Tips for Better Sunset Photography

Image: Tony Di Messi / CC BY 2.0

A beautiful sunset. A scene bathed in spectacular light –sunsets are a photographer’s dream come true, presenting a chance for some truly dramatic images.

But while sunsets present excellent photo opportunities, capturing the tremendous beauty of a sunset can be difficult! It’s hard to convey the complex range of colors, light, and beauty of a sunset, into a simple two-dimensional image. And then there is the issue with camera settings: often, what we see in-person, and what the camera renders as an image, are two entirely different things.

To combat these challenges, arm yourself with the tools that you need to create dynamic sunset images. Whether you’re just getting started with sunset photography, or looking to brush up on some technique, here are some tips that will get you on track.

→ Related Reading: How to Edit a Sunset Landscape Photo in Lightroom

Sunset Photography Tips

Image: Umer Sayyam / CC0

Plan Ahead

While it’s true that stunning sunset images can be taken spur of the moment, planning ahead can give you an advantage. Scout out ideal locations ahead of time. Try to look for places that have a great vantage point, and interesting elements to include in your compositions.

Check the sunset times, and plan to be there early to set up and get ready. Plan to stick around long enough. Often, about 20 minutes after the sun dips below the horizon, the sky will light up in another beautiful display of vibrant colors. But many people pack up and leave before this ‘second sunset,’ missing out on this opportunity.

Also, be sure to keep an eye on the weather. If a storm is clearing, seize the opportunity and get ready to go capture the sunset. The dramatic colors after a storm and the dramatic light streaming through the clouds make for beautiful sunset images.

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→ Related Reading: Sunrise Photography: Make Your Images Sparkle & Shine

Tips for Better Sunset Photography

Image: Tony Di Messi / CC BY 2.0

Compositional Tips

Believe it or not, there’s more to sunset photography than capturing the sky –as spectacular as it may be. One of the main challenges with sunset photography is finding ways to create an interesting composition.

While the sky is dramatic in-person, when rendered as a two-dimensional photo it tends to appear flat, and much of the spender is lost. A solid composition is one of the best ways to add some depth and visual interest to a sunset image. Create a photo that will draw the viewer in and make them feel like they are there.

  • Find a Strong Focal Point: A strong focal point is an important part of the composition. When photographing sunsets, look for points of interest like rocks, trees, boats on the water, or even silhouettes to create strong and visually intriguing images. The setting sun can also serve as a focal point, especially when it’s partially obscured behind an object.
  • Include Foreground Interest: Don’t underestimate the importance of foreground interest. In sunset images especially, adding in some foreground can add depth to a photo. Foreground helps to set the context, drawing the viewer in and helping the image to come alive.
  • Consider the Rule of Thirds: Consider the rule of thirds when photographing sunsets. This rule can help you to create a well-balanced image. Avoid placing focal points, or the horizon line dead center. Instead, try to place these elements towards the side.
  • Look for Compositional Opportunities: Watching an amazing sunset unfold right in front of you can be captivating, but don’t forget to turn around! As the sun sets, it casts everything in a beautiful golden light, presenting a number of excellent photographic opportunities all around you.
Tips for Better Sunset Photography

Image: Jimmy McIntyre / CC BY-SA 2.0

→ Related reading: Guide to Blue Hour Photography

Camera Settings and Gear for Sunsets

When left to its own devices, the camera will often render an image differently than we would like. Sunsets are a great opportunity to get out of auto mode, and use settings that will give you more control over your images.

  • Set Your Shooting Mode: Aperture priority is a good choice when you want complete control over the depth of field in an image. Or choose shutter priority for absolute control over the exposure. And of course, try to shoot in the lowest ISO possible (often ISO 100) to avoid grainy images.
  • Experiment With Exposures: Switching into shutter priority mode allows you to start with a faster shutter speed, and work down into slower ones, allowing you to experiment with a number of different exposures. Clouds and water can especially benefit from a long exposure time, as the slow shutter speeds will render these elements as soft and streaky, with a painting-like quality. When shooting long exposures, be sure to use a tripod to steady the camera and reduce image blur.
  • Opt for a Graduated Neutral Density (ND) Filter: While exposing for the sky will give you amazing colors, this can cause the foreground to be dark and underexposed. Consider using a graduated neutral density (ND) filter, which will help you to get the exposure just right.
  • Set the White Balance: When shooting sunsets, you’re going to want to ditch the auto white balance. Instead, opt for ‘shade,’ which will help to draw beautiful warm golden hues out of the sunset. Shooting in RAW is always a good idea, since this will allow you to adjust the white balance in post processing.
  • Use Different Focal Lengths: For sunset photography, a wide-angle lens is a great option. These lenses create more distance between the foreground and background elements, increasing the sense of depth in a photo, and helping the foreground elements to stand out. On the other hand, telephoto lenses cause elements in an image to appear more compressed, reducing the sense of depth in a photo. Opt for a telephoto lens if you want to focus in on isolated elements, or to make the sun look bigger in a scene.
Tips for Sunset Photography

Image: Heejing KIM / CC0

Sunset photography presents an excellent opportunity to capture some truly amazing images. Be ready ahead of time, and don’t hesitate to experiment with different camera settings as the light continues to change.

The best sunset photos are ones that have strong compositions, so look for opportunities to create solid images by adding plenty of foreground interest. By taking the time to practice new techniques, and experimenting with different settings, you’ll soon have your own collection of dramatic sunset photos.

Do you have any tips for capturing sunset photos? Share with us in the comments!

Photo license links: CC0, CC BY 2.0, CC BY-SA 2.0

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