Lately the sunsets have been showing off again, so it seems like a really good time for a sunset photography tutorial. Here in the UK sunset is now at a more reasonable hour, which is helpful, but also there are more clouds around as we move away from summer… and clouds and sunsets go together like fairgrounds and candyfloss!
In this photography tutorial I’ve covered everything, starting with what to take with you on a sunset shoot. There’s info for beginners to start taking sunset photos straight away and also tips for more advanced photographers to improve their sunset photography. I’ve also included tips for portrait photos at sunset.
Let’s get started, but first, you’ll find this downloadable cheat sheet helpful…
1. Equipment for good sunset photos
Sunsets are so amazing that they make sunset photography easy …once you know the best sunset photography settings to use. You really don’t need any fancy gear. You can capture great sunset photos on any camera, including your phone.
But sometimes extra equipment can help, but as I said, it’s definitely not essential. If you have the following items, in addition to your camera and lens of course, you’ll find them handy for sunset photography:
You don’t have to have a tripod to take great sunset photos, but if you want to carry on shooting after the sun has sunk below the horizon and the colors start to deep to dark blue, your shutter speed is going to drop.
If your shutter speed falls below 1/60, a tripod is very handy as you can carry on photographing without risking blur from camera shake.
Further reading: 8 tricks for sharp photos in low light – focusing in the dark
Graduated neutral density filter
A graduated neutral density filter is ideal for sunset photography. Because it’s dark at the top and fades to clear part way down, it will allow you to capture a darker sky without darkening the land too much. This in turn helps you to capture more vivid colors.
Further reading: How to avoid an overexposed sky …without using Photoshop
2. Clean your lens
You know how difficult it is to see through a dirty windscreen when you’re driving into the sun? You can see all the dirt, even if your windscreen isn’t that bad!
It’s the same with your lens. Every little speck is going to show up when that low angled sun starts hitting your lens. Even if you don’t have the sun in shot, dust is going to be obvious.
Yes, you can clean up dust spots later on the computer, but, as I always say, why spend extra time on the computer if you don’t have to?
3. Prepare for your shoot ahead of time
Obviously you can’t prepare for every great sunset you photograph. Sometimes we’re lucky to be in the right place, at the right time, with a camera in our hand. Love those days!
But a little preparation can take your sunset photoshoot to the next level.
There’s a great little app you can use called The Photographer’s Ephemeris to see exactly where and what time the sun will set where you want to shoot. It’s available for android and IOS for a small amount, and is free to use on your computer.
Once you know when sunset is happening, you can plan to arrive early to scout the area for the best position yourself when sunset starts.
Cities are great for sunsets – just look for roads that lead to where the sun is setting.
4. Shoot RAW (if possible)
Because sunset photography includes extremes of light, from very bright highlights to dark shadows, it’s best to shoot in RAW if you have software that you can use to process the photos after your shoot.
If you don’t have the software, shoot in JPEG, otherwise you won’t be able to open the photos on your computer, which would be so frustrating.
Shooting in RAW will allow you to bring back some of the shadow detail and tone down some of the highlights to increase the dynamic range of your photos and accentuate all those beautiful sunset colors.
Further reading: Shooting RAW vs JPEG image quality pros and cons
5. Exposure metering for sunsets
The whole point of photographing at sunset is to capture amazing colors, so it stands to reason then that the sky is a really important feature in the photo. Therefore, the sky needs to be a priority when it comes to setting your exposure.
Use spot metering and position the point over a bright part of the sky to measure the exposure for that area. Not on the sun though, if it’s in shot.
This will ensure that the bright areas ares are well exposed, so the colors will be vibrant. If the rest of the image is slightly too dark, you can always increase the brightness a bit in post processing.
Rather recover shadows than lose the highlights.
By shooting low and including the reflections in the wet sand Jacub Gomez has made a nice sunset so much more interesting.
6. Bracket your sunset shots
Speaking of high dynamic range, exposure bracketing is awesome if you want to composite the photos into an HDR image afterwards on your computer.
Setting bracketing for exposure will result in, usually, three photos at three different exposures for the scene. One underexposed, one the correct exposure and one overexposed.
Automatic exposure bracketing
Many cameras are capable of automatic bracketing for exposures and, depending on your camera, you have options for how many shots you want to take.
Manual exposure bracketing
If you don’t have an automatic setting for exposure bracketing, you can still do it. You just need to adjust the exposure manually. You can do this one of two ways:
Use exposure compensation to bracket your exposures if you’re in:
- Aperture priority mode
- Shutter priority mode
- Program mode
Further reading: How and when to use exposure compensation
To take your three different exposures in manual mode, simply adjust the:
- Shutter speed,
- or aperture, but preferably shutter speed
Further reading: When, why and how to use exposure bracketing?
7. Focal length for sunset photos
If you’re photographing the sunset as a landscape image, use a wide angle.
A focal length of anywhere between 16mm and 35mm will allow you to include a large amount of scenery. If you include the sun in the image, the sun itself will be smaller in the photo than if you used, for example, a focal length of 75mm.
As the sun will be the brightest part of the image, you don’t want it to be too large. It’s the colors of sunset that you want to capture.
This is a good time to mention that you should not look directly at the sun through your lens as it can damage your eyesight. If the sun is big in the frame, rather use your LCD screen to view the scene and set up the shot.
If you’re photographing somebody at sunset, it’s more of a portrait photo. So it would be better not to use a focal length below 50mm as this will distort their features, unless they are small in the frame with the majority of the image being the landscape.
Further reading: How to choose the best lens for portraits to avoid bad photos
Sometimes it’s not about the sunset, but how the low sun lights up even simple plants and creates a warm, comfortable end of day feeling. It’s always worth looking around you while you’re waiting for the sun to be be in exactly the right position for sunset photos.
8. Set your ISO
The ideal ISO setting to use for sunset photography is between the base native ISO setting of your camera and a mid range ISO setting. You’ll need to check your manual to make sure of yours (it will be somewhere between 64 and 200).
If you find that your exposure is too dark, you can increase your ISO, but try not to go higher than 400 on a crop frame camera or 800 on a full frame camera. This is especially so if you have dark areas in your photo as these areas will be noisy with a high ISO.
Further reading: What is ISO for in the exposure triangle?
9. Choose your aperture
You don’t need to be in manual mode to photograph sunsets, but it helps if you prioritise your aperture setting. So use aperture priority if manual mode is not your thing.
You want your aperture to be between f8 and f16.
Lower than f8 and your depth of field will be too shallow, resulting in a blurry foreground or background, depending on where you focus.
Higher than f16 and diffraction could occur, which will reduce the sharpness of your image.
Further reading: What does aperture do in the exposure triangle?
10. Decide on your shutter speed
If you’re handholding the camera, you need to keep your shutter speed above 1/60th. If you’re using a tripod, you can of course allow your shutter speed to fall as low as you like.
Your choice of focal length will also affect the lowest shutter speed you can safely handhold. The rule of thumb is that the shutter speed should be one over the focal length you use.
In other words, if your focal length is 70mm, your shutter speed should be at least 70mm. I prefer it to be at least 1.5 times the focal length as I’m not that great at holding a camera steady. So, if I shoot at 70mm, I like my shutter speed to be 1/140th or higher.
But as I said earlier, for sunsets it’s good to use a wider angle, so if you’re at 24mm for example, then 1/60th will be fine.
11. White balance settings for sunset photography
The whole joy of sunset photography is that beautiful golden light, so make the most of it by setting your white balance to cloudy or shady.
These white balance settings warm up an image, to counteract the bluer light of shade and clouds, so when used at sunset they make the image even warmer.
Further reading: What is white balance in photography and does it matter?
In case you missed the cheat sheet, here it is again…
12. Sunset photography composition tips
There are two main composition techniques that are particularly great for sunset photos.
Rule of thirds
The rule of thirds is really important if you include the horizon in your sunset photo.
Avoid putting the horizon smack bang in the middle of your photo. It makes the composition dull and chances are your foreground will be dark anyway.
Besides, you’re there to photograph the amazing colors in the sky, so make the most of them using the rule of thirds:
- Position your horizon along the bottom intersection if you want a lot of sky
- or use the top intersection if instead you want to include foreground interest and reflections
Further reading: Why you need to know the rule of thirds, and how easy it is
The line of rocks leads the eye into the scene, making what would otherwise have been just a pretty sunset dynamic and interesting.
Whilst the sunset itself is always a beautiful sight, when you scout your location use the time to find leading lines to use in your composition. This will also make your composition far more interesting.
Further reading: How to use leading lines for awesome photography composition
13. Portrait sunset photography
The light at golden hour and sunset is perfect for portrait photography! But you need to use a reflector, otherwise:
- If you’re photographing somebody with the light behind them and expose for the sky, your subject will be dark
- Exposing for your subject, will blow out the background and you’ll lose all those amazing sunset colors
If you position your subject so that the sun lights them from the side, use a reflector to bounce light back into them from their shadow side. This will help to lighten the shadows and will make a huge different to the photo.
My preference when photogrpahing with the sunset in the background is to expose for the sunset and light my subject with artificial light. You can use speedlights, strobes or LED lights for this.
A low, golden sun is perfect for portrait photography. This natural light photo was taken moments before the sun disappeared.
On the other, hand sunset is a perfect time for silhouettes!
I wrote a tutorial on silhouette photography so check out the link below. Meanwhile, here’s my very quick silhouette advice:
- Expose for the sky
- Photograph into the light
- Shoot from a low angle
- Make sure your subjects are separated and not bunched together in an unrecognizable blob
- Get them to make interesting shapes
Further reading: How to photograph silhouettes with ease
14. Be mindful of dropping light levels
At sunset the light levels drop fast, so it’s really important to keep an eye on your shutter speed as the light changes.
Make adjustments as the sun sets and up your ISO rather than opening your aperture wider than f8 when shooting landscapes. For portrait photography at sunset, if you want a blurry background, you can use a wider aperture.
15. Don’t stop too soon
Once the sun dips below the horizon the sky is often at it’s most impressive, so be prepared to keep on shooting for a while beyond the official sunset time.
Even better, allow an extra half an hour after sunset so that you can catch the deeper magenta, blues and purples as sunset slides into the blue hour.
For this, though you’ll definitely need to be very aware of low light levels and will probably need a tripod, or something to rest your camera on.
Further reading: Blue hour photography tips and tricks for creative photos
Once the sun dips below the horizon the light for portrait photography is very soft and still has a gentle golden glow. On this occasion though it was a cloudless sky, so the sunset itself wasn’t impressive.
16. The impact of clouds on sunset photos
Not that you have any control over the clouds, but it helps to know that on clear days the sunsets aren’t as great as on cloudy days. Not hugely cloudy days, but days with enough clouds to make it interesting.
Clouds are light catchers, so they’re the sunset photographer’s best friend.
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