Towers of Gold: Shooting City Sunsets with Neal Kumar

A photography guide on how Neal Kumar (@nealkumar) captures the city during sunset with his iPhone and Moment lenses. Using clouds, skyline, and reflections to capture epic sunsets.

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What I love about photographing sunsets, is that they provide a constantly changing creative challenge. Each sunset is unique, defined by the place, skyline, and subjects. On top of that there’s endless flexibility in how you frame the sky or add subjects to the foreground, especially in a city environment.  The creative possibilities are endless.

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Before shooting sunsets I always check the weather forecast. I prefer conditions that have some elements of clouds in the sky as they provide texture and create vivid colors by scattering the light. When shooting with zero clouds the light is harsher with a straight forward color gradient right at sunset. However even if the forecast predicts overcast or rain, I’ve seen storm clouds move right at sunset to fill the sky with incredible, unpredictable colors. You just need a 5 minute window to capture magic.

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In a city there are several ways to frame the sky, combining the urban foreground with colorful background. If you are above the city on a balcony or rooftop, you can use the city’s skyline during sunset as your foreground. Be sure to arrive 30-60 minutes before sunset and wait until 10-20 minutes after sunset for variations in the lighting and color. Sometimes during the hour before sunset the light can illuminate or reflect off buildings, and after sunset there can be lingering color in the sky combined with building lights starting to turn on.

Capturing the sunset in the streets of downtown can be a little more challenging with buildings blocking part of the sky. However it’s certainly possible especially if you are on a street that’s aligned on an east/west axis.

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Puddles, lakes, and beaches can offer bodies of water to reflect the sunset. If you are at the right distance from some buildings you can also get their reflection in the water with the sunset behind them.

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To really bring out the colors of a sunset with a camera phone it’s often necessary to decrease the exposure.  On touchscreen camera phones try touching one of the brighter areas.  On an iPhone you can touch and hold your finger on the screen until the focus/exposure locks.  Then you can touch the screen and slide your finger down to manually decrease the exposure until you get enough color in the sky.  Adjusting exposure in the moment app is very straightforward, all you need to do is touch the screen and slide your finger to the left to decrease exposure.

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If you are using other subjects as your foreground such as a person or a taxi, try to shoot them in the light, not in the shadows. This allows you to keep the exposure low enough to not wash out the colors in the sky.

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Shooting sunsets in the city offers so many opportunities to be creative while using the natural beauty of the sky. It’s one of my favorite ways to add color to photos which is often lacking in urban environments. The best sunsets can be difficult to predict, and while challenging at times, it’s also extremely fun and rewarding when everything comes together.

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