The Ultimate Guide to Sunset Photography
Everyone can agree that something is awe-inspiring about beautiful sunset photography shots, which is why it is one of the most popular photography niches out there. You’d be hard-pressed to open up a social media app and not be greeted by a sunset photo within a few scrolls.
Sunset photography is often present in other niches as well, portrait and wedding photographers use it to add drama and visual appeal to their shots all the time. Amateur photographers can use sunset photos to beef up their portfolio, adding to their creative diversity.
What photographers will quickly find is that capturing sunset images can be quite challenging. If you’re using a smartphone, the software makes all of the background adjustments for you. Using an actual camera, where you’re fully in control, presents an excellent opportunity to improve your skills.
Sunset Photography Basics
Capturing the perfect sunset photography may not be as simple as going out, pointing your camera, and adjusting the settings in post-processing. The best photos are researched, practiced, and a result of incredible patience.
There is some technique involved as well, but that comes with experience. Here are some of the basics to consider, even before going out and shooting photos.
Often you’ll find that photographing a sunset in a location becomes a miniature project. Most will start by researching the location online, through Google Maps and other avenues.
Some will then go and scout out the location, and using apps like Windy can help you determine the weather for the area.
It might even take multiple visits to the same location to get the perfect exposure for you. Additionally, the Photo Ephemeris app for iOS and PC can help determine the sun’s location at any given time.
Whether it is sunrise that you wish to photograph or sunset, getting there early will allow you to select the best vantage point, set up your gear, take a few test shots, and get ready to make the final shot, but also give you the time to savor the moment as well.
Many times, photographers are guilty of missing the moment in their bid to take a cool image. You must savor each moment because they are all unique.
You must have the time to adjust the exposure, select the right lens and make the right composition. More time means you have that much more luxury to experiment.
Ok, the 24-70mm at 24mm isn’t giving the right effect, let’s switch to a wider lens. Or the warming filter is making the image a little too warm for liking, let’s not use it.
How to Gather Inspiration
Some people work better with examples, while others want a visual in their head before they head out to shoot sunsets. Gathering some fuel for your imagination is easy, and there are many avenues in which you can find it, including:
- Check out social media sites like Instagram or Vero to see what others are shooting.
- Go for a walk somewhere where you can see sunsets. You don’t have to bring your camera (although it would be wise to.)
- Rumble and YouTube act as great resources to show you places that are great to visit for sunset photography.
Photographers will often ask how to force inspiration if you’re just not feeling it. The best remedy is to simply take your camera and go out for a walk. You’ll find that something will catch your eye, and you’ll be thankful that you brought your camera along.
When in doubt, go and photograph areas where there is a sunset and water in the shot.
Niches That Benefit From Sunset Photography
Sunset photography is unique in that it can influence other niches positively. The natural beauty of a setting sun is perfect for photography that shows off people and nature. Of course, you can incorporate sunsets into anything you want to, but it just works better in some than others.
If you take a quick look at some wedding photographers on social media, you’ll notice that a lot of them take advantage of the natural lighting, much of it from the setting sun. The ethereal feeling of a sunset at twilight adds to the whimsical feeling a wedding day should bring.
These shots are meant to showcase intimacy, and there is nothing quite as sensual as photos of a bride and groom in a sunset scene.
Landscape photographer will always profess their love of torturing themselves by visiting remote locations at odd times of the day. This is the secret to getting incredible landscape photography shots. Find a dramatic subject (i.e., a mountain) and add in some natural lighting (a sunset), and boom, you have a recipe for an incredible shot.
Portrait and Engagement Shots
Sunset photos can have this beautiful mix of orange and pink hues that complement human skin tones so well. This is why a lot of engagement photos are shot when the sun is low, as the soft light mixes with the color temperature from the sunset bringing out the magic in people, so to speak.
Beach sunset pictures provide a unique opportunity for portrait photographers. They can either face into the setting sun for some stunning detail of their subject’s face or shoot behind them for a perfect sunset silhouette.
What Gear Do You Need To Capture Sunset Photos?
Taking sunset photos can be successful with pretty much any camera and lens setup, there is a way to optimize your shots for pin sharpness and perfect compositions. Let’s take a look at some of the gear that will enable you to express your creativity the way you want to.
The Best Types of Cameras
While shooting sunsets can be done with any modern camera (even older film ones too!), the quality of the camera sensor does matter. Sweeping vistas are only as crisp as your camera makes them. Sticking with a full-frame DSLR camera such as Canon EOS 6D Mark II is a good bet for stunning sunset photography. These kinds of cameras have the biggest sensors that can capture the most detail from your shot.
Alternatively, mirrorless cameras such as Nikon Z 5 have made incredible strides in popularity amongst photographers as they produce as good, if not better images than a DSLR with a fraction of the weight and bulk. You can get full-frame mirrorless cameras, but the entry-level ones will have a micro four-thirds sensor, which is cropped and will have a smaller viewpoint.
What Lenses Should You Use?
The “right” lens for sunset photography depends on the subject you’re trying to shoot. For example, if you’re shooting a portrait, you’ll want to stay with a lens that has a 50mm focal range (a 50mm prime lens is even better!) as it offers the best crop and the closest to what our eyes can see.
Landscape photographers will want to stick with a wide-angle lens or ultra-wide angle lens to capture as much of the scene as they can. If you’re looking to compress the subject with the other objects in your frame, then a telephoto lens that’s zoomed in can bring in a lot of detail from a small area.
You can even photograph a sunset at the macro level using your macro lens. A perfect example is to use the light from the sunset to illuminate the sand in a beach shot. You’ll capture all of the warm hues as they complement your close-up shot of the granules of sand. As you can probably tell, the quality of shots you get is only limited by your imagination.
Neutral Density Filters
Neutral Density Filters (ND filters) are transparent pieces of glass that go over your lenses to help reduce the exposure in bright scenes. They are incredible for long exposure photography and work very well in sunset landscapes.
Graduated neutral density filters are designed to be darker at the top and relatively clear at the bottom. This design is meant to help correct the exposure of a bright sky, particularly when the sun is front and center. Graduated NDs, as they are more popularly known, come in soft and hard varieties.
Tripods and Other Accessories
As the light begins to fall under the horizon line, you’ll notice that it’ll get harder to balance the exposure without the use of a tripod. These sturdy three-legged devices can keep your camera still while you line up for the perfect shot.
If you’re interested in shooting during the blue hour after sunset, a remote shutter release is a great tool to reduce camera shake further as you adjust for proper exposure in the fading light.
What Are The Best Camera Settings for Sunset Photography?
Once you have a lens and camera body that suits you, it’s time to learn about the best camera settings to use to capture properly exposed images with good dynamic range. Knowing the exposure triangle is important for correct exposure, and understanding intelligent composition rules can help you keep your audience’s eyes on your image.
RAW or JPEG?
To explain JPEG vs RAW images, JEPG incorporates all the possible data for an image, providing the photographer with a large amount of control during the post processing part. JPEGs have already been altered and compressed, meaning you’ll be limited in how much you can manipulate the sunset shot.
Generally, most photographers will shoot in RAW for the best results. Another feature that most modern cameras have is the ability to shoot a RAW and a JPEG at the same time. The RAW can be used for editing, and the JPEG as a backup in case you need it.
The Exposure Triangle
One of the first things a photographer should learn is how to use the exposure triangle to achieve the best exposure. The exposure triangle consists of the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. If you change one of the settings, you will have to adjust the other two. The balance between these camera settings is the secret to getting the best exposure.
Generally, you will need a small aperture. A small aperture will allow you to capture a vast depth of field, which is recommended for landscape photography. The easiest way to derive the correct exposure value (shutter speed and aperture) is to use the light meter. This will save you valuable minutes while you fumble around with the exposure camera settings.
If you’re shooting sunsets for portraits or anything with people, then a shallow depth of field will work great, as you can potentially achieve the coveted bokeh effect that happens with lights in the background.
Shutter speed will depend on the effect that you need. E.g., a slow shutter speed will be ideal for creating a mist-like effect of the surf rolling in and back on the beach. It looks particularly well against elements like a lighthouse, some rock formations on the beach, or a pier.
This is where you would need to use a neutral density filter to hold back the sky and the sun and to bring up the foreground. A faster shutter speed is required when you need to create a slightly dark look.
It is also ideal for capturing something moving fast in the foreground, such as your kids jumping in the air silhouetted against the bright sky, etc.
ISO sets how sensitive your camera sensor is and can be a large contributor to noise at higher levels. Modern technology has remedied that great, but the general idea of keeping your ISO as low as possible still sticks.
Using a tripod is important to get your ISO as low as possible since you will more than likely have to lengthen the amount of time that your shutter is open.
If your lens can focus to infinity, then that is your best option, as it will capture all of the details in the image. A high-quality lens will have a manual focus switch and a depth of field scale in which you can line up your focus ring to the scale for proper depth of field.
Otherwise, focusing on the water or the beach in front of you with your aperture set to f22 can keep everything focused.
Auto white balance is an easy way to let the camera decide what is best for the scene. Most cameras will do this accurately, and you can always change it in post-processing after the fact.
Most sunset images have incredible pink-orange warm tones from the golden hour that benefit from the warmer side of the white balance scale. Adding a warm color cast through your white balance settings to subtly amplify the ambient lighting can greatly enhance your shot.
Without a hand-held light meter, you will be using your camera’s built-in meter, which is designed to give you only a reflected light reading. The problem with that is that reflected light reading is not accurate, at least not with what the camera’s built-in metering system tells you. It is biased towards making everything middle-grey. Plus, you don’t even get the right metering either because it takes into account the whole scene for making the right exposure.
You would wonder, isn’t that what we are supposed to do? Matrix metering and auto-exposure? Well, the most accurate way to the meter would be to use the spot metering and to use the zone system. Just select a point in the scene that you feel is middle-grey and use the light meter to give you the reading for that point. Feed these values to your camera and take the shot.
The Best Places to Shoot Stunning Sunset Photography
Not sure of the best locations to go to? Here is a breakdown of some of the different scenes you can incorporate a sunset into that will take your photography to the next level.
A beach is kind of the traditional setting people think of when they think of sunsets. The perfect balance of land, water, and the sky are both eye-pleasing and calming. Try using different angles and perspectives to put your unique spin on this setting.
Using items found on the beach, such as driftwood, beach glass, or metal, can make interesting foreground subjects.
Oceans are a powerful scene, which can only be enhanced by a beautiful sunset. Rocky bluffs or shorelines can add to the mood and power that only the ocean can provide.
Sometimes at dusk, wildlife activity can be high, which can add interest to your sunset shots. An example that comes to mind is the birds that are active during that time, such as gulls and waterfowl.
Lakes and Rivers
Lakes can provide a great sunset picture as the waters can be incredibly reflective of the light. Often great sunset photos involving a lake will be accompanied by a dark silhouette of a forest or rocky cliffs to further add interest to the shot.
Sunset photos and mountains complement each other so well that you really cannot shoot a bad photo of this combination. The golden light from the setting sun will highlight intricate details of the mountain tops while maintaining the integrity of the dark areas.
Make sure to bring a tripod and plan to be in the location for at least a couple of hours to capture the magic, as the lighting will constantly be changing and giving you new compositions.
Sunset Photography Tips and Tricks
Even with the basics down, there is still so much to cover. However, experimenting on your own is the best way to discover your style. Here are some sunset photography tips to help kickstart your creative ideas.
1. Use Clouds To Add Interest To Your Shot
Sunset pictures create a gradient effect when the skies are clear. While this effect in itself is beautiful, having clouds in your shot can amp up the drama. If you have a cloudy sunset, stick around the location for a bit as the clouds shift and change.
Additionally, do a time-lapse while you’re photographing and create a moody video to accompany the final image.
2. Use the Reflections
Incorporate the reflections into your image so that they add a bit of an interesting aspect. If shooting at the beach, use the wet sand and the reflection of the sky on it and crop out any dark foreground to make an interesting composition.
3. Use The Priority Modes
Shutter and aperture priority modes are great to use for a sunset shoot as they take a lot of the guesswork out of setting your camera. Both of these modes allow you to change the shutter and aperture respectively, while the software handles the rest of the camera settings.
4. The Rule of Thirds
The idea behind the rule of thirds is that your scene is broken up into a grid that is 3×3, and at the four intersecting points, our eyes will find interest. This means that the placement of your subject at these points (such as the sun) will catch the user’s attention better.
5. Horizon Line
Keep your horizon line either in the top half or bottom half of the image, depending on the composition you’re looking for. Some sunset photographers try to keep it in the middle of the image, which may work in some cases but fail to keep the image interesting in a lot of others.
6. Try Using Exposure Bracketing (HDR)
Sometimes the sun might be too bright, and you’ll find yourself struggling to balance the foreground and sunset background. Oftentimes one or the other will be blown out or underexposed.
To fix that, simply use exposure bracketing to create an image with a high dynamic range. This can be achieved by taking multiple shots of the same composition but at different exposures.
Then in post processing, you can merge the photos and have access to much more data to control the tonal range.
Unlike sunrise photography, it’s easier to get up to photograph sunsets. You also have the advantage of photographing both the golden hour and blue hour phases of the evening. With proper planning and some basic gear (don’t forget the tripod!), you can go out and get some of the best shots in your portfolio.