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A Dazzling Golden-Blue Sky at Sunset: In-Camera and Post-Processing

Good decisions made in-camera can give you a great shot; good post-processing can enhance the impact of that great shot and turn it into a masterpiece. In this article, a landscape photographer takes us through the key decisions that led to this stunning image, from the composition to his choice of filter and finally, to the post-processing enhancements that brought out the best in the shot. (Reported by: Jiro Tateno, Digital Camera Magazine)

Golden-blue sunset with water reflection

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM/ FL: 19mm/ Manual exposure (f/14, 1 sec)/ ISO 100/ WB: 4,800K/ GND filter
Location: Nagura Bay, Ishigaki Islands, Okinawa/ Time: 18:59, early June

Nagura Bay, the location of this image, has very shallow waters. As it is recessed into land, the waters are much calmer than the open sea. There are practically no waves except in very bad weather.

This shot was taken just a while after the sun had dipped below the horizon. The clouds that were still in the sky were glowing from the remaining rays, resulting in the beautiful blue-orange colour gradient.


Step 1: Choose the best composition to showcase the colours

For this shot: Incorporate the water reflection; use a split composition

I felt that the best way to show the beauty of the sky was to capture it in symmetry together with its reflection on the water surface. The split composition worked best for this.

To ensure that my shot contained the same amount of the colourful parts of the sky in the water reflection and the sky itself, I shot from a high angle.

If I had used the Rule of Thirds

Blue seascape with moon and a bit of red sunset

Using a different composition can change the story that the image tells. The image above was shot under almost the same conditions as the main image in this article. The only difference is that it was framed using the Rule of Thirds, and includes the moon, the sunset, and the sea. With this change, the new shot now tells about the transition from evening into night.


Step 2: Use a graduated ND filter to even out differences in brightness

For this shot: An ND4 filter that reduces the brighter part of the scene by 2 stops

When I took the shot in the late evening, the sky and the sea were already almost of the same brightness. However, the sky was still just a bit brighter.

A graduated ND filter (GND filter) is perfect for evening out small differences in brightness like this. Of course, I could have fixed it in post-processing too, but I like being able to check the outcome on the spot.

For this shot, I used an ND4 filter, placing it so that the dark part of the filter covered the image from slightly below the horizon line upwards.

The 'No filter' example was exposed for the reflection of the sunset. The sky is too bright, and the colour contrasts appear weak. The brightest parts of the image are blown out.

The GIF image below shows how using a GND retained more detail in the sky and enhanced colour contrasts.

See another example of a GND filter in action in:
6 Useful EOS R Features for Photographing Mountains with Clouds


Step 3: Enhance the gradient of colours in RAW post-processing

My final step was to neaten up the image in post-processing so the ombre colours in the sky and sea surface looked more impactful.

Post-processing step 1: Further reduce uneven brightness with the gradient filter

While I had toned down the brightness of the sky with the GND filter, it was still a little brighter than desired. You can skip this step if you are satisfied with the results from using the GND filter.

I applied the gradient filter tool slightly below the horizon line (on the brightest part of the water reflection) and reduced the brightness until it was the same level as the rest of the sea surface. Then, I increased the contrast until the details looked sufficiently distinct.

Image showing where gradient filter was applied

Using the gradient filter tool and adjusting Brightness to “-0.15” and Contrast to “+18” evened out the brightness between the sky and the sea for this shot.

Post-processing step 2: Use the radial filter tool to draw more attention to the sunset colours

Next, I used the radial filter tool to select the parts of the image with the colourful sunset. I then reduced the brightness of those parts. This draws the viewer’s line of sight to the centre of the image, making the ombre sunset look even more impactful.

Image showing where radial filter was applied

To enhance the colour gradient and draw viewers’ attention to the centre of the image, I used the radial filter to select the area shown and reduce its brightness. The value used for the shot was “-0.20”.


For another tutorial on photographing water reflections of the sky at sunset, but with more information on capturing the reflection, see:
Reflections: An Endless Seascape at Sunset

You might also be interested in:
RAW Image Processing: How to Bring Out the Blue in Blue Hour Photos
Getting Started in Landscape Photography: 5 Things to Know


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Digital Camera Magazine

Digital Camera Magazine

A monthly magazine that believes that enjoyment of photography will increase the more one learns about camera functions. It delivers news on the latest cameras and features and regularly introduces various photography techniques.
Published by Impress Corporation

Jiro Tateno

Jiro Tateno

Born in Tokyo in 1975. From around 1990, he came into contact with nature through fly fishing, and took up photography. From 1999, he travelled around the country taking photos with the theme of "Natural Beauty". He currently supplies photos for magazines, books, posters, calendars, and so on. He held an "Okinawa" photo exhibition in 2010, and "Northern Lights - Journey of Light/ Iceland" photo exhibition in 2017.