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Scenic Arizona: Photography tips for Arizona sunsets

There is no more romantic time than sunset, when diffuse rays paint the sky in reds and oranges and purples. And something about the desert infuses these colors with a vivid clarity found nowhere else. Low-lying clouds form a canvas for the day’s last bit of light, a masterpiece painted from a palette crafted by nature. There is no better way to bid goodbye to a day that started with such beauty stretching overhead. Here are photo tips from Arizona Republic photographer Rob Schumacher and travel tips from Explore Arizona contributor Roger Naylor.

Best time to shoot

Be ready to shoot the “golden hour,” 30 minutes before the sun touches the horizon and 30 minutes after. Once the sun drops below the horizon, the next 30 minutes is soft, beautiful light. Many factors contribute to a colorful sunset, including thin or patchy clouds; high humidity; and smog, dust or smoke in the air.

Photo tips for the SLR expert

Color balance: Don’t use Auto-White Balance. It will slightly dull the natural colors. Instead, select Daylight mode. Switch back to Auto WB after the sun is below the horizon.

Underexpose a sunset by 1 stop. Most cameras in Auto Mode tend to overexpose this scene.

Try manual mode. Select an ISO speed and shutter speed that you’re comfortable hand-holding, like 800 ISO and 500 sec. Then try a variety of F-stop settings. 

If you prefer Auto modes, use “Tv” Mode, Auto ISO. Set the shutter speed to 500 sec. and the camera will do the rest. If your preview images look too light, set your +/- compensation to “-1” (this will underexpose the scene by “-1” stop.) Then try “-2” stops. Use a variety of exposures.

After the sun passes below the horizon, it’s best to set your camera to Auto ISO. Tv Mode, Shutter speed 250 sec. Due to lower shutter speeds and light, brace yourself to be extra still when taking a picture. Better still, use a tripod.

Tips for the point-and-shoot amateur

A photograph generally consists of two elements: foreground and background. Find an interesting object, such as a tree or a person, for the foreground element of your sunset photograph. Remember that your foreground subject will be a silhouette. 

Don’t place the horizon line in the middle of the frame. Use the “rule of thirds” — envision your frame being divided into thirds horizontally and vertically.

Steady your phone on a tripod, car, bench or fence.

Don’t sweat it, photography should be fun.

If your smartphone image looks washed out, touch the screen and move the exposure icon down until the color looks good to you. 

Common mistakes to avoid

Most important thing is to protect your eyes. Don’t stare directly at the sun with your eyes or through your viewfinder.

Filters are not needed.

Don’t hold your camera or phone out in front of you. Keep it as close to your body as possible to prevent motion blur. Wedge your elbows against your chest and hold the camera or phone with both hands.

Where to photographs sunsets

In Sedona, the most popular sunset-viewing spot is atop Airport Mesa. Hordes of tourists gathering in the slanted light of late afternoon, cameras at the ready. Another option is to park at Courthouse Vista, the parking area and trailhead for Bell Rock. Insiders like to set up at Baby Bell and incorporate distinctive Cathedral Rock in their shots. Baby Bell is a small red sandstone formation just north of Bell Rock and can be reached by a 10-minute hike from the Courthouse Vista parking lot.

Lake Havasu is another lovely spot, with water in the foreground and the sun setting behind the Mohave Mountains.

Gates Pass Road in Tucson is a terrific high point to photograph the sun setting behind the Tucson Mountains. Drive west on Speedway Boulevard until it becomes Gates Pass Road. Pull off at the Gates Pass Overlook parking lot to get your shots.

You don’t have to go far to find great sunsets, however. You can get terrific shots of the Superstition Mountains from Lost Dutchman State Park in Apache Junction. And all of the Maricopa County Parks that ring the Valley have mountains and cactuses that will add pizazz to your sunset photos.

 

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