Cinematography Mailing List - CML

Shooting Sunsets

I have another "hands-on" question: a while back I was hit with the prospect of getting a sunset shot while on location ... the director decided to throw it at me while we were shooting a silhouette (it was starting to look beautiful, so I could see where he was coming from). He wanted the sun setting over the water, with our silhouetted character in foreground. Broken cloud ... looked like the sun was going to pop just above the water and then slip below the horizon ... so having got the original shot already we thought we'd wait for it.

Didn't happen as we thought (sun failed to pop at the horizon), but I shot some 'clean' of the sun higher up just in case. OK, I shot that as a test really, because I didn't think it was going to work, and in TK it didn't, so I guess I was lucky we were covered!

I had an SR with a 150-600 Optex ... 85 in the rear tray, Pola, ND9 to get the stop down ...7293 ... can't remember my stop (it was last year) but bracketed somewhere between 8 and 16 I think.

Anyway, as expected the problem was not exposure (though the sun itself was pretty much out the top), but all the stray reflections, including a major double image, off all the filters. No sharp, beautiful pic of the sun, with dark clouds passing through.

My question is, in this position what could have I done to achieve the desired result? What if we'd had time to plan it? Overcrank? Close the shutter angle? All the above?

Just how do they get those awesome long-lens stock-shots of sunsets?

Phil Burchell DP Auckland, New Zealand.

Go to a much slower stock and ditch every spare bit of glass?

I'm not sure shutter angle would be a good idea, depends on foreground content, sunset over sea will be disturbing with narrow shutter.


Phil, I may be mistaken but I believe if you can slant the filters so that they aren't parallel with the front of the lens you will greatly reduce the reflections. Similar to slanting a wall picture to keep the camera from seeing the reflection of a light. Panavision probably offers something that will do the trick or you can contrive your own arrangement to keep the filters at an angle other than parallel to the lens.

I'm also left wondering if putting the polarizer last might help reduce the reflections.

Allen, Jim R. III

I remember one of the first shots I did of the sun on a picture. It was of the sun sinking behind some trees in Tuscany, on a film called 'Much Ado About Nothing'. It was the end of the shooting day and the cameraman asked me to knock off a few close shots of the sun(I was the first assistant, or focus puller). I duly loaded up with Pola, ND etc and shot away. Next day Ken Branagh remarked acidly at rushes, "I see, so this film is set on the planet of three suns, is it?" I cringed in shame.

But I think using any filter forward of the lens may result in this problem. There is a trick that can work, to swing the matte box slightly away from the lens so that the filters are at a slight angle to the film plane. This means any double reflection is out of the field of view.

Obviously you must watch for and eliminate any light leak round the rear of the matte box. This trick is useful with candles or any hotspot in the frame when using filters.

In fact Panavision do offer a matte box with an inclining stage specifically for this problem. Using gels or filters behind the lens should also improve things, and or using shutter or camera speed to reduce exposure instead of NDs or Pola filters.

Chris Plevin

I've shot a few of these, the ingredients include: (1) the right time, day, place, and atmospheric conditions (a.k.a. luck), (2) a long lens with a focal length of 200mm or greater, preferably a prime so you have less flair and stray reflections, (4) No filters, or at most a single filter in a tilting filter stage set at the proper angle to avoid reflections, that sun is one big specular, my experience has been it's better to stop way down that to use multiple NDs, forget about image degradation at smaller f/stops in this case, and (5) reversal films often leads to better sunsets due to the increased color saturation with underexposure, then make a internegative from the reversal film, though I've caught a beautiful sunset on the old Agfa XT 320 negative film, but then again, it fit the desaturated look of the film.

Dave Tames

Best sunset Ive ever shot consisted of 5298 with only a sunset filter in front of a long lens stopped way down. The foreground objects were white buildings, which turned very blue, but were barely on the toe. When properly timed, it looked very good with the orange sunset and not too orange surroundings contrasted by the barely blue buildings. I believe that one of the other things that helped this shot out in terms of flares, was the fact that the sun was in the middle of the frame (in the crosshairs), so any flares from the reflections in the glass would be contained inside the already bright areas of the sun.

Conrad Hunziker, III

Thanks Dave for your detailed answer. Any clues as to how you set your stop? I remember metering the sun (through a suitable stack of ND to protect my eye) at a little above f45 (ISO100), but just outside the rim of the sun itself the reading dropped off rapidly to around 11 or 16 ... 3 stops roughly. I guessed at around a 22 (to put the sun in zone 7-8) but it was still out the top in telecine (no detail) so I guessed wrong.

On reversal you must be hitting a much less arbitrary stop (ie being more precise), so I'm curious.

Phil Burchell DP Auckland, New Zealand.

Thanks for the replies about shooting the sun. That's what I love about this forum: I can ask a question like that and get a straightforward answer, even if it's one that I should slap my forehead and go "Duh ... why didn't I think of that"!! Yet another little gem to go into my shooting notes file.

I remember thinking about that at the time: should I use a polarizer at all (I had an N6 available), and then does it's position in the stack have any effect. From memory, it didn't show any difference through the viewfinder. I also thought that a Pola in the rear holder (ie: last before the gate) might be best to cut out the indirect stuff (I didn't have one).

Phil Burchell DP Auckland, New Zealand.

FYI, we can thank William Fraker, ASC for suggesting this simple feature to Panavision for solving such a common problem.

Layne Uyeno

Here is another mystery to solve. I put a filter in front of a zoom (12.5 to 75mm) lens on my Bolex ( Glass, not the behind the lens gelatin type). I shot the sunset over the course of about twenty degrees above horizon, to actually disappearing, at different focal lengths.

NO REFLECTIONS. Maybe it was because I was in Hawaii?

Steven Gladstone

I used a still camera once ( well I was on vacation with my Bolex, and didn't have my spot meter with me) used the internal meter to read the whole scene ( including the water, sun, and sky), converted the exposure for the Bolex. it was Perfect.

Steven Gladstone

Caleb Deschanel discusses this in the book "Film Lighting" - he says that the exposure depends on the focal length and how large the sun appears in the frame. With an extremely long lens, with the disc of the sun filling the frame, obviously you have to expose for the sun itself (he suggested making it little hot by overexposing it after taking a spot-meter reading).

If the sun only fills a small part of the frame, then you'll expose more for the sky around the sun.

Here in L.A., when I've shot the sun setting with a long lens (like a 600mm), I've usually used 5245 with one 85N9 filter, usually at a f/16. I like the double orange effect from the 85; but I've never used more than one filter out of fear of reflections. I find that if the sun is huge enough in frame, it's pretty hard to underexpose it, unless you are shooting on a very hazy day (in which case it becomes easier to spot meter it...)

I once got to shoot a sun setting behind a mountaintop in Oregon with a 1200mm lens - it was strange because I could see a focus difference between a tree on the mountaintop, and the sun ball behind it - and that tree was miles away. The biggest problem became keeping the camera steady enough.

I had to lock off the eyepiece and just let it run so that I would not add any vibrations.

David Mullen

On that large fireball we call the sun. Using a 600mm or longer will get you that large ball.

And as far as exposure is concerned I'll have to agree with Geoff, using a slow film stock is the best route. A little trick I learned a few years back when making an exposure reading for a sunset shot: Don't aim your spot meter at the sun....go for the sky surrounding the sun.

Now grant it the gods that be will not give you a spectacular sunset you would like to have everyday. In LA we don't always have those wonderful smog screened orange sunsets...there are days oddly enough where the marine layer turns it into a "white sunset"...white sun, white sky. Graduated filters will make you look like a hero! Just don't compensate your exposure for the grads...I've seen a few who have made that mistake.

Hope this helped!

Luc G. Nicknair

Well maybe. I'd like to think it was a localised effect so I could argue the case for shooting next production there. You don't always see the reflections; according to Murphy's Law, they only appear when you get a really good sunset and you're in the right place to shoot it, and everything else is working, ie foreground action etc. They don't appear when you're struggling to change stocks or with a camera jam, or the actor trips up or fluffs his lines on that clifftop sunset shot.

Sometimes you can get away with a single filter; I would imagine if the front element of the lens has a marked curvature and the sun is sufficiently off centre frame then any reflection will be outside field of view. The problem seems to occur mostly when you have multiple layers of flat glass in front of the lens. I suppose if they were absolutely parallel to each other and the sun was dead centre, then the internal reflections caused would cover themselves.

Chris Plevin

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