One of the most highly sought after sessions I offer is the family sunset session. It is the optimal time to create magical portraits through an indelible session experience.
These sessions, however, can be challenging if not properly orchestrated. The location, timing, session flow, and equipment need to be thoughtfully planned to achieve success.
I’m here to share with you some insider tips to achieve coveted dreamy images at sunset.
Harnessing the light needed to achieve dreamy sunset images is dependent on location. Whether a client is interested in an open sky sunset beach session or a wooded path with flourishing light, I need to consider where the sun sets and how the colors will interact with that environment.
New England has very distinct seasons and the colors are ever-changing. This creates variety in my images but is an ever-thoughtful endeavor as I am continuously assessing changing light even at repeat locations.
Location tip: Scout a session location 2-3 days prior and get to know your light.
Consider where you will place your subjects. Think about the surroundings and what you will be able to use to diffuse the light if necessary. Crafting the vision ahead of time will focus your session plan.
Sunset sessions take place during the golden hour, the hour just before sunset. This timing, while the most wonderful for purposes of light and color, is often in opposition of a toddler’s “happy time” as it is likely aligned with bedtime.
Since I work quite often with young families, this is especially important to convey and articulate. I get inquires all the time about these sessions and despite the name “sunset” and the near nighttime imagery, parents often are surprised that these sessions take place so late in the evening. It does not work for everyone’s schedule.
However, when everyone is on board and we plan appropriately, the session moves very quickly and I am able to capture varied and dynamic portraits in a short amount of time. Most children do wonderful at these sessions as there is enough stimulus to incite exploration and observation (what I wish to capture).
Timing tip: Educate parents with specifics about the session. Suggest toddlers take a nap later in the day, to push back bedtime if needed, and that they feed the kid(s) before the session and/or bring a snack along.
3. Session flow
Within the one hour session, I have a session flow that is fluid and purposeful. Each image I shoot is with intention, to artfully compose the family’s story through authentic connection.
This requires me to direct. I engage the family in a purposeful task (cuddling, sitting, strolling, lifting baby, etc.) positioned with the backlighting I desire.
Look for areas where there are pockets of light that will illuminate. Backlighting softens the imagery and creates a dreamy effect. In this way, I am able to maintain consistent shadows while creating beautiful rim light that illuminates my subjects.
Since I typically shoot with a shallow depth of field, the background and foreground are naturally separated and the focus on the child happens with little effort.
Session flow tip: Find light pockets. Use a spotlight technique. Find the pocket of sunshine where the light is already being diffused by foliage and place the subject(s) within that patch.
In open space, position your body lower to the ground and position subjects in a way that they are blocking the light.
I presently shoot with the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and use mostly prime lenses as they are typically faster and have larger apertures, enabling the quick shutter speeds I need for fast moving subjects and hand holding the camera. This is essential as I lose light during these late evening sessions.
With prime lenses, I am able to maintain shutter speed without significantly raising my ISO. There are a lot of adjustments to make in camera as the light shifts very quickly. Thus, it is important to change manual settings throughout the short session.
I shoot very wide open, primarily in consideration of my aperture, and adjust my settings thereafter. I often shoot into the sun and anticipate post processing to increase contrast, blacks and clarity. The fixed lens forces me to physically move closer or further away from my subjects to create the story I am telling, and I have to make very specific lens choices for the desired effect.
There are four lenses I adore for these sessions and I use them for specific purposes. I shoot with only one body, so I try to switch out lenses when I am attempting to flow into the next segment of my session.
I often begin sessions with this lens because of the necessary closeness in proximity required. I use a 35mm to encapsulate a wider view while illuminating the subject. I am able to interact closely with my subjects, suggest sibling interaction, and craft authentic responses (i.e. make children smile and laugh with my lame jokes).
This lens is one of my favorite all-time lenses. The focal length is perfect for allowing me to be close enough to my subjects to talk and direct but also far enough away that the space between creates opportunity for movement. The bokeh is super dreamy, making it a fabulous lens to capture individual child portraits.
The 200mm is the sharpest and creamiest lens in my arsenal. It is incredibly fast, allowing me to capture quick moving action. When using it, the physical distance between me and my subjects is immense so as I photograph the family, I am a true observer, documenting their time playing and just being together. I am able to capture little ones in their natural state exploring, playing, and enjoying their family.
Finally, at the end of the session, I love to use a creative lens like a fisheye to add additional whimsy and artistic perspective. This lens functions wonderfully in low light. There is significant intended distortion which creates fun possibilities with children. This is presently the only lens I shoot with that is not a prime lens.
With all of the aforementioned lenses, I meter in camera and expose for the subject’s face as opposed to sky. By metering for the face, I maintain detail and expression, and with the backlight, I capture the beautiful rim around hair and shoulders.
I generally underexpose my images just a tad and later bump my exposure and add light into my shadows in post processing. This may seem contrary but because I often want to bring back information from my skies, I do not prefer to completely blow them out.
Equipment tip: Move your body. Experiment with your position. I always find it easier to move my shooting position than to attempt to reposition young children I’m photographing.
If you find there is too much light entering your sensor, trying shooting from above your subject or get really low and shoot up at your subject. A slight shift in your positioning can make all the difference in nailing a tack sharp image.
Words & photos by Tracy Sweeney, member of the Click Canon 12