Taking Great Canoe and Sunset Pictures

Canoe and SunsetA canoe, glass-calm water, and a sunset goes together like bananas, ice cream, and whipped cream. But unlike the quickly fading delight of savoring a banana split, capturing a sunset in a picture allows for sharing and enjoyment for years.

Sunset pictures are tricky. Typically, like in the pictures below, you can capture either the detail and color in the sky and have the canoe go dark and black or your can make the canoe light and visible, but lose the color in the sky. Using a Graduated Neutral Density filter, you can capture both a colorful sky and a detailed foreground and end up with a picture like the one to the right.

Required Gear

ND Grad Filters

Once you have your Cokin P-Series filter kit, you need to modify the holder to work with a wide-angle lens, especially if your wide-angle requires filters bigger than 70mm. When you look at the filter holder, notice the multiple slots for filters. Cut off the extra slots to leave only one. Unless you plan on using the filter holder for some of Cokin’s other filters, you won’t miss the extra slots. If you leave the extra slots, you could end up with vignetting in your picture.

Canoe exposed right, but the sky is lost.
Canoe exposed right, but the sky is lost.
The sky looks good, but the canoe is too dark.
The sky looks good, but the canoe is too dark.

After you’ve modified your filter holder take time to sort through the ND Grads that came with the kit. Each of them looks like the picture to the right. To use them, you screw the holder onto your lens and slide the ND Grad into the slot. The clear side of the filter lets in all the light from the area that you’re placing it, and the dark side tones down the light coming into the picture. Because the sky is brighter than the ground, you place the dark part over the sky and the light part over the ground. The transitional area goes over a part of the frame that will disguise the change. In my picture, the disguise occurs along the tree line. Using an ND Grad in this way evens out the exposure across the frame allowing you to capture detail across the entire picture.

When you’re looking at the filters in your kit, notice that each filter is slightly darker in the gray area than the others. This determines how much light, the gray area allows through. For bright sunsets, use the darkest and for darker sunsets, you can use the lightest. One issue to watch when using the darkest ND Grad is that the reflection of the sky in the water doesn’t look too much lighter than the sky. I find that the middle darkness or a 2-stop ND Grad works best.

Composing Canoe and Sunset Pictures

These types of photos work best using two compositional techniques. The first uses the rule-of-thirds. For this rule, divide your viewfinder up into a tic-tac-toe board. On your board, imagine that parts of your image can only take up 1/3rd or 2/3rds of the frame. In my picture, the water and canoe takes up 2/3rds of the frame and the sky takes up 1/3rd of the sky. This moves the horizon out of the frame’s middle and makes for a more dynamic composition by making an asymmetrical image. The human mind wants everything to look symmetrical–because our faces and bodies are generally symmetrical our mind accepts that better. When an image is asymmetrical we tend to look at it longer trying to figure out why it isn’t symmetrical.

The second technique is using leading lines. Leading lines take elements your picture and set them diagonally to the horizontal and vertical edges of your picture’s frame. The canoe acts as a leading line in my picture. It captures the viewer’s attention at the bow and funnels their eyes into the picture to the background and upper left. English speakers start viewing pictures in the upper left of a print, because we’re trained to start reading there. By funneling the view to the upper left, I create a circular effect for the viewer’s eyes. They start viewing in the upper left, work their way down to the lower right and then the leading line takes them back to the top of the image.  The leading line creates depth and makes the picture dynamic because it is working against the vertical and horizontal lines in your image.

Sunset canoe BWCA
The clouds have changed so much, it's hard to tell that this was taken during the same sunset.

Using ND Grads and Composition for a Great Photo

To pull all this info together, get a campsite with a sunset view. Find an interesting place to take a picture from. For mine, I found a shallow rock bed. Set your camera up on a tripod. Maneuver the canoe around until it becomes a leading line. Put your ND Grad on your camera and line it up so that the transition disappears into the trees. Take a picture. Make sure that your exposure looks good with a properly exposed sky and detail in the foreground. If it doesn’t look good, adjust exposure compensation until you have detail in the sky and foreground. If you still can’t bring everything into an even exposure, use the next darker ND Grad.


  • Even on a calm day, if your boat is floating, it’ll drift around. Setting the canoe over a rock bed allowed me to build a small island to set the bow on. Towards the stern of the canoe, I also built a rock island that stopped the canoe from drifting to the right. The slight wind was pushing the canoe that direction.
  • Compose your shot to include the entire reflection of the canoe for more impact.
  • Wait around even after the sun sets completely, because you may get better color in the sky then. During this sunset, the clouds changed shape and color considerably. I have pictures from the sunset that look so different, you’d hardly be able to tell they’re from the same sunset.
  • Take a bunch of different pictures from different angles using both horizontal and vertical framing.
  • You can do this technique digitally by capturing a properly exposed sky in one picture and foreground in another and then combine them with a gradient mask in Photoshop.

Subscribe! Get PaddlingLight in your inbox. Enter your email address:


Comments are closed.