One of the reasons I first started to get into photography was because I wasn’t satisfied with the sunsets I captured with my little point and shoot camera. It really struggled with getting the exposure correct in order to capture the strong light of a beautiful sunset.
Once I had a more capable camera, I started learning many more things about capturing a sunset. Below are some of my top tips for photographing a sunset, and why I enjoy the last hour of light in every day.
Four Tips for Shooting a Sunset and Getting Better Results
1. Shoot in Aperture Priority or Manual Mode
This is a simple tip, and most of you can keep going to the next one since you already know how to use Aperture Priority or Manual Mode on your camera.
But if you don’t know how, then switch it over to that ‘A’ setting and watch as some new possibilities open up.
Why do you need to shoot on A Priority or Manual? Because the camera isn’t very good at choosing the right exposure for sunsets (like I mentioned when I was trying with my point and shoot). So you have to take control, or partial control, and help steer it in the right direction.
When you put your camera on Aperture mode, you are controlling the aperture, or how much light comes in through the lens, and your camera is controlling the shutter speed and ISO. You will want to choose an aperture, or f stop, that allows for some greater depth of field (the wider the aperture, the more light comes in, the less depth of field, the smaller the aperture, the less light, and greater depth of field). I normally shoot somewhere between f8 and f16 depending on other factors (like if I have a tripod, or if I want the sun to have star flares).
I don’t usually go below f5.6 because some things in my photo would probably be out of focus. At f8 and greater, you should have almost your full photo in focus, depending on what kind of lens you’re using.
So, switch to A mode, then play around with changing the aperture. Notice how the depth of field changes at f3.5 vs f11. Also notice how your shutter speed changes.
The nice thing about A Priority is that your camera will do much of the rest of the work for you, so you can focus on getting a great shot. You do still need to pay attention to the exposure, which leads into our next tip.
For more on Aperture priority, check out this blog post on lighstalker
2. Manage Your Exposure Properly
A big part of capturing a great sunset is getting the exposure correct. If its too bright, or overexposed, the sun and sky will be blown out and lack any detail. If your shot is underexposed, anything besides the sunset will be black.
You may want to use Manual Mode for sunsets to give yourself complete control over how light or dark your photo needs to be. In Aperture Priority, your camera is still choosing the overall exposure setting, meaning in some circumstances it may under or overexpose a photo.
With full control over your camera, you can take a few pictures, compare the shots, and adjust as needed. I would suggest shooting around f8, with your ISO as low as possible, and your shutter speed above 1/60th of a second, unless you have a tripod.
You can stay in Aperture priority and still fix the issue of incorrect exposure by using exposure compensation, which for many cameras is a small wheel or dial that manually tells the camera to make the photo lighter or darker. Take a few shots, check the results, and then raise or lower the compensation.
The best way to learn how to use manual mode or Aperture priority is to just start using it. So take some test shots and don’t worry if the don’t turn out at first.
3. Give Foreground Interest
Once you are getting properly exposed photos of the sunset, its time to add some foreground elements to give depth and interest to the photo. Sunsets are often very impressive on their own, with incredible colors. But a well placed foreground element will give something else to look at in the photo, and grab more attention.
What is a good foreground element? It can be almost anything that adds to the photo, such as a person, an object, or even just some interesting lines or patterns. Natural features look great, like rocks, trees, flowers. Buildings can also do the job, just remember to not obscure too much of your sunset with your foreground element. I usually put the horizon for a sunset photo on the bottom third of the photograph, and the foreground element is somewhere in that area.
Foreground elements can be tricky to capture, because they are usually much darker. A flash or some post processing will help. I have found that there is a narrow line that allows you to get both the sunset and foreground properly exposed, but you can easily overdo it one way or the other. This comes from a bit of practice, and also don’t be afraid to open up your photo in Lightroom or whatever you use, and increase some exposure for the shadows, and perhaps drop a gradient on the highlights.
You could also do this manually, by using a graduated filter over the sky in your photo, but not everyone has this option..
In the featured photo for this post, you can see a sunset with some nice clouds, and a rice field with a path through it. This photo is properly exposed so that the foreground is visible, and the path adds an element to the photo, while also leading your eye to the sky. This shot might be even better if there had been a farmer in the field, but you don’t always get what you want.
Another handy tool you can use for sunsets is bracketing. I won’t go into this now, but look for a post in the near future.
4. Look for Dramatic Clouds
Its the clouds in a sunset that really make the sunset, not necessarily the sun. The sun goes down every day, but only some days have incredible sunsets, and that is because of the clouds.
I’ve photographed many sunsets, and seen even more, and no two are the same. When you’re looking for a good sunset, see what the clouds are doing to help gauge what will happen.
Of course you never really know how the sunset will turn out until you sit there and watch it. I’ve spent several sunsets with camera in hand, only to have the sun disappear without sharing any extra rays of light or color on the clouds. That’s part of learning and practicing.
I want to share a quick bonus tip that has served me well; shoot in RAW format. There is plenty of debate about shooting RAW, and whether it is necessary, or worth it, but I will say that your sunset photos will be much better if they start as RAW photos.
You get control over how they turn out, rather than the camera choosing the colors, and developing your images will be much easier with more flexibility to try and capture the feeling of the sunset.
If you don’t have a program like Lightroom to open RAW files, there are some free options which work pretty well. RawTherapee and LightZone are two free programs I have used, and GIMP will also work.
I am a huge fan of sunsets (and sunrises, if I get up for them) because of the way the light interacts and changes our view of everyday objects. A boring barn, field or lake can become almost magical by just waiting until the sun is slipping past the horizon.
I now think about photographing certain places, but consider it almost a waste of time if it isn’t at sunset. Now, only some of my photos were taken at sunset, and that is because either I couldn’t go to that place at sunset, or it just wasn’t necessary for the shot. However, many photos would be better if they were taken as the sun hits the horizon.
Thanks for visiting, and I hope you have gained a tip or two for taking better pictures of the sunset, or are at least inspired to get out and try some. Share your thoughts or questions in the comments.
Coming soon – bracketing for richer dynamic range.