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Scott Kelby's Photo Recipe: Dramatic Sunset Portrait

In this excerpt from The Digital Photography Book, Part 5, Scott Kelby shares details on how to get a great sunset portrait.
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BEHIND THE SCENES: Okay, the dramatic part is here, I’m just not quite sure the sunset part is. It was too cloudy for the sun to actually make an appearance, but this is the technique I use for sunset portraits (it’s really based on the settings, which I’ll go over below and on the next page). If you’re thinking, “Gosh, he’s using that same 24x24" softbox again,” it’s because that’s pretty much what I use on location—that and the big Westcott Apollo I used earlier in this chapter. Those are my two go-to softboxes, so that’s what I use (no sense in me pulling out a bunch of stuff I don’t really use or wouldn’t recommend, right?). As far as setting up this shot, we are just across the river from downtown, and there’s a lot of distracting stuff already in the scene, so to eliminate all of it from view, I generally get down really low and shoot upward. In this case, I sat down on the ground and aimed upward to compose the shot so you would see some of the downtown buildings, but you wouldn’t see the distracting palm trees creeping in from the sides (although I did have to have a friend hold back the palm fronds on the right—that’s why her foot is making a cameo appearance), and this angle hid all the shrubs and most of the pylons and ropes and such.

CAMERA SETTINGS: For the final image on the facing page, I’m using a 16–35mm super-wide-angle lens (on a full-frame camera), zoomed in to 29mm. Notice that I kept our subject from getting too close to the edges where she’d get stretched and distorted. My shutter speed is my standard 1/125 of a second, but my f-stop is f/5.6 (more on why on the facing page). My ISO is 100.

Final Image

THOUGHT PROCESS: When it gets late in the day like this, I use a technique that makes the sky much darker and more dramatic. It starts with putting your subject with their back to the setting sun (as I did here). Next, you’re going to intentionally underexpose the shot by about 2 stops or so (making the sky much darker than it really is). You need to do this in manual mode: Start with your shutter speed set to 1/125 of a second, then don’t touch it again. Move your f-stop until you get a proper exposure reading. Look at the little meter inside your viewfinder (it’s either along the bottom or the right side) and get it to the center position by moving just your f-stop. When you get the proper exposure (let’s say it was f/2.8, for example), then you’d raise your f-stop to around f/8 (two full stops darker) or so and take a test shot. If your subject now looks like a silhouette against the sunset sky, then just turn on the flash with a low power setting (like 1/4-power) and you’re good to go. If they don’t look like a silhouette, you need to darken the scene even more (try f/9 or f/10) and do a test shot again until you see they finally do look like a silhouette. That’s your goal: to get them black against a dark sky. Then, turn on the flash.

POST-PROCESSING: Just a few things: (1) I increased the Contrast in Lightroom’s Develop module (or Camera Raw), (2) I did standard portrait retouching, and (3) I applied the Nik Color Efex Pro plug-in’s Tonal Contrast filter twice in a row to make the clouds in the sky have all that detail. Then, I added a layer mask in Photoshop and painted over our subject with a soft brush to remove the effect from her, leaving it just on the sky.

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