos of gloriously orange and red skies, don't they? My problem stems from the fact that I absolutely abhor photos with blown-out areas - areas that are so over-exposed that no details are visible. Well I've given up this (irrational?) position and finally taken a full-into the sun sunset photo. And it worked:
Bolstered by my success on a recent visit to Eisenstein, a small village just north of the Bavarian Alps between Pfronten and Markt Oberdorf I decided to revisit with better light. We've driven through the village so many times over the years on our way to the mountains further south, catching glimpses of the ruined castle on top of the wooded hill above the village but never stopped. Recently we had a half day free and decided to head down there and explore the possibilities and were more than satisfied with the results, though the light was sub-optimal - midday sun and a bit hazy.
But back to the photo. There are a couple of problems generally associated with pointing your camera direct into the sun. Firstly the dynamic range - the difference between the darkest and brightest parts of the image can be enormous. Secondly, you can get unsightly sun flares in the lens. The former can be overcome by exposure bracketing and the latter using a finger. Let me explain. Lens flares manifest in the periphery of the image but not the sun. Take two photos with exactly the same settings and a carefully cleaned lens. In one image hold your finger directly in front of the sun and then layer the images and select which parts of which image to display. Obviously the photos need to be taken with a tripod to keep the composition constant. With the above photo the starting points are below.
Even doing this, the sun is blown out (see the red shading below), but the photo still works, partly because it's mostly the red that's blown out, giving the bright area a yellowish tinge that we typically associate with the sun. The problems with forcing the sun into a non-blown out form are (a) that it would end up featureless anyway and (b) that you end up with a hard-edged circle. Allowing the overexposure to bleed into the picture rather than limiting it to a circle gives an image that feels right. And so I think I've overcome my fear of leaving overblown areas in my images.
Some more photos from our first foray to the ruined castle can be found below. We took the long way round past the Gaststätte and through the forest, keeping our eyes open for early mushrooms. But it wasn't until we reached the saddle between the two ruins that we realised the potential of the place. The ruins stand on top of a hill overlooking Pfronten at the foot of the Aggenstein. Although only 200 m above the valley floor, the elevation gives a great view over the villages and even over Füssen and the King's Castles (Neuschwanstein) as well as the lake at Hopfensee.
Having done as much as we could given the conditions and established the best spots for photos, it was a question of heading home and then waiting for a suitable evening to head down there to catch the sunset. A week or so later I had such an evening and so after closing my work PC down for the day I grabbed a sandwich and headed off on the 65 min journey from home. There wasn't as much cloud as I would have liked over the mountains, but there was some to the east and a few whisps to the west where the sun was setting. Being so late in the day I was able to park up at the Alm, halving my hike time to the ruins.
Despite the lack of clouds, the light on the rolling hills was just what I was hoping for, catching the tops of the rises in the landscape, lighting the village of Zell nicely from the side with long shadows. A drop of mist in the depressions would have been a nice touch, but that will have to wait for another day.
Although I worked out from my previous shots that I needed to be at Castle Eisenberg rather than Hohenfreyberg, I hadn't appreciated that whilst some of them were taken from the viewing platform at the front of the ruins, the shots of Hopfensee and Füssen needed to be taken from the platform at the back of the castle. So, no relaxed set-up at one point. I ended up flitting between the two spots several times. Front for sunset, back for Hopfensee and so on. An experience that was less than satisfatory.
The last shot utilised an Olympus special; Live Composite Mode. This allows you to take a starting photo and then allow the camera to collect any additional light coming into the scene whilst preserving the initial image. This is brilliant for things like thunderstorms and... ...light trails from cars in the twilight.
I've still not exhausted the potential of this spot. I envisage an early morning shoot here in the late autumn with mist on the ground as well as a potential night shoots.
Watch this space.