Sunsets and clichés

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:

  1. 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;
  2. I would use just the camera in my mobile telephone (an iPhone 4) and use it handheld (no tripod etc.);
  3. 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

Seven Sunsets, Mull (1/230s, 6x6, KII film back)

Seven Sunsets, Mull (1/230s, 6×6, KII film back)

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

Seven Sunsets, Mull (1/7500s, 6x7+, H5 film back, 25% red filter)

Seven Sunsets, Mull (1/7500s, 6×7+, H5 film back, 25% red filter)

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

Seven Sunsets, Mull (1/480s, 6x7+, V50 film back)

Seven Sunsets, Mull (1/480s, 6×7+, V50 film back)

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

Seven Sunsets, Mull (1/17s, 6x7, K25 film back)

Seven Sunsets, Mull (1/17s, 6×7, K25 film back)

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

Seven Sunsets, Mull (1/15s, 6x17, V50 film back)

Seven Sunsets, Mull (1/15s, 6×17, V50 film back)

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

Seven Sunsets, Mull (1/20s, 6x4.5, P41 film back)

Seven Sunsets, Mull (1/20s, 6×4.5, P41 film back)

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

Seven Sunsets, Mull (1/310s, 6x17, V50 film back)

Seven Sunsets, Mull (1/310s, 6×17, V50 film back)

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.

Seven Sunsets, Mull (1/100s, 6x6, V50 film back)

Seven Sunsets, Mull (1/100s, 6×6, V50 film back)

21:57 Looking away from the setting sun, interesting things are happening with light patterns.

Seven Sunsets, Mull (1/15s, 6x12, V50 film back)

Seven Sunsets, Mull (1/15s, 6×12, V50 film back)

22:47 A different ‘slice’ of the skies, with the rich blues of later evening being given their due.

19. July 2013

Seven Sunsets, Mull (1/5000s, 6x4.5, H5 film back)

Seven Sunsets, Mull (1/5000s, 6×4.5, H5 film back)

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.

Seven Sunsets, Mull (1/320s, 6x12, V50 film back)

Seven Sunsets, Mull (1/320s, 6×12, V50 film back)

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.

Seven Sunsets, Mull (1/320s, 6x12, V50 film back)

Seven Sunsets, Mull (1/320s, 6×12, V50 film back)

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.

Seven Sunsets, Mull (1/290s, 6x17, V50 film back)

Seven Sunsets, Mull (1/290s, 6×17, V50 film back)

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. 😉

Further reading…

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.


7 thoughts on “Sunsets and clichés

  1. Mike Green

    “…sunsets live in the changing of light, not in a capture of a fraction of a second that simply shows multiple colours and cloud shape…”

    Exactly! This is precisely the issue with [many] ‘classic’ sunsets: they don’t, and can never, do the situation full justice, and never can due to the lack of a temporal element. Nicely expressed and an interesting experiment / mini-project. Some of these shots work very well, especially the 9th July, mono one second from the top.


  2. Tina

    I love the second black/white sunset, but the first one looks like the dementors are coming…. aaargh!

  3. Mike Colechin

    Fittingly, I saved reading this until now – sat watching the light across Glen Aros from our cottage (we have WiFi – not sure if that’s a good thing). I have similar feelings about dawn nowadays, which has certainly helped my sleep patterns. I also used to get out at these times for the soft light they provide, but as my photography matures I am finding this light at all times of day and I’m also learning to use other types of light to achieve the effects I want. So I will do sunsets and (probably) dawns this holiday but I will be following your mantra and doing them just for the joy of being there and if that inspires some images, great, but absolutely no clichés!

    1. Michael Marten Post author

      I agree about the light at dawn, but I realise that one of the side effects for me in this regard is not directly related to the softness of the light: whilst (a) dawn tends to give soft light “automatically” I realise that (b) there are less likely to be people about if I get up early, and most importantly of all (c) I am fresher and my head is clearer and more ready to think hard about what I’m doing when I get up early in the day. So dawn provides me with the light, but is also the time I think best. The quietness of most locations is then an added bonus!
      Sunsets, of course, are usually soft, but I am not so focused by the evenings… especially after a glass of wine! 🙂
      Glen Aros is lovely – enjoy your time there!

  4. Rob Hudson

    Sunsets and sunrises are strange strange things. Everybody quite naturally has an emotional response to them, yet landscape photographers have an overexposure of them. I guess they pale for more reasons that Amanda Pollen’s social pressures and cultural oneupmanship. In truth we discover there are different things we want to say about the landscape as we mature artistically. We also discover (or some of us do!) that there’s wonderful variety of light throughout the day especially in non ‘ideal’ weather. As a mono photographer I’m constantly on the lookout for cloud cover as a starting point, but weather not being as all that predictable I am happy to respond in whatever light is thrown at us, save the huge breadth of contrast presented by bright sun and shaded woods which I’ve never yet mastered.
    The subtleties are so much greater than the almost divisive reaction of the Dusseldorf School and their many acolytes who responded against the prevailing saturatated to death early velvia sunset images that were prevalent in the eighties. Of course there’s far more variety and subtlety to light than this stark dichotomy would indicate. Every time the sun passes near or behind a cloud, the light changes, no matter what time of day. There are shadows from low sun in winter all year, there is mist, dappled shade and all sorts of interactions between geography, geology and plant life that inflects our landscape, if only we look.
    Most importantly it’s important for me to have something to say about our relationship with the landscape beyond that light, but to find ways of expressing it in that light. The ability to be adaptable to what is thrown at us and still respond by expressing our thoughts visually, is something that most books or magazine articles seem to try to educate out of photographers. So many simply walk away from the less than ‘ideal’ when we should be learning to embrace it as new opportunities to say something differently.

    Enjoy your holiday Mike, I don’t know if any of that was if interest, but it’s pouring with rain here, so I’m sat on the sofa hiding.

    1. Michael Marten Post author

      Yes, I agree with all of this. It is, I think, part of why I find myself drawn to black-and-white film again, which is now (I would guess) about half of what I use – having gone through the “over-saturation phase” and come out of it again when I once more began to take my photography more seriously.
      Even my use of colour film is changing: I do still have a fair amount of Velvia in the fridge and freezer, but I find I’m using more “gentle” films that I think cope better with the variation in light – or perhaps I should say, that I can more easily use in different light.
      And when I have the time to concentrate on what I’m doing, so many light patterns go by that I would at one time have jumped at. I’m more selective about what I want to do and how I want to connect with the land, and I am getting far more from that than just looking for “beautiful light” – it has to be the right light for what I want to do in the space I’m in.

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