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Sunset Photography - A Complete Guide (with pro tips & tricks)

Updated: 5 days ago

If you want to learn sunset photography, you're in the right place.



Sunset photograph with Saint Mary's Church silhhouette
Fired Sky, Llanfair Caereinion

You've invested in a great new camera and have enjoyed the results of your photography, with one exception. Your attempts at a glorious, colorful sunset failed miserably.


The sky looks bleached out without any of the beautiful hues you witnessed.


You may wonder if the camera is to blame, and it's not all it was cracked up to be. But, unfortunately, you've blown your budget already, and more stuff to make this work is unaffordable.


Well, the camera is to blame. It's trying too hard and not giving the results you want.


There is a simple solution, and we will give you the low-down on getting the image you crave.


Best of all, it won't cost you anything, and you'll love your kit all over again.


So grab your camera and work through these pro tips and tricks for outstanding sunset photography.


How to plan your sunset photography trip.


Planning your photography trip is the most critical part of the process, ensuring you have the best chance of success.

  • Scout out the location in advance to get the best vantage point for your shots. Sunsets proceed rapidly, and you won't have time to dally.

  • Check the weather forecast before setting off. A slate grey cloud cover is useless, but light clouds create lovely colors.

  • Check the time the sun sets at your chosen location. Aim to be there an hour before.

  • Charge your batteries and pack spares. Nothing is worse than arriving at your location with just a few minutes of battery life.

  • Check cards for storage space and make sure they are in your camera.

Clean your kit.


The spectacular lighting of a sunset causes problems if you have tiny particles on your sensors or lenses. Therefore, it is worth ensuring they are scrupulously clean; otherwise, you risk having many grey patches in your image's light areas. Of course, these can be cloned out during editing, but that is extra work that can be avoided.



Winter sunset with tree silhouette
Winter Tree Sunset.


Camera settings for spectacular sunset photography.

a. Aperture Priority - I recommend using aperture priority for the first few attempts at capturing sunsets and setting the aperture to f16. Once you gain experience and confidence, you can turn to manual.


b. Low ISO - Start with the ISO as low as your camera allows. This can be changed if the resulting speed is too slow for the effects you are looking for.


c. Shutter Speed - with an aperture and ISO set, your camera will determine the shutter speed. Check this regularly; remember, a slow shutter speed will result in a long exposure inappropriate for a moving subject.


d. Bracketing - set bracketing to capture 3 or 5 images at increasing exposures. The middle image will be the correct exposure according to the camera. However, this can be hit and miss with the extreme conditions of a sunset.


e. Auto Exposure Lock - when your subject is not in the center of the frame, you'll want to recompose but keep the exposure locked for it. Use the AEL button for this purpose.


f. White Balance - the color of the light changes dramatically around sunset. Try experimenting with white balance settings such as cloudy.


g. Shoot RAW - sunset is the ideal time to shoot in RAW as these files contain much more information than a jpeg file. Plus, they can be edited without losing quality.


h. Exposure Compensation - If your bracketed images are too light, move exposure compensation towards the negative. You'll need to move compensation toward the positive with too-dark photos.


Lenses.


A wide-angle lens is a must for any landscape photography and is perfect for capturing masses of colorful clouds. However, it is also worth taking a zoom lens to make the sun larger in the image and allow more intimate pictures.


A Couple enter the frame of a sunset over the sea and beach of Cardigan Bay, Wales.
Cardigan Bay Sunset with Couple walking.


Filters.


A graduated neutral density filter is helpful for sunset photography to reduce the dynamic range and give a better overall exposure. Polarisers are not beneficial and can cause flare problems due to the sun's low angle.


Tripod and Remote Shutter release.


The shutter speed can be slow with the low light level of sunset photography. However, a tripod, alongside a remote shutter release, will reduce the chance of any camera shake.


LCD Screen Shooting


It is essential to take great care when photographing the sun. Using the LCD screen rather than the eyepiece will ensure you don't damage your eyesight. Over-bright light can also damage your camera's sensor, so be aware of the dangers.


Composition Considerations


General rules for landscape photography, such as the Rule of Thirds, will serve you well here. Silhouettes are worth special consideration as care needs to be taken not to end up with a mass of black in the image.


Focus manually for sharp images.


Once you have composed your shot, turn to manual focusing. Your camera's auto-focusing will struggle in low light, so take over for super-sharp photos.



Lake Vyrnwy at Sunset. Long exposure smoothed out the rippled  surface enhancing the reflection and producing an ethereal quality.
Long exposure shot of Lake Vyrnwy.


Long or Short Exposure


Sunset photography lends itself well to both long and short-exposure shots. Short exposure will capture movement as sharp details, such as gulls flying. In contrast, long exposure blurs movement like ocean waves, creating a dreamlike quality.



Shoot through Golden Hour and Blue Hour


Photographers have long celebrated the Golden Hour for the quality of its light. Consider arriving early to make the most of your trip when out on location for a sunset shoot. Once the sun has set, the blue hour follows for moodier lighting.


Take plenty of photographs.


Slight changes in angle and the constantly changing light can make surprising differences in your pictures. So keep taking, checking, and refining to increase your chances of the perfect result.


All year round


Sunsets can be photogenic all year round. Colorful skies make beautiful backdrops to Winter trees. The beach is a great hunting ground on long summer evenings. However, sunsets are incredibly enigmatic when the skies start to clear after a stormy day. Ash from an Icelandic volcano gave the UK months of extra memorable sights.




Winter twig silhouetted against the sun set in a tobacco colored sky.
Winter twig, tobacco sunset.




Be patient


Learning photographic skills is a process that takes time. Be patient, keep persevering, and you will make positive progress. It's worth it!


Edit your files.


How much you edit your files is a matter of personal choice. I use photoshop for the RAW conversion capability and make minor changes to the white balance and exposure if necessary.

Practice, Practice, Practice.

As the time available to photograph sunsets is so short, the only way to make all this second nature is to get out there and shoot. Practicing will improve the speed you respond to changes in the light conditions and your hit rate for superb sunset photos.

Start planning your next trip now!


Frequently Asked Questions

What is the best setting for sunset photography?


The most important camera setting for sunset photography is turning off auto mode. A photograph taken outside in daylight has an average amount of light and dark across the picture. The camera's auto function will use settings to recreate that light level in your image. However, the sunset is much darker, so the camera is fooled into overexposing images, creating a bleached-out result.

Take back control with the Aperture priority or Manual mode.

What shutter speed should I use for sunset?


Every sunset is different, so there isn't one particular shutter speed that works for every situation. For example, suppose you set your camera to Aperture priority and your ISO to 200. In that case, your camera will select a setting that creates the average lightness. Unfortunately, this will be too light, so either turn to manual and lower the speed or use exposure compensation to darken the image.

Why do photographers shoot at sunset?


Photographers shoot at sunset for the glorious colors. The light at sunset is exceptional on the best days, with warm golden tones across the landscape. Cloud-studded skies can introduce shades of red, pink, and purple to fantastic effect.


What is sunset photography?


Sunset photography is the creation of images when the sun is setting. This may start with the Golden Hour, the period before the sun falls below the horizon.


What is the secret to photographing a sunrise or sunset?


The secret to photographing a sunrise or sunset is actively working with your camera and the conditions. First, check your images, decide if they are correctly exposed, then fine-tune your settings when necessary.


How many minutes before sunset should you take pictures?


Start an hour before sunset to catch the Golden Hour. Images of all kinds look magical in this period. First, keep an eye on the sky for beautiful cloudscapes in vivid colors. Then, you can focus on the sun in the last 15 minutes as it sinks below the horizon and the orb turns orange or red.


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