Ask New Zealand landscape photographer Colin Southern for his secret to capturing dramatic sunsets such as these and he'll give you a very helpful answer. "It's not so much a 'secret' as it is a combination of several techniques revolving around composition, exposure, and processing.
"First, let's talk composition. Wide-angle lenses -- especially on full-frame cameras -- allow for very aggressive and wide perspectives. My technique for this 'Mountains in the Mist" seascape shot was to position the camera and lens so the horizon appears 1/3 down from the top of the frame (the rule of thirds), and then -- while keeping the horizon line in place - lowering the height of the camera above the ground to accent the size of the foreground objects. In this case the boulders were quite small so it was necessary to get the camera very close to them-- about 12 inches above the ground. Wide-angle lenses make things look much smaller and further away than they really are. In framing compositions like this, there is a tendency to get too close due to the small representation of the image seen through the viewfinder. The 'trick' is to compare the width of an object in the viewfinder with the width of the total image and consider it as a proportion. Although this will vary from image to image, as a rule of thumb, I know if the width of an image takes up 20 to 40% of the horizontal space available then it will appear to be a fairly significant feature in the final print.
"Second, let's talk exposure. Getting the correct exposure on this type of shot can be difficult. On one hand, there is still considerable energy in the light of the sun during a 1-minute exposure. And yet on the other hand, there needs to be enough shadow detail available in the deep and dark crevices between the rocks. To accomplish this I used a Singh-Ray 3-Stop hard-edge Reverse ND Grad as the starting point. My 'secret' plan -- or technique -- includes using a slightly toned-down exposure of the RAW image file for the upper half of the final image along with a brighter exposure of the same Raw image for the lower half that I brought up with the RAW converter's fill light control.
"At this point you might be asking 'why a one minute exposure?' Shhh... don't tell anyone, but this is what generates the 'mist.' There really wasn't any mist visable in the scene. It is simply the effect you get when you use a long exposure to capture waves breaking over rocks. On a side note, Singh-Ray's excellent Vari-ND filters are absolutely superb tools for creating these 'mist' type shots, allowing you to dictate both shutter speed for the desired smooth-water effect as well as the best aperture setting to achieve the desired depth-of-field.
Third, let's discuss processing. In an ideal situation, the longer the exposure the more pleasing the 'mist,' but it's not quite that easy. With long exposures of several minutes around sunset, the light levels can vary significantly making the exact exposure more of an educated guess often with little opportunity to reshoot if you get it wrong. In this case, I made five 60-second exposures. However, the breaking waves and the camera's placement only 12 inches above the ground was an open invitation for Murphy's 1st Law and I ended up with too much water on the filter for the last two shots to be useable, so the final composition consisted of three 60-second exposures. I'm often asked how I blend multiple exposures like this in Photoshop. Actually, it's very easy. All I need to do is open each of the three images -- using the move tool to flick the images across to become layers on a single image -- and then adjust the opacity of each layer (100% for the bottom layer -- 50% for the 2nd up from the bottom -- 33% for the 3rd). As a side note I also use this technique to dramatically reduce noise in high-ISO, high-noise images.
"I'm including this second image of Maruia River to reinforce how many of the techniques I've outlined above can be applied to a fairly wide variety of other compositions. And although most will agree this is a completely different type of image, surprisingly, I used most of the same techniques mentioned above, including:
- The "horizon" was still set 1/3 from the top -- where the sun meets the hills.
- The height of the camera was adjusted to give a pleasing size to foreground boulders -- for this shot, the camera was much higher above ground because the boulders were much larger.
- Again, my Singh-Ray 3-stop hard-edge Reverse ND Grad was used to balance highlights and shadows.
- In this case, however, a much shorter exposure was needed to produce the desired water effects -- as determined earlier from several test shots."