Home Photo Tips Shooting a Sunset

Shooting a Sunset

Sunset Photography

If you are not aware of which cloud formations are conducive to beautiful sunsets, you will waste valuable time and film on an inferior sunset. And, if you have not checked around and found out what makes for good sunset photographs, you will not even be aware that your sunset pics are inferior.

Capturing Colorful Sunsets

If you do not know that the final minute of a sunset is most critical you might miss the perfect moment.  The sun descends at such a rapid rate that you can actually see it move.  Thus every second counts.

On The Road with Alex and Henry: The Perfect Sunset

And, if you are not aware that you shouldn’t just take a direct reading with your meter, you will end up severely underexposed because the sun is aimed directly at your meter.  You must open up at least two to three stops in order to get proper exposure on the clouds and water where the light, that gets to the film, is a lot weaker.

Shooting a Sunset family on the beach

This photo is an example of one option a photographer can choose when shooting a sunset. Here the photographer has chosen to have the water and clouds exposed properly while leaving the people underexposed and creating a sunset silhouette.

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  1. Well I think the picture looks great just the way it is and should not be changed in any shape or form and if you don’t like it make your own but do not criticize this artist they worked hard to take this photograph!

  2. Wow such a beautiful picture I totally fell in love bravo I am also new to photography but still can recognize talent when I see it and you my friend have it! I am very impressed I have seen many photographs but not one like this.

  3. Hi I am fairly new to photography but just wanting to know what is a good starting point for settings on D3100 Nikon for taking shots of sunsets eg shutter speed ,iso ,aperture

  4. You should put some lesson or more detail on sunlight with iso, shutter speed with the three
    rule and more info with filters when it comes to the sunets.

  5. For those asking about cloud formations: it’s fair to say that there will probably never be two cloud formations that are exactly the same so don’t try to over think what you’re looking for, rather; think about what the clouds are doing with the light. It’s important to understand exposure. It used to be to get more detail you would need to have the clouds basically covering and absorbing the light from the sun so that the light wasn’t too intense and you could get the details of the landscape. With HDR photos like the one I posted above you can get the best of both worlds.

    The light is so intense from the sun, even while it’s setting, that when taking a photo of it without it being covered you would need to turn up the shutter speed and leave the overall exposure to be rather dark. Thanks to HDR the camera can take a photo with a lower shutter speed and a higher one to get the detail of the bright sun and to also get the details of the landscape that it just reflecting light. The camera then combines the two photos digitally.

    If your camera does not do HDR, you’ll need to compromise your exposure to get the best shot you can get. Some people allow the sun to wash out the details of their photo and that can look okay, but if you want to capture the details of the landscape too, you may want to wait till the clouds are covering the sun a bit or until its light is being defused by the dense air of the horizon.

  6. I am still confused about ‘the best cloud formations,’ as a new photographer, how do I tell when the clouds are good, bad? You stated that “if you have not checked around and found out what makes for good sunset photographs,” would you have (numerous) examples that we can study from? To know what is good and what is inferior?

  7. Please explain, What are the proper clouds for a sunset? What are the various settings on exposure? Aperture, Shutter speed, ISO etc?

  8. Hi Jenna, you asked:

    ” Jenna on February 25th, 2009 at 9:57 pm
    This might sound stupid but I never understand when people say, for example, “proper exposure on the clouds and water where the light”. Does that mean when I’m holding the shutter button halfway I should be directing that onto the clouds or something? and then repositioning it onto my subject?? I dont understand!! Thanks! ”

    This is one of those ‘easy to learn / difficult to master’ things. When people talk about the “proper exposure” of something what they mean is it has the right amount of light to see it properly.

    If it has too much light (over exposed) – it will be too bright and the photo will be too white. If there is not enough (under exposed) it will be too dark and the photo will look black.

    This is simple enough when everything in your picture is in the same place with the same amount of light, but becomes tricky if (like at sunset) some things are really bright (the sun) and some other things are in total shade (the faces of the people stood with their backs to the sun).

    To get both the sun and the people in the picture, you may well have to choose which thing you want to see/have the ‘right exposure’ and which you don’t mind not seeing because it is too bright or dark.

    Just to clarify, the thing you are doing when you ‘half press the shutter button’ is telling the camera to auto focus – that is to say, to automatically decide how far away or what distance it should be looking. If you hold that it stays focused at that distance wherever you point the camera until you take your picture.

    That is the easy bit! Of course, there is a lot more you can learn and it can be difficult to master, but getting there is the fun bit!

    SaMi Photo

  9. This is great for anyone who is new to photography because it explains it well, it is short and simple so you don’t get bored reading a long essay. I hope that I will be able to attempt capturing a picture of a sunset sometime.

  10. I have been taking photographs of sunsets since past few weeks. I have to plan the place that I will visit because the only way to make a sunset different than the typical shadow in the sea is to get an object which will look good in silhoutte, so sometimes I chose a landmark, street lamps, boats etc. So I believe one should imagine the photo before and plan to visit specific places to take a variety of photos. If you are lucky you might get some unexpected objects such as aeroplane, birds. I learnt from my experiments the following:

    1. If the sun is too bright, you will not get a good photo, because the sky will be too bright, and if you try to underexpose to get the sun’s circle, the foreground will be completely dark.

    2. The best photos are within 15 minutes before the sunset. AV priority mode is mostly right in my Canon D 500, but I felt that speed priority ith speed of 1/25 sec is also great for vivid colours.

    3. In white balance, I chose it towards orange which takes the dark shadows and make them look warm.

    4. Sometimes, you can get the rays of the sun spread in all direction, but that happens when some object in the foreground restricts the complete exposure of sun. They look good too. I keep on experimenting speed levels and viewing in the screen to see which setting gives the right exposure.


  11. It’s hard to say if there are “best clouds” for a sunrise or sunset. A haze helps to scatter the light and dampen the intensity of the sun. You can make a prediction several hours before a sunset but part of what makes a sunset so interesting is that the conditions change every minute when you have cumulus clouds moving along.

    It used to be a bigger deal to have the clouds dampen the sun and give you more evenly lit composition. With HDR photography you can still get the intensity of the sunrise or set while capturing the details of the scene like the photo below:
    HDR Sunrise

    You’re point of ND filters is a great addition. They’re essentially sun glasses for your camera to allow your “camera’s eyes” to open wider and see more detail rather than squinting. They’re a good alternative if you’re not interested in HDR photography.

    I’d love to see your photo of the moon. You can upload it to photo bucket or Flickr and post the url in the comments. The only guess I have was that the overall exposure was -5 although the moon looked just right, so it must have been a small moon?

  12. You mention cloud formations conducive to beautiful sunsets. Which are the ‘best’ clouds? Can you judge several hours before a sunset? I have seen beautiful sunrises on cloudless mornings? How about cloudless sunsets?

    I notice when my camera (Olympus e-620) is in Manual mode, I cannot change the Exposure compensation. For example, when photographing a full moon, I set the camera to f/11 @ 1/125 ISO 100. The exposure went to -5. When I later looked at the metadata, the exposure setting read –. The image was very good. The sensor must be automatically setting the exposure values.

    Did I miss mention of ND filters? By darkening the sunlit sky, the filter allows opening the stops so that more of the dark foreground can be exposed. Right?

  13. You guys are doing a great job…..
    I’ve gone through with communication above and conclude that the photo-shoot settings differs from equipment to equipment. Will it be possible to know the suggested settings (in terms of speed/aperture)?
    I’ve a Nikon D90 camera and I wana shoot the full-moon shots. please advice what settings I’ve to make and trust me, this will help to all those who want to put their foot in digital photography.

  14. I am just getting into the high key sunset situation and wish to use a fill flash to bring out the details on the subject. Are you aware of any tricks I can use to get the metering right. i am struggling with this. Any help would be appreciated.

    Great sight by the way. I just bought my wife a Canon 50d and a moderate zoom. I am steering her towards this sight for her to learn from, because its a rare woman who wants to learn from her husband. *chuckle* Just kidding. ( Hey! Put the rolling pin down! )

  15. Ok can you give an example on what the camera may have been set on? I love the exposure of the sun and how the people are silhouetted. I usually keep my iso set at 400, but I am new to taking my camera of auto mode and really digging to the aperture and shutter speed. I have been reading through the lessons and am learning so much, I just need examples to go along with things. Thanks

  16. Thanks for all the free lessons… I also have a Nikon D3100 and I am getting started on D-SLR’s world. For those who like painting and are new to photography, I just want to recommend practice, practice and more practice as if you were mixing colors for a painting until you get the right tones… But instead of pincels, acrylics and canvas, you use aperture, shutter speed and exposure until you get to know how to use them correctly. We can try using the presets and then explore with manual settings to get the floor and find the right settings and the right picture…

  17. I recently bought my first SLR camera – a Nikon D3100. I am enjoying the results I am getting and I have learned a lot from your explanations about ISO, aperture and shutter speed etc. With previous shoot and point cameras I hadn’t understood how to use all of these manually. I just want to thank you so much for this free course and all the info you give us. I also want to thank all those who have asked questions. I am learning so much from them also.

  18. In order to balance the exposure, not under-expose clouds and water, nor over-expose the sun, would you open up the lense more, or use slower shutter. OR, use AEB, and then create an HDR image? What part of the scene would you do the metering from? This issue usually comes up when trying to expose a well lighted outdoor, where you can either loose details in over exposed brighter areas, or in under exposed darker, shadowy areas.

  19. Jenni, What you explained is bracketing a photo where you take a picture at every “stop” within 2 or three sides of the camera’s recommended exposure. You’re right that you can only use one setting for each photo, but some people combine settings through photo editing to get a hdr photography.

    The meter we’re referring to is the light meter on your camera that tells you what the proper exposure is. It’s right most of the time, and takes full control when you’re in automatic. But it’s wrong from time to time, especially with extreme light like sunset light. So you want to take the setting it suggests as a starting point and then make small adjustments till you start to understand what the right exposure looks like. The meter gives readings of -5 to +5 with 0 being what the camera things is the right exposure. So you’re camera might say +1.3, but it may actually be the exposure that works best in that particular situation.

  20. Hi and Thank you so much for offering so much advice. I guess for unprofessional people who need advice for free this is very good explained. So I have a few question. When you say “You must open up at least two to three stops in order to get proper exposure” and “Stops is referring to the settings of the aperture. The aperture has settings of how open it is, called “stops” such as f/1.4 f/2 and f/2.8.” does that mean I have to take 2 or 3 pictures with different apertures? I dont think I can use more that one aperture on one pic right? And what do you mean with meter and reading with the meter? It seems to me like photography has its own lenguage. Thank you for your understanding.

  21. Rom, I’ll start with your second question first. If you are lighting a subject and metering from the point of the lit subject a few different effects can happen. If you light the subject just right with the rest of the composition then it will just be an even value photo. If you light the subject heavily everything else in the photograph will appear underexposed. Either way the camera will think it did a perfect job of exposing the shot. The interesting thing about sunsets is we are dealing with extremes. For example in the photograph above the light from the sun is obviously the greatest amount of light, then the water has dramatically less. The people are back-lit and have comparatively VERY little light coming at them from the perspective of the camera and thus they appear as shadows. So to answer your first question the shot was metered off trying to expose the water properly, depending on your meter’s settings, the techniques can differ to still get you the same shot. You could have just done “spot” metering on the water and then pressed the shutter down half way and re-frame the shot. You’d have to make sure you’re focus is correct, but if you’re shooting with a wide depth of field most of the photography will be in focus.

  22. hi, i’m really new to photography and have just started to understand basic concepts of photography. i read a lot of photography books and surf the net for a lot of info about photography, then i go out or stay indoors and practice, practice, practice.
    I’ve just got two questions for now, 1. when you say you meter off let’s say the water from the picture above, do you mean, pressing the shutter half-way down, read the exposure reading then recompose your shot and adjusting the EV value?

    2. second question is, when you expose on a light subject or background, does it tell the camera to underexpose the shot?

    thanks and i love reading the articles in this site

  23. Just got my canon 500d, don’t have any idea yet on how to get beautiful pics….I’m still counting on the manual but couldn’t get all the terms there…please..need some help…I’ve tried taking few shots outdoor but were never satisfied with the results…

  24. how do u use the water reflecting off the water with your meter without disrupting the rule of thirds of the photograph?

  25. i would like to know more about the settings on how to have that kind of shot, the iso settings the aperture etc.

  26. What do you mean by 2 or 3 stops? I have just bought my first good camera – a Nikon D90 with a good lens (I can’t remember which one, but I was told it is the middle of the road lens, and a good place to start – it cost close to $800 Canadian, if that helps). Anyway, I am learning the terminology but haven’t heard ‘stops’ before.

  27. You also should mention having a tripod is helpful to get good depth of field.
    I also think that you should focus more on composition and getting that moment than worry too much about if you are a bit under/over exposed , after all we do have the ability to do level corrections.

  28. There are color meters out there with high costs. If you would like to do an OK job at measuring temperature you can just put a piece of white toilet paper in front of your camera and use a light meter accordingly.

  29. There is no mention at all in your tips about the temperature of the Light (Sunlight). Would you not compensate for the same.What techniques can be adopted to keep the colour/hue in tact for different measures of light temperature?

  30. Jenna this is a difficult concept to understand and also to explain. I hope that you’ll try it out and the practice will help you to understand more than anything else. What happens is that during a sunset there is very intense light from the sun. So you have the intense values of the sun against low levels of light on other subjects such as water, clouds, people etc. Digital photography is not quite as good at capturing those extremes as film and so you end up having an image that is a well exposed sunset with silhouettes or well exposed subjects with an over exposed sunset. So the photographer has a decision to make: either take a reading of the sunset with the meter to get the silhouettes or take a reading with the meter on your subject, away from the sunset and then shoot with those settings. Of course there are places in between that may end up being the right exposure that you want and that is why we suggest taking a few different exposures when shooting until you begin to understand how the lighting at sunset works.

  31. This might sound stupid but I never understand when people say, for example, “proper exposure on the clouds and water where the light”. Does that mean when I’m holding the shutter button halfway I should be directing that onto the clouds or something? and then repositioning it onto my subject?? I dont understand!! Thanks!

  32. We cannot give you a specific setting to get a good sunset exposure. From the article we’ve given you some guidelines to use in shooting but because of the intense nature of sunset light and the rapid changing of it’s intensity as it sets each shot will be different. As the article directs it is best to get a reading of the light and then open your aperture a few stops to ensure that nothing is under exposed. In reality you may want to bracket your shots- or take a few stops to get a feel for the right exposure. Sunsets are a tough subject to control but the product is well worth the effort.


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