The Definitive Guide on How to Photograph an Amazing Sunset
In this tutorial, we are looking at how to photograph a sunset. But this is not just taking a snap of a sunset. What I want to help you achieve is taking sunset photographs like the best landscape photographers; whatever your current skill level. I want you to be able to photograph sunsets in a way that makes people stop to admire your work. I want you to capture sunsets that you are proud to hang on your wall.
Fortunately, it’s much easier than you think to capture a wonderful sunset photo. What you need is a little understanding in four key areas. These are:
- Photo processing
Let’s look at each of these in turn to see how they can help you capture amazing sunset photographs.
Planning a Sunset Photo Shoot
If there is one secret to photographing wonderful sunsets, it’s planning. Unfortunately, many photographers forget or even ignore the importance of planning before going on a shoot. Most just head out with a camera and hope to take a good photograph. It’s then down to luck as to whether you can capture a good sunset. Don’t be that person.
When it comes to planning a sunset photo shoot, you should consider three things:
- Sunset direction and time
- Weather conditions
If you can plan these areas well, you significantly increase your chances of photographing a wonderful sunset scene.
Picking Good Sunset Locations
Not every nice location is a great sunset location. Whilst most locations will improve when bathed in sunset light, you can’t settle for good enough. Locations must look wonderful at sunset which is something often forgotten. A good example of this is the Lake District National Park in the UK.
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The Lake District has many wonderful scenes with lakes, rivers, and mountains. But the geography of the area means mountains often obstruct the sun before it sets. This will cast distracting dark shadow over the landscape, which you don’t want. If you want to take a good sunset photo in the Lake District you either need to be high on one of the mountains or know locations of where you can see the sun towards sunset.
Now compare this to a west facing coastal location like Formby in the UK.
At Formby there are no surrounding hills and the beach is flat. As the sun sets here, the light can become spectacular. This limits your planning to the weather and tide times. If the weather is good and the tide is low, you’re almost certain of a good sunset. It then becomes much easier to photograph a great sunset.
Sun Direction and Time
The next thing to consider when planning a sunset photo shoot is the direction of the sun. Whilst it’s possible to take good sunset photos facing any direction, being able to see where the sun will set helps. In other words, you need a location that has an unobstructed view facing roughly West. You should then check in advance exactly where the sun will set because this changes throughout the year. One tool to help you do this is the Photographers Ephemeris which I also use as an app on my phone.
The Photographers Ephemeris is a free desktop application you can use via their website. It provides you with a high-level map where you can check the direction of the sun at any time on day. This makes planning much easier and allows you to visit locations at the best time of year to photograph the sunset.
Now consider is when the sun will set. Many people ignore this and end up either arriving too late or leaving a location too early.
Be sure to check what time the sun will set using the Photographers Ephemeris. You can then use this to plan your travelling time so that you are in position to photograph the bet light. Ideally allow yourself an hour either side of sunset to capture the best photography conditions.
Photographers often talk of the golden hour when the light is at its best for photography. This occurs around an hour before sunset when the sun is at a low angle, creating warm and golden light. Most locations will look better when bathed in this light.
Once the sun has set many photographers leave a location, but this is a big mistake. Although there’s no warm, direct light on the land, the contrast levels drop. This may make photographing the landscape easier. At the same time, you’ll find that the colour in the sky will often intensify, producing the most dramatic colours.
The colours in the sky often appear at their most intense when photographed for anything up to 20 minutes after the sun has set. This is the time when the light also shifts in colour from yellow and orange to become redder, then pink and finally blue.
Here’s an example of a photograph taken around 20 minutes after sunset. Notice the intense pink light and colour on the scene. Earlier, before the sun had set, the scene had high contrast with strong shadows and yellow light. Just waiting for the sun to set made it much easier to photograph and produced completely different colours.
So be sure you know where the sun will set, at what time and be prepared to wait for the conditions to develop. A sunset isn’t static. The light will constantly change and as it changes the landscape will appear to change.
Weather Conditions for Sunsets
It’s surprising how many people ignore the weather before heading out to photograph a sunset. Another equally common mistake is to wait for clear skies. Whilst clear skies will ensure you have sun, they probably won’t produce amazing sunset photographs.
The best conditions to photograph the sunset are where there is broken cloud. If you look at the examples of sunset photos in this tutorial you will see that very few have a completely clear sky. Those that do have a clear sky only show a small portion of it. That’s because a clear sky is often photographically boring. Instead you want broken cloud that catches the light of the sun and which changes colour.
Good weather forecasting is a vital component for shooting great sunset photography. Find a weather forecasting app or website that gives accurate prediction and where you can search for the locations you want to visit. Ideally you should consult a few different sources as there’s often variation between them.
YR Weather Reporting
One weather forecasting service that I use regularly is YR weather. What I like about YR weather is that it predicts the cloud coverage at different altitudes. Low cloud is often poor for sunset photography because it’s usually heavy, dense and blocks the sun. Alternatively, high cloud tends to be thinner and often catches the sun as it sets, changing colour.
Here’s an example of the YR website weather report.
Notice this shows the cloud cover as well as any fog in the area. Seeing a forecast like this would probably put me off heading out to shoot a sunset at this location.
If you’re serious about landscape photography I’d also recommend learning more about how to predict and read the weather. A good book that I’ve found useful is reading the clouds by Oliver Perkins. Being able to predict the weather can save you an enormous amount of time and prevent wasted effort.
Now that you know how to be in the right place at the right time let’s look at how to photograph the sunset.
Equipment for Photographing Sunsets
To photograph amazing sunsets well you need to have the right equipment. But what I won’t do is tell is what camera you should be using. It’s possible to use any camera, including your smartphone, to take a wonderful sunset photograph.
Use your Smart Phone
If you’re a serious photographer, you probably forget that your smartphone can take great photos. In fact, most smartphones will take a better photograph of a sunset than a regular camera. That is unless you know what you’re doing with the camera. This is a good reason to always photograph a sunset with your phone initially.
But I also recommend using your smartphone to photograph a sunset because it can help with composition. It’s much easier to wander around with your phone taking photographs than it is with a camera on a tripod. If you don’t already have one, try getting a viewfinder camera app for your phone.
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Your phone also does a lot of processing for you when you snap a sunset. Just look at the image above. To produce a similar result using a camera you need to understand how to control it with accessories as well as process the photo. In this example, I simply snapped it with my phone.
If you find you’re concerned that you can’t make a large print from a smartphone image, consider using enlargement software like Gigapixel. It’s quite amazing what this software can achieve. But because you are reading this, I’m assuming you may want to photograph sunset something other than a smartphone. So, let’s look at some of the accessories you will need for your camera.
Tripod & Remote Release
Without doubt, a tripod and remote release make photographing sunset with a camera much easier. Whilst we think of sunsets as being very bright, as the sun dips towards the horizon you may find your shutter speed slows. It’s no longer possible to handhold your camera, at least without increasing the ISO setting (which you should avoid). This makes using a tripod especially important if you’re to avoid a shaky picture.
Be sure your tripod holds the camera stable whilst also allowing you to change the height and position of the camera easily. This makes composing sunset photographs much easier.
The other essential accessory to use with any tripod is a remote release cable release. This means you can trigger the camera shutter without needing to touch the camera. If you touch the camera to release the shutter, even whilst it’s on the tripod, you will probably capture a shaky picture.
Some people recommend using the camera auto-timer rather than a remote release. This setting allows you to press the shutter and then there’s a short delay before the camera takes the picture. Whilst this is a good fallback in an emergency it’s nowhere near as good as firing the shutter when you want to.
Taking great photos often involves timing the release of the shutter to capture an element of movement in a scene. For example, you may want to time your photo to capture a receding wave. Trying to achieve this using the camera auto timer is extremely difficult. Given the relatively low price of a remote release, it’s an essential investment to photograph sunsets well.
Filters that you fit the front of your camera lens are particularly important when shooting a sunset. Probably the most important will be the Neutral Density Graduated filter or ND Grad. These filters are dark at the top clear at the bottom with a graduated transition zone between the two. The idea is that you position the dark area over the sky, as the sky is often much brighter than the foreground. The camera can then better handle the difference in brightness between the two areas. This creates a more balanced and pleasing exposure across the entire image.
Here’s a sunset photo captured using an iPhone 5.
Whilst it’s a great sunset, noticed how dark the foreground is. This is because the camera phone couldn’t handle the difference in brightness between the sky and the foreground. In this scenario, being able to place a neutral density filter over the sky would help to balance the exposure.
Here is the same location captured using the camera with a ND Grad filter.
Although photographed earlier in the day, the camera is shooting directly into the sun and the sky is far brighter than in the iPhone photo. By using a ND Grad filter, we control the exposure of the sky and you can clearly see the foreground flowers and grass.
Being able to use filters like this can transform your photography and helps you produce professional results. You can learn more in my lens filter tutorial.
Keep Your Equipment Clean
Without doubt one of the most important things when photographing sunsets is to have clean camera equipment. Any dirt, dust, or grease on then lenses, filters, or the camera sensor can make photographing towards the sun difficult. If you’re photographing with the sun in the frame, as you often will with a sunset, you may find it ruins your photographs completely. Be sure to keep your equipment clean and do this in advance.
Camera Settings for Photographing Sunsets
This is a large topic area but there are two pieces of essential advice:
- Where possible, photograph using RAW format.
- Use the base ISO setting of your camera.
Photograph in RAW Format
Some cameras allow you to photograph in RAW format as well as JPEG and there are pros and cons to each format.
Photographing in RAW limits any processing the camera does to the photograph. When you shoot a sunset in the JPEG image format, the camera automatically applies adjustments. This may include saturation, white balance, sharpness, contrast, noise reduction and even special effects. Whilst this may create an image that looks good directly out of the camera, you can usually produce a better result by processing the RAW file yourself.
When you photograph a sunset in the RAW format you maximise the amount of image data available for editing later. When you use this data properly you maximise the quality of your photographs. They look better and can make higher quality enlargements.
Camera ISO Setting
The other setting that you should consider is the camera ISO. Ideally you should use what we call the base ISO setting for your camera. This is likely to be the lowest ISO setting it can use without applying any expanded settings. AS an example, I currently shoot using a Fuji XT3 camera. This has a base ISO setting of 160 but I can achieve a lower ISO by enabling extended settings in the camera menus.
There are two important reasons why you should shoot at the base ISO:
- This setting produces extremely low noise levels which is important if you need to lighten the shadows in post processing.
- The camera can handle the largest dynamic range at this setting. The dynamic range is the difference between the darkest and brightest area of an image. By maximising the dynamic range, you can improve the image quality of your photograph.
Now that you have your camera set up let’s talk a little bit about composition
Creating a Sunset Composition
When composing a sunset photograph, the usual photographic rules of composition apply. However, there are three points I want to pay special attention to:
- Decide if you want to use a wide-angle or telephoto lens for the scene.
- Identify any foreground interest in the scene.
- Is there any movement in the scene that you can capture?
Let’s look at these points in a little more detail.
Wide Angle or telephoto
I could write an entire article about composing with wide-angle lenses or telephoto lenses. But when it comes to sunsets there’s one point that’s especially important to consider. What does the sky look like?
If the sky is full of wonderful colour clouds you probably want to use a wide-angle lens. This will allow you to include more of the sky in the scene. But if the sky is clear, you might include less. If you’re using a wide-angle lens you will need to find some interesting foreground to include instead.
Notice how in this image I haven’t included much of the sky other than the single small cloud over the distant person. Fortunately, I was able to include the wonderful ripples on the sand using a wide-angle lens.
If the sky is very boring and clear and the foreground doesn’t have much interest, then you may want to use a telephoto lens. This will allow you to crop in on a small area of the scene and cut out the boring or unwanted parts.
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In this sunset photograph I’ve used a long focal length or telephoto lens. This allowed me to crop to a smaller area of the scene, silhouetting the three people on the rocks against an amazing sunset sky.
if you’re use a wide-angle lens then you probably want to find an interesting foreground to include in the frame. Just taking a picture of a great sunset sky doesn’t usually work. It’s much better to include an element of the foreground in the frame as it gives the photo perspective. If you look at the sunset photographs in this tutorial you will see that most use wide-angle lenses. You should also notice that these usually include something interesting in the foreground to capture your attention.
As we mentioned earlier, shutter speeds tend to slow when shooting around sunset. This can be a great bonus if you’re using a tripod and there’s movement in the scene. Moving objects will blur when using longer shutter speed. If you get the timing right, you can create wonderful effects when capturing this movement.
In this sunset photograph, you can see the movement of the waves in the foreground. Here the longer shutter speed smooths the ripples of the waves making it obvious they are moving.
Sometimes you’ll find there too much light to create a long exposure to blur the movement. When this happens consider using a Neutral Density (or ND) filter. Unlike an ND Grad filter, these filters are dark across their entire surface. Placing one over the lens will reduce the amount of light reaching the camera sensor which extends shutter speed.
ND filters are another essential accessory to consider when photographing a sunset.
A Serious Warning
When you’re photographing sunsets, it’s often necessary to shoot towards the sun. If you do this, be extremely careful if you have an optical viewfinder. Shooting towards the sun when looking through the camera viewfinder can damage your eyesight. This is particularly true where you are using an optical viewfinder as there is nothing to control the amount of light reaching your eye.
Post Processing Sunset Photos
The final important area to consider when photographing sunset is the post-processing.
If you’ve taken the advice in this tutorial to photograph sunset using your camera’s RAW format, you will need to process your photos. Most of the time RAW format photos look terrible until you process them. How to do this properly depends on the software you’re using, but a RAW converter like Lightroom or Capture One is essential. After that, you can consider adding special effects with tools like Photoshop, Affinity Photo, or the Nik Collection.
Typically, when processing a sunset photo, you will need to adjust the white balance. Most of the time photographers will set their camera to shoot in the AWB mode. This is the auto white balance mode where the camera will try to remove any colour cast from the photograph. But it’s the colour cast that makes a sunset photograph look like a sunset. It’s not uncommon to find very odd-looking colours as the camera tries to deal with the lighting conditions at sunset. It’s therefore often worth spending a little time achieving a good colour balance.
Another thing to watch out for is having a dark foreground and bright sky in your sunset photos. Sometimes it can be good to allow areas to become silhouetted, but it can also look ugly. Mostly it’s better to reveal detail in the foreground by achieving a balanced exposure with the sky.
We’ve already talked about using neutral density graduated filters to do this. Even then you may find that an unbalanced exposure where you need to lighten the foreground and/or darken the sky. Most raw converters include a graduated filter you can use to do this.
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Summary of How to Photograph Sunsets
We’ve come to the end of this tutorial on how to photograph sunsets. Whilst there’s been a lot to learn, by breaking it down into four areas, you can improve your sunset photography. Remember:
- Get your planning right. Go to the best location at the right time of day and in the right weather conditions. Be sure to arrive early and don’t leave too soon.
- Make sure you have the right camera equipment and accessories to photograph a sunset. This probably means using a tripod and cable release, using filters, and ensuring your equipment is clean.
- Create a good composition. Make conscious decisions about whether to use a wide-angle or telephoto lens. If you were shooting with a wide-angle lens, include some interesting foreground.
- Good post-processing is an essential element of photographing amazing sunsets. Try to photograph using RAW format if your camera supports it and learn how to use a RAW converter.
By following these points, you should be able to photograph sunsets and produce some amazing photography.
If you found this tutorial helpful, please take a moment to share it with others who may be interested.
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