A lot of photographers just can't get enough of sunsets -- and I can't blame them, for I too like to shoot the colorful displays. But sometimes the shots we've pinned our highest hopes to seem to lack depth of color and mood.
Unfortunately, sunsets are not manmade, so there's just so much you can do to improve their pictorial potential. I have waited for many sunsets to develop and some of them have just fizzled out. Then there were others that had a poor start and a glorious finish.
Sunset exposures are not critical. You can vary up to a full stop and all that will happen will be a darker or lighter color, but how you take the exposure reading is important.
Be sure the viewfinder takes in only the sky. Then take your exposure reading and return the camera position to your original composition -- but use the sky reading for your exposure. If the sun is in your lens, shift to one side and determine your exposure from the non-sun area.
To dramatize sunsets, a tale lens will increase the size of the orb's image. The longer the focal length the bigger the sun. If you don't want to invest in another lens, use a converter to double or quadruple the focal length of your present one. You'll need at least a 200 mm for a significant increase in the size of the sum; and if your really want a spectacular, try a 500 mm.
Another way to emphasize a colorful sky is to include a silhouette for contrast. It could be a nearby tree or a distant mountain whose black image will make the sunset colors look brighter.
I notice that in your letter you mention that the prints aren't up to par. This may be because you are comparing the color slide to the print. The prints look duller because it's viewed by reflected light (the light bouncing off the white backing) and the slide by transmitted light (the light actually being seen through the emulsion). Q: I'm just an average duffer who wants to take pictures of things that means something to me and I'm confused by all the photographic techniques like candid shooting, bounce light and pushed films. My attitude toward photography is something like Cheryl Tiegs' in the ad on TV in which she says that she doesn't know a lens opening for a Broadway opening. Isn't there a way that I can take simple flash-on-the-camera pictures without all the technical gobbledygook? A. Sure you can. Many of the photos we take require a minimum of technique -- and with today's automatic cameras, you don't have to know any more than to point and shoot.
The quickest and easiest way to grap that snap is with an instant auto-focus camera that puts the finished print right in your hand, or the automated 35s that require no knowledge of lens opening or shutter closings. And for flash pictures, an auto Thyristor unit that delivers just the right amount of light regardless of your distance from the subject is the easiest way to go.
If you don't have an automated camera, at least get an automated flash. With these, all you have to do is set the f/stop for the speed (ASA) of the film you're using, turn the shutter ring to synch speed (1/60th or 1/125th of a second, depending on your model) and shoot. This amazing gadget will deliver just the right amount of light for a perfect exposure, like magic.
As one who has come up the hard way through press photography, where I had to make very quick decisions on flash settings, I find the new Thyristor systems a godsend. In fact, I always carry a Vivitar Zoom Thyristor 2500 model in my gadget bag for those quickie unexpected flash shots.
There are many subjects that you can shoot completely auto: party flash shots, visiting relatives or your household pets. Just move in close for a large image and follow directions. Q. Last year in Alaska I ruined at least 50 percent of all the snaps I made. They were either over- or under-exposed. Someone in Fairbanks sold me a new battery, but it could be that the "new" battery was old. What can I do to make sure that a battery isn't overaged when I buy it? A. One way to make sure that the battery you buy is up to snuff is to have it tested right in the store to make sure that it charges up to new. If they don't have a tester, put the battery in your camera and see if it works before leaving the store.
Batteries usually have a shelf-life of one year -- more or less -- if they are stored properly at 70 degrees F. or lower. A problem could happen if the units are stored near or over a heating duct.
There could be other reasons for battery failure. You might have bought the wrong battery. There are two kinds that look alike, alkaline and silver oxide. Both produce the same amount of initial electrical discharge, but the alkaline is not as stable and poops out faster. So if you replace a silver oxide battery with an alkaline, it will not produce as reliable a power output.
Other factors affect batter performance. One that is easily correctable is dirt on the constant surfaces. A pencil eraser or even a piece of clean cloth can be used to rub the terminals and contact surfaces. Often when this is done you'll find you don't even need a new battery, that the old one after this cleaning will still work. Cold also affects battery performance. It's a good idea to keep your camera in an inside pocket between shooting in cold weather. This way the batteries will stay warm so they produce the needed voltage and the camera parts will also function more easily and not become sluggish in the cold.
One last observation on batteries, which I'm sure you've already figured out based on your Alaskan misadventure -- always carry a spare.