I’ve just had two weeks on the Isle of Mull, an island that I know pretty well from many years of visiting and time living on the neighbouring island of Iona, and I love the light on these islands: fragile and delicate. Scotland’s east cost (or at least, Edinburgh, Fife, East Lothian, that I all know well) has quite a different quality of light: beautiful in its own way, but harsher and more demanding on the eyes. I can sit and watch the light changing in these islands at all times of the day, and it fascinates me.
On our second evening on Mull, the sunset was spectacular. Almost involuntarily, I took my mobile telephone outside the cottage we were staying in and made an image. I confess to a slight tinge of self-disgust immediately afterwards! I’m sure I’m not alone in having a number of horrifically over-colourful sunsets in my early archives, but sunsets are generally regarded as the photographic cliché par excellence… more of which at the end of this page. However, I then I began to wonder if this couldn’t be turned into something more positive, and thought I should explore sunsets a little more, within certain basic parameters:
- all images would be just ‘snapshots’ from the garden in front of the house or the beach at the bottom of the track from the house;
- I would use just the camera in my mobile telephone (an iPhone 4) and use it handheld (no tripod etc.);
- whilst I would use no post-processing on the computer, I would allow myself to use something better than the basic camera app that comes with the iPhone: 645 Pro Mk II.
645 Pro Mk II is available on Apple’s app store, and is an app I’d recommend to anyone fed up with the limitations of the camera app Apple supply (it works on various Apple devices, not just the iPhone). 645 Pro is modelled on a classical film medium format camera system, and allows the user to choose different ‘film backs’ based on a variety of popular colour and black-and-white films. It also allows the use of a single filter, and different crop sizes, including, square, 4×3, 6×7, 6×17 and more. It has locks for white balance, exposure and focus, and a number of other useful features. So I was using a certain degree of ‘in-camera’ processing, but at the price of the app (£2.49 at the moment), this is eminently affordable to anyone who can afford the luxury of an iPhone.
So on to the images. I’ve noted the different camera settings for each one, as given by the 645 Pro app. All are at ISO80 and the fixed aperture of f2.8, and added a short explanatory comment after each image, including the time it was taken. The point of these images is to try and capture something about sunsets away from clichés simply because they are pretty boring after a while. Maybe other ways of seeing sunsets can help to recapture something of the richness many of us see in such settings?
8. July 2013
22:13 This is the first image that led me to think about ways of imagining other ways of photographing sunsets. The sun is just about visible – interesting to compare this with the 10.7. image.
9. July 2013
19:09 An attempt to capture early evening tones: the shapes of the land against the water are much more pronounced here than in any of the colour images, and I like the feeling of wildness that the clouds create.
10. July 2013
22:00 The sun has already disappeared (compare it to the image from a couple of days ago), but this is still a fairly standard kind of sunset image.
11. July 2013
22:22 Almost all the reds and oranges have disappeared, but the clouds are still lit up by the sun, forming interesting patterns.
13. July 2013
22:49 Staying with a clouds theme, I panned across the sky to blur the clouds, smudging any detail there might be; the darker ambient light brought with it slower shutter speeds enabling panning to have an effect.
14. July 2013
21:58 No sun, but lovely cloud patterns in the fading light. This image is more evocative to me than the first one: I clearly don’t need to see a setting sun to be awed by the end of the day’s light.
18. July 2013
21:53 Many sunset images use landscape panoramic formats, which epitomise the sunset cliché for me – whereas this feels more like a ‘slice’ from something else, enabling a focus on one particular aspect of the sunset.
21:57 Looking away from the setting sun, interesting things are happening with light patterns.
22:47 A different ‘slice’ of the skies, with the rich blues of later evening being given their due.
19. July 2013
20:53 In colour this is absolutely horrible, but the black-and-white version highlights the shapes and tones of the land, water, the tree, and the reflections of the sun on the water in a way that enables me to appreciate the beauty of the surroundings far more.
21:26 A way of using lens flare and pattern to produce what is effectively almost a monochrome image, albeit one in red-and-white rather than black-and-white. Despite the deliberately blown-out highlights, I again like the silhouettes of shapes that are the main feature here.
21:27 A bit of a cliché, and I didn’t get it quite straight (oops!) but the kitchen window and the patterns on the white walls offer a slightly different way of seeing the sunset.
21:55 At the end of my time on Mull, I thought I’d try one more ‘standard’ sunset image. Perhaps it’s possible to appreciate landscape panoramas of sunsets after all, if it’s possible to also re-imagine ways of interpreting and seeing sunsets as described in the images above?
However, although the sunset on 19. July was beautiful, I have to say that I still don’t like this last image very much, even after exploring other ways of seeing the sunsets. Perhaps there is no escaping the over-riding sense of boring cliché when ‘snapping’ a sunset in this kind of way? Certainly, it’s less interesting to me than, for example, the black-and-white images, or the vertical ‘slices’, or the panned clouds… all of which are also sunsets, though not of the ‘picture postcard’ kind. With this little exercise, I can prove to myself that for me, at least, the standard sunset image is pretty much irredeemable. Perhaps this is because it purports to capture something of the wonder of the light that we see, but by the very nature of it being a still photograph, it cannot do that properly. For me, sunsets live in the changing of light, not in a capture of a fraction of a second that simply shows multiple colours and cloud shapes. A sunset is moving, changing, developing over time – after all, we say ‘the sun is setting‘ and that is a verb construction – I don’t see how this kind of still photography can capture that adequately.
I’m also ambivalent about whether cine film/video could do this any better, since I probably wouldn’t want to watch a video of a sunset for an hour or two – all that breadth and space compressed into one small screen? No thanks! I think many film-makers know this, given how frequently sunsets are speeded up, whether in feature films or wildlife documentaries or dramas. It is far better to sit and watch a sunset unfold and simply enjoy it without a camera. If you miss today’s, there’ll be another one along tomorrow…
This is why I am going to do my best to resist any future temptation there might be to go out and photograph anything like the first and last images here. If other opportunities arise to make more interesting images, with a bit more time and reflection and engagement than the snapshots between the first and last images here allow, then I’ll maybe risk it. 😉
In the middle of my time on Mull, without knowing that I was photographing sunsets, Rob Hudson tweeted me a link to an article by Annebella Pollen about sunset clichés that I read upon returning home (poor internet connection on Mull!) – I’d highly recommend reading this article after seeing these images, as she addresses other interesting aspects of sunset photographs.