But you are often left to wonder why the sunrise/sunset captured by your camera or phone isn’t nearly as impressive as what your eyes saw and your brain remembers.
The reason: Your camera’s (or phone’s) brain doesn’t work like the human brain.
When you look at a sunrise, sunset or other landscape, your eyes and brain work in tandem to comprehend the scene. Your pupils adjust as your eyes scan the scene, allowing you to see the deep colors in the bright sky as well as the detail in the shadows as your brain stitches it all into one image.
Sunset behind a traveling carnival in shopping center parking lot, 1977 photo, Russell, Ky.
But a camera — either digital or film — isn’t nearly as flexible as the human eye and brain. The dynamic range — the total range from the darkest shadow to the brightest highlight that the camera can resolve in a single shot — of a digital sensor or film is much more limited. You can get the sky but everything in the shadows on the ground and in the foreground turns black, leaving you with a silhouette. Or you can get recognizable detail in the shadows and the sky turns white. Or, if you are using autoexposure, you often end up with pale color in the sky and little detail in the shadows — the worst of both worlds — as the camera attempts to achieve an acceptable compromise between the bright and dark areas.
Sunset behind Empire State Building and skyline, New York City.
In the old pre-digital days, you were stuck with what you got.
But digital photographers with access to software like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom or users of smartphones of recent vintage have a relatively easy way to address the overly bright and overly dark issues created by sunrises and sunsets. It’s called HDR — high dynamic range. You’ve probably seen the HDR letters show up on your phone’s camera screen.
Simply put, HDR used multiple photos taken at different exposures and blends them together, using one shot to preserve the color in the sky, another shot to capture the mid-tones and another to save the detail in the shadows. It’s technology defeating the dynamic range limitations of a camera to create something more similar to what our eyes and brain see.