Sunset beach scene with tips on equipment, setting and editing
I lived in Northern California all of my life and found a never ending supply of subject matter to choose from. One of the advantages of living here is I can springboard from the California coast to the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and everything in between within hours. I recently took a drive to one of my favorite photography spots called Rodeo Beach, located on the West side of the Marin Headlands in Northern California – minutes from San Francisco. This beach offers great views of the headlands, fantastic coastal scenes, along with a nice set of Sea Stacks that have been featured in Popular Photography magazine and captured by many Flickr enthusiasts over the years. I’d like to share some of my techniques and editing flows that I used to produce these images that may be helpful for those who may be thinking about heading to the beach for a few sunset shots.
To produce both images I used the following: various filters, manual camera settings, sturdy tripod, leveling device, camera remote, along with some editing in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), Photoshop and a little luck with the weather.
My go to camera for all of my work has been the ever reliable Canon 5d Mark II, as well as my trusty Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens. I like the 5d Mark II for its High ISO sensitivity, great 21 Megapixel censor, and low light focus sensitivity, which are a must have for those working in less than optimal lighting situations like this scenes above. I used the 17-40mm for its wide angle ability and for the sharp images it produces. The Canon 17-40mm f/4L lens is perfect for almost any landscape scenes, but you need to be careful with focal lengths below 20mm, while using full frame cameras. At around 20mm vignetting begins to be a problem and some cropping in Photoshop will be required. Also, the maximum aperture if f4, which poses a problem for low light situations and you generally need to bump up exposure time or ISO setting to compensate for lighting the scene. Since most of my landscapes are taken on a tripod, this it is generally not an issue.
For stability, I use a Manfrotto 190XDB tripod with a small 486RC2 ball head. If you’re planning on buying a lens greater than a 200mm, I’d advise a getting bigger ball head for additional stability. The excess weight of larger lens could cause unwanted shake during breezy conditions, thus producing blurry images.
For any landscape shots where your exposure time would be greater than 1/50 of a second, I’d recommend getting a remote and firmly plant your camera on a tripod as I did with these shots of the beach. A remote will prevent vibrations caused by your hand during shutter release, especially if you’re doing longer exposures like my images here. Remotes usually run about $40-$50, and are a very handy device to have.
Lastly, the most underestimated and least expensive piece of equipment you should buy is the hot shoe bubble level. This gizmo runs about $7-$10 dollars at most online stores and should be purchased if you use your tripod. In this beach photo we have a very visible horizon line that I needed to keep as straight as possible. I could’ve taken a guess at the horizon line and then correct in Photoshop by rotating and cropping, but you’ll lose a percentage of your composition due to a slightly tilted image. I don’t like giving anything up, especially if it can be prevented and the bubble level will help with that.
I used 2 P-type filters in these images to balance out the light: a Lee 0.9 Neutral Density Hard Graduated Filter and a Singh-Ray reverse Graduated Neutral Density filter. I use both across the horizon line to help balance out the excess light produced by the sun. The ND filter was mounted to a P-type holder and the other was held by hand to easily make adjustments as needed. If I didn’t use these filters, the composition foreground would come out black and most of the scene would appear as a silhouette. My goal was to expose the waves, rocks and sand so that we can see as much detail as possible and the 2 filters helped keep the scene exposed the way I wanted it. For the second image I added a Moose filter for a little polarized warming effect, but had to make few minor adjustments to camera settings on the camera to compensate for the ~2 stop differential.
For any photo I take I always set my camera to generate a RAW file and a JPG. When I edit my photos I’ll only use the RAW file for processing in ACR and Photoshop. The RAW file is the unformatted image that is passed by the censor to your card with only a minimally amount of processing by camera without any compression you get from the other formats. It will produce the best quality photo without any data being stripped out like with the JPG format.
I set my 5d to F9 at 32mm, ISO 400, exposed for 1/2 second. For the 17-40mm lens the sweet spot for sharpness is about f8-f9 and with the images above I set the camera to f9 for the first image, and f8 for the second. I bumped up the sensitivity to ISO 400 to help properly expose the image. Lastly, I wanted to expose the image for 1/2 a second to give the waves a nice soft feel.
I used the histogram to be sure that I didn’t under or overexpose the photo. I’d recommend setting your camera to highlight the overexposed areas in the view screen and adjust your settings to help balance out the composition. The histogram and highlight setting are great tools to aid with correcting over and under exposure.
My work flow on this and other photos I take always start in ACR. When you open your RAW file in Photoshop, the program opens the ACR program automatically. Here you can begin to make your adjustment with contrast, clarity, saturation, white balance, and so on. With both images I start with white balance and shifted a little the cool side (more blue). My camera is usually set to Automatic White Balance (AWB) so some adjust will always be made. I like to leave my camera on AWB since I can adjust easily in ACR to suite my composition. I then adjust for any unwanted overexposure by using a little “recovery” in ACR, or “fill” to help with general under or overexposure. The sunset shots I take always have a little excess light that can easily be removed by adjusting with recovery. I complete my ACR work flow by adding some saturation, vibrancy and hue where needed. Last thing I do is set the sharpness to 0 in ACR. I’ll sharpen later in Photoshop, but I need to reduce the noise first. I purchased an add-on for Photoshop called Noise Ninja. Noise Ninja is the gold standard (in my opinion) for noise reduction, which I added to Photoshop as an add-on program. Once my adjustments are made in ACR, I move my image to Photoshop for further processing.
I now go to the Noise Ninja add-on and make some adjustments. Although the 5d Mark II does a great job of keeping noise to a minimum, we still need to adjust some residual noise out of the composition. After I reduced the noise to my satisfaction, I begin sharpening the image. If I sharpen first before noise reduction, some of that residual noise can be accentuated, which would require an additional noise reduction treatment to pull out.
I move on to some masking work and other specific adjustments I want to make. With my beach scenes I wanted to highlight a little of the detail in the foreground. I selected the darker areas to adjust by creating a mask and adjusted the brightness a bit, then made a few more adjustments to the image with the curve to help balance out the scene a little better. I now save the file with the adjustment layers. For the second image I used some Tonal Contrast to add a little HDR feel. I like to sit on the image for a day and come back to it later to reevaluate what I did and make one last check. When you save the image it’s very important not to merge the layers. Sometimes you might want to come back and make adjustments to what you’ve already edited.
Last thing I do is save the file to the TIFF format. The TIFF doesn’t use compression and retains all the original data from the RAW file including your adjustments. However, keep in mind, when saving in TIFF format you photo will generally exceed 50MB, but that’s ok. I’d rather have great images I can work with than one that has been stripped of data. Furthermore, storage is cheap, and an external 1TB drive runs about $99. With a JPG file some of the data is removed when the file is saved due to the compression aspect of this file format. That’s why we NEVER shoot with JPG, only the RAW format. Although most cameras allow you to do both and that’s fine if you have space on your card.
Date and location
For us Northern California folks, summer time brings the fog, which can make it a little tricky to get those sunset shots on the beach. Winter time tends to be the best time to snap beach scenes due to limited fog interruptions. My first Rodeo Beach shot was taken in late October, just about the time when the fog begins to diminish for the season and the second photo was taken in January.
As noted earlier, Rodeo Beach is located the Marin Headlands just North of San Francisco. I’ve included a satellite image with an arrow pointing to the exact location. If you ever get a chance to visit San Francisco, I’d recommend taking the 15 minute drive over the Golden Gate to the Marin Headlands for some fantastic views of the San Francisco skyline and surrounding communities. The beach is located on the Western side of the headlands and is relatively easy to find. Just go to this National Park Service URL to get the map: http://www.nps.gov/goga/planyourvisit/upload/map-mahe-web.pdf
I hope you found this article helpful. Over the years of shooting with various folks in the San Francisco / Bay Area, I’ve picked up a range of tips and supportive hints that have allowed me to grow my photography into what it is today. However, everyone has their own flow to capture an edit a photograph in Photoshop. I’d highly recommend that you develop your own flow and apply it to your photography. The best picture taken is the one you feel most happy with.
About Michael Marfell
Michael is an amateur photographer out of San Jose, California. Most of his work consists of landscapes and night photography. He loves the call of the night and is typically crawling in some shadow every full moon taking shots of old buildings, decaying military installations or some of those more famous structures in San Francisco, California. However, he does not limit himself to the night. He enjoys snapping shots of whatever catches his eye under any condition. Sometimes he can be found at the coast taking sunset shots or in the Sierra Nevada’s climbing some granite trails looking for some obscure landscape scene.
A little background on Michael…
Michael’s professional background is as a technical account management with a focus on web services implementation and project management (working for one of those crazy “.com’s” in Silicon Valley with strange Greek names). However, he does photograph semi-professionally. Some of his work can be found on Getty Images, in select magazines and other websites.
If you’re in the San Francisco bay area and want to go out on a shoot, let him know. He is always looking to meet photographers, exchange ideas and enjoy the light of the night with a fellow nocturne.
See More of Michael’s Awesome Photography