When Gail Mooney, who has shot for major magazines such as Travel and Leisure, decided to shoot the lavender fields of Arles, she didn’t know how she was going to do it, but she knew when. “I researched it,” she said. “It wasn’t happenstance. I was there at the optimum time, not just time of year, but time of day.”
Classically, the best time of day to photograph is at sunrise and sunset, when the low sun casts light that gives depth and dimension without being overpoweringly harsh. “Definitely be there at the right time of day,” Mooney said. “Generally speaking, that is first thing in the morning before the sun comes up. When the sun is in the sky, it’s over.”
Because she had no particular shot in mind, Mooney worked fast, taking about 100 shots in an hour. “I worked that scene, shot wide, medium and tight, horizontals and verticals, as quickly as I could.”
She discovered that the best angles weren’t straight down the rows. “I wanted the purple to show up,” she said. “When I was aligned with a row, I was seeing just as much ground.”
In the chosen shot, the center rows lead the eye to the trees, which give the shot scale. Using a wide-angle lens and shooting at an aperture of F8 or higher helped keep all the elements in focus.
The major elements — trees on the right, the burst of light (called a lens flare) on the left, and the horizon near the top — conform to the rule of thirds.
And an important point about sunsets. “I see amateurs taking pictures of sunsets all the time, and they are just that — sun. There isn’t anything else in the picture,” Mooney said, which is a recipe for a deadly dull image. “The sun sets the tone; it isn’t the subject. It provides that beautiful, beautiful light.”
What Ami Vitale, whose work appears frequently in National Geographic, faced in this shot was the same challenge facing any photographer trying to shoot his or her spouse on a hotel balcony with the city lights in the background. Only Vitale’s shot was a little tougher, because she had to contend with man-eating lions stalking the villagers she was photographing.
Deadly lions aside, the technique is pretty simple. You use a slow exposure to capture the light of the sky but add a flash to light your main subjects and freeze their motion.
Vitale was shooting with a 24mm-to-70mm zoom lens, using a wider setting, which helped keep the focus sharp, but she also used another pro trick: The flash isn’t mounted on the camera. An on-camera flash makes a harsh, flat light, but moving it to the side gives depth and shadows.
And it doesn’t have to be a fancy remote radio trigger system. She connected the flash with a long cord, and for a stand, “I just recruited one of the little kids to hold it for me.”
Even simple point-and-shoot cameras often have this feature. You can usually find it in the manual under “slow sync flash.” Discover where that is on the dial, and you can easily capture portraits with a stunning sunset backdrop.
Furchgott writes about personal technology and photography.