Photographing the San Diego Skyline at Sunset

Mary and I just spent a weekend on Coronado Island to celebrate our 9th wedding anniversary AND to do a little photography.  One of the pleasures of Coronado is the stunning view of the San Diego skyline from Centennial Park which is at the end of Orange Avenue.  We photographed sunset three times.  If you have the time, interest, and disposition – spending 2 hours here can be one of the most rewarding of experiences, whether you are a serious photographer or not.  On Friday and Saturday, we began shooting at 5:30 PM and ended after 7:30 PM.  We shared the park and adjacent beach with several other photographers and many spectators.  Here is what you might see and how the changing light gives you many different and beautiful photos.  All times are Pacific Standard Time (Daylight Savings Time started last Sunday).

Around 5:30 – 6:00 PM

The sun has not set yet, but is low on the horizon with a yellow color.  The two Hyatt towers that are white will start to glow yellow and the sun will bounce off of the San Diego downtown Marriott building creating a bright reflection and reflected “sun star.”  A shot or two here is enough.  This is the time to test your equipment and compositions while you can still see well.

Sun star and reflection around 5:40 PM

6:00 to 6:30 PM

The sun sets at 6 PM.  There is a “dead” time here where not much is happening.  The lights are not on, yet, and the sunlight is yet to bounce off of the clouds and sky.  Just enjoy the view.  As the sun falls further below the horizon, the light will start to bounce off of the atmosphere above the buildings and color the clouds and you will start to get some good color.

Sun has set - around 6 PM
The lights come on and the pinks begin in the sky - around 6:20 PM

6:30 to 7:00 PM

Now, you will get very busy.  I recomposed here to get the beautiful color in the sky.  It actually got brighter for 15 minutes or so as the sunlight below the horizon bounced off of the clouds.  This is NOT what your eyes will see.  It will appear much darker.  This is a 15 second exposure at ISO 200 at f/16.

Pink Clouds and Blue Sky - around 6:35 PM. For more information about this image, click here.

7:00 – 7:30 PM

You will see the pink in the clouds slowly disappear.  The sky gets darker and the lights on the buildings begin to shine.  This is the “blue hour.”  The sky is not black yet, but your eyes can not see how it has become a beautiful azul (dark, rich, blue), but your camera can see it with a long exposure.  Here is where you can experiment with different exposures to get different color in the sky, brightness of the city lights, and reflections in the San Diego Bay.

Blue Hour with a "hot" Marriott hotel on the right around 7:20 PM

After 7:30 PM

The sky is now black.  Again, playing with different exposures creates different effects.  The city now glows and creates a really bright orange reflection in the Bay.  Sunset is over and you are now doing night photography.  Your camera’s internal exposure metering is not accurate now, so you need to experiment with different exposure times to get the look you want.  With a very long exposure, you can almost re-create a bright day-time look.  If you have a point a shoot, use the night time setting and turn off your flash.  If you have a manual setting where you can control exposure time, use it.  Below is a 7-shot, portrait orientation, panoramic built up in Photoshop CS5 and processed in Viveza 2 and Topaz Labs “Spicify”.

Panoramic around 7:45 PM. For more information about this image, click here.

A Note on Equipment

To get good sunset and night photos, you have to have a tripod (see our tripod blog) because you need to use long exposures.  Without a tripod you will get a blurry mess.  You also should not have your hands on the camera to reduce camera shake, so you should use a cable release or your automatic timer.  As is our usual setup, I used a 24-105 MM wide angle lens and Mary used her 70-200 MM mid-range telephoto.  A graduated neutral density filter (see camera kit) is very helpful during sunset, but not needed for the blue hour or night photography.  You may also use one in post-processing.  Lastly, a small flashlight may be useful.  I also used my new Really Right Stuff Panoramic stitch plate for the last photo. (see camera kit).  To see more of our photographs, please go to

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s