My wife and I recently took our second trip to Europe in the last two years. This time we decided on Amsterdam, Croatia, and Santorini, Greece…and we knew Greece was going to be our splurge trip. We landed ourselves in a suite at Oia Castle by Art Maisons, which had a private indoor cave pool, in-suite steam room, starry night bed alcove, and a spacious patio overlooking the sea.

The location was most key, however. There are several other towns, both larger and smaller than Oia, on Santorini. One of those, I hear, is good for partying, another near the marina. Oia has to be the most romantic spot, though, with its walking paths lined with shops, those iconic blue dome churches, dozens of restaurants overlooking the sea, and of course the best views of the sunset. It might come as no surprise then, that summer sunsets in Oia are somewhat of a community event. We went to Santorini during the end of September (great time to go, by the way – fewer tourists yet still sunny), so sunset was at about 7:30. Between 6:30 and 7 all the visitors and some of the locals walk to the very tip of town to get the highest, most westerly-facing view of the sunset – this happens to be the northwestern edge of the island. All the boats arrive just below the town, as well. Hundreds gather to watch the sun paint the sky. And right when the sun goes down below the horizon the town erupts with cheers and applause!

The location was most key, however. There are several other towns, both larger and smaller than Oia, on Santorini. One of those, I hear, is good for partying, another near the marina. Oia has to be the most romantic spot, though, with its walking paths lined with shops, those iconic blue dome churches, dozens of restaurants overlooking the sea, and of course the best views of the sunset. It might come as no surprise then, that summer sunsets in Oia are somewhat of a community event. We went to Santorini during the end of September (great time to go, by the way – fewer tourists yet still sunny), so sunset was at about 7:30. Between 6:30 and 7 all the visitors and some of the locals walk to the very tip of town to get the highest, most westerly-facing view of the sunset – this happens to be the northwestern edge of the island. All the boats arrive just below the town, as well. Hundreds gather to watch the sun paint the sky. And right when the sun goes down below the horizon the town erupts with cheers and applause!

I had been wanting an excuse to try out my new camera gear, and this scene was perfect. I had just bought a NiSi V5 Pro filter set and the filters I got for it would improve the overall exposure of what I wanted to capture. This particular composition is a blend of five photos, and when shooting the various shots I had the following filters:

  • B&W UV filter
  • NiSi Circular Polarizer
  • NiSi 4×6 Multi-coated 0.9 SE (3-stop) Soft Edge Graduated ND Filter
  • NiSi 4×4 Multi-coated IR ND1000 10-stop ND (3.0) Filter (for one of the shots)

Three of the five photos allowed me to get the correct exposure for the sky, sea, and cliffside; one photo for each with the circular polarizer on and graduated ND filter to reduce the light coming in from the sky. This brought the light level of the cliff and the sky closer together so that one shot could almost expose correctly for both sections of the scene. I used the 10-stop ND filter on one of the remaining photos so that I would have to decrease my shutter speed to 30 seconds or more. Doing so allowed me to produce a shot that captured the deepest and brightest colors from the sun, and got rid of most of the people in the shot since they didn’t stay put long enough to burn into the image. The final shot was taken much later than the four others, once the lamps and pool lights were turned on along the cliffside. This shot also used a slow shutter speed, but by this time there was almost no light left in the sky – I was mainly just capturing the artificial lights. I photographed my everlasting model, my wife, looking through my camera’s viewfinder and demoing my initial setup.

Camera and tripod on patio set up for photographing sunset

After some lens profile corrections, I loaded the photos into Aurora HDR for blending. In the past I’ve used Photomatix Pro, but I feel it produces results that are too artificial. With Aurora HDR I was able to generate a more true-to-life image that I could then work with in Photoshop and Lightroom to correct errors and adjust levels and curves. Though it did have more trouble aligning my images, I think I’ll be using Aurora as my go-to tone compressor and HDR merger in the future.

I feel the final image is the most true to life composition of the sunset that I could achieve. I’ve been really excited to make this one for weeks, and there are many more to come. I have seen so many similar photos taken from dozens of cell phone cameras at the scene, but none are able to correctly match the tone and colors that the eye sees. It feels especially good that to represent such a dynamic range of light and colors still requires a bit more skill, the best glass and sensors, so much attention to detail, and RAW images to be able to push in post processing. I’m not sure if I’m ready for the barrier to capturing such a scene to be reduced – I don’t want the “art of the process” taken out of it. One day we’ll be able to point our cell phone cameras at the scene and get this outcome in a few seconds, and I hope I will embrace that moment when it comes.