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How to take better sunset photos


How to take better sunset photos

If there’s one area that many people love, it’s this one: sunset photography. It is obvious and especially when we start in photography, we like to take pictures of those beautiful golden lights of the evening (golden hours in English). I admit that I still take as much pleasure in photographing sunsets myself, even after several years! What about the long exposure at sunset then, magical?

The problem, so to speak, is that everyone today calls himself a “photographer”, whether it’s with an IPhone 6, a small compact camera at 200€ or a top-of-the-range SLR! In all cases, the main thing is to enjoy photographing the scene. However, people are not necessarily aware that sunset photography is a complex subject to deal with. It must be said that the latest phones put themselves in “HDR” mode very often and automatically compile several photos of the same scene exposed to different lights, for a rendering that appears correct (on the screen) !

Today, the objective of this article is to give you all the advices to make a success of your sunset photos, from a technical point of view, photo settings but also material. The majority of these tips and techniques will go for both SLR and hybrid camera lovers.

How to make a success of your sunset photos: my advices

That’s the first piece of advice I’ve ever heard that could sound silly when you say it like that, but it’s not really silly. That’s just the basis. You’re not going to be able to watch the sunset anywhere, so my advice is to calculate it carefully. It makes you smile, but I’ve been thinking, let’s go and watch the sunset from over there, and we can’t see anything! For that, I advise you to look at this little software: The Photographer’s Ephemeris. It’s a superb software that really helps you plan your photos!

Choosing the right place

Assuming that you have found a good spot for your sunset photo, say a sandy beach for example, it will now be interesting to find particular points, things out of the ordinary we will say. Because a beach and a sunset in front of it, there’s nothing more banal… The idea is to think about “composition” (we’ll come back to this later). As for any other landscape photo, look for what could help to improve your picture, elements in the foreground, mountains in the background, rocks with a particular shape, in short, anything that can “dress” your image. It’s really important to know the place before you come to take your picture, otherwise you’ll be caught off guard and won’t have time to think about your picture.

Arriving well in advance

Once you know the site where you are going to photograph your sunset, what you should not forget is to come in advance. If I had to tell you about my recent experience when I was in the United States during my road-trip, I applied the same logic to go take sunrise pictures in the beautiful Grand Teton National Park. I would really advise to arrive 1 hour before sunrise or sunset. You can refer to the website I talk about in the paragraph above to know the exact time of sunrise/sunset.

There’s nothing worse than arriving 10 minutes before sunset and not knowing where to position yourself, what settings to apply, how to get out your tripod, filters, etc.. In short, it is better to be prepared and arrive early. This will give you the opportunity to rethink your future composition.

I would advise in order:

    To take out all your photo equipment when you arrive, to install everything you need (photo accessories), if possible even before you leave (for the filters),

    Once installed, start looking for the spot that might fit for your sunset photo. If you already know the spot (point n°1), go back there first to see if it’s still interesting,

    Start making some “test photos” to adjust your photo settings. Even if the real sunset and beautiful lights aren’t there yet, you’ll already have an idea of the settings. In fact, as you photograph during these hours, you will end up knowing by heart or almost by heart the ideal settings for this type of photo (see below),

    Finally, try to change spot to look for other framing, points of view or composition.

Choosing the right day

It’s a bit of offbeat advice, but clearly, you’re not really going to be able to predict the quality of the sunset without being in front of it. You may have a vague idea depending on the weather at the end of the afternoon, but I advise you in any case to move, even if you have a doubt.

You’d be surprised how many times I went for sunset pictures, without much conviction (because of bad weather) and it turns out that the sunset was superb. The opposite is also true, having moved several times for nothing on the same spot because the sunset wasn’t up to the task.

I take the example of a beautiful big day of blue sky. Of course, it’s a pleasure, but very beautiful sunsets are rarely present when there are not a few clouds on the horizon to give relief to the image. Conversely if the horizon is completely blocked and very cloudy, the result will rarely be there, the classic orange/red/yellow colors being hidden by this cloudy mass.

In any case, if you have spotted a very nice spot and you know that you can make a very nice picture here, it will sometimes be necessary to come back. It’s clearly easier if it’s not too far from home than if you’re on a two week trip somewhere. For those who travel slowly and take the time, you should be able to come back to the same spot to take the “picture” you want.

Read More : 10 tips for photographing your family

Taking care of your composition

Here we clearly get to the heart of the matter and this is very often what will allow you to stand out from the crowd and differentiate yourself from other classic sunset photos. Because a photo with a centered horizon and a sun that lights a scene, everyone knows how to do… The main idea of this paragraph is of course to make you think about your framing. If you want to succeed in your sunset photo, I think it’s essential. As soon as you think about what you want to shoot and how to enhance it, you will get better pictures, no doubt. The few points mentioned below are not to be taken separately but as a whole.

Rule of thirds

This is the classic rule in photography, a rule that does not apply only to the sunset photo… It makes even more sense to me in landscape photography to highlight the subject. Try to browse the web and you will soon realize that in most cases, all the pictures you will find beautiful, will respect this famous rule.

For those who do not know it yet, in a few words, it is a “rule” in photography, and in many other fields, in the broadest sense of the term (rather a guideline) which consists in composing one’s photo according to guidelines and points of interest. Your photo is cut out by two horizontal and vertical lines to obtain 4 points of adhesion in your image. Here is my complete article on the rule of thirds in photography.

Guideline and hanging point

I have not yet written a complete article on the subject of photography guidelines but this is a second important point in my opinion for sunset photography. In a few words, the idea is to find natural lines in the landscape in front of you. It could be a dead branch in front of you, a line of erosion in the sand, a series of buoys, a wall, in chains of stone, in short anything to guide the viewer’s gaze. Generally speaking, you could use a point of attachment (something that will jump out at you, you might say) and guide the viewer’s gaze towards this point of attachment.

Even if you are photographing a sunset, it is always important not to see only that in the picture and being able to dress the landscape with a beautiful rock in the foreground or a dead branch that brings the gaze to the beautiful golden lights in the background of the image, will always be a plus.

Adding a foreground or a background

Last point on the composition especially for the sunset photo, try to always privilege either a foreground or a background, in this case the sky for this type of photo. It is generally very rare to center your horizon on a sunset photo and you will have to make a choice.

I will tend to see it this way. If your sky is really beautiful, the type of sky that is blazing with clouds and splendid colors, then try to emphasize it by focusing on the sky in the picture. This way you can limit the foreground.

If you have a beautiful foreground in front of you, you may decide to highlight the sunset by dressing it up with hang points and guidelines.

Varying image ratios and formats

For landscape photography, the 16:9 format very often gives more dynamic to the image. So try not to focus only on one format and think beforehand about what you want to achieve in the final frame.

Similarly, try to vary the landscape and portrait formats as much as possible. Usually, you will often use the landscape format for nature scenes, landscapes, but you can very well take beautiful pictures in portrait mode.

Making long exposures

It’s not a requirement per se, but I think it clearly gives your sunset photo a plus. This will of course apply mainly to photos of sunsets by the sea. The objective is to reduce the exposure time in order to obtain a milky, vaporous effect on the sea. Depending on what you wish to obtain as an effect, different techniques can be used. It will also obviously depend on the time of shooting. To know (more about this below) that to make long exposures, you will need at least a tripod and often a neutral density filter (ND filter).

Varying the shots: wide angle and telephoto

This is a general advice that I give very often even for landscape photography. Try to vary the orientation of your shots. You will always think of using mainly a wide angle lens to obtain an effect of grandeur of the place and to make the maximum fit in the frame.

However, using a telephoto lens at sunset is clearly a very good solution to isolate precise subjects illuminated by the beautiful golden colours of the evening.

Staying after sunset for the blue hour

A mistake many people tend to make is to leave the premises as soon as the sun goes down. However, serious photographers are very familiar with the blue hour, that period just after the sun has left the horizon. During this time, the landscape takes on a beautiful bluish color that looks really good on a picture. So don’t run the risk of missing these beautiful lights…

You can finally have fun with the sun’s rays during sunrises and sunsets taking backlight photos of silhouettes.

Here are my main tips for sunset photography. Be careful with your positioning in relation to the sun or you may get reflections/flare on your picture.

Camera settings for a sunset photo

If you are a beginner, you should know that you need to use a post-processing software such as Photoshop or Lightroom to process your image. If you decide to shoot in RAW, don’t worry about the white balance since you will make this adjustment afterwards.

I would like to add a few words about photo settings when shooting. In general, I would advise you this:

    Put yourself in semiautomatic mode Av (Canon) or A (Nikon), that is aperture priority. You can also use manual mode if you are comfortable with it,

    Choose your desired aperture, usually a small aperture, f/11 to f/14 to get the whole image in focus (large depth of field). Note that with a wide-angle lens and infinity focus, using a large aperture may be possible, if only to avoid raising ISO. Indeed, the light will be weak in these situations and if you fix a small aperture (say f/14), the shutter speed will not be sufficient when handheld. You will then have to go up to ISO to gain speed. If you have a tripod, this remark does not apply to you,

    Set the ISOs to the lowest setting to limit the occurrence of digital noise,

    If you are in Av mode, look at the shutter speed displayed by your camera. If it is fast enough to shoot freehand, you can take the picture. If not, you can either double the

    If you are in Av mode, look at the shutter speed displayed by your camera. If it is fast enough to shoot freehand, you can take the picture. Otherwise, you can either double the ISO to gain a speed step or open your aperture (change from f/14 to f/11) until you get enough speed.

Of course, if you own a tripod, it’s even better since you’ll be able to choose the photo settings you want, ideally f/11 and ISO at the lowest (50 or 100). You should also remove the stabilizer and raise the mirror to limit blur.

The main difficulty you will have is focusing and managing the big difference in scene brightness. Usually you have a darker foreground and a well-lit background where the sun is. Normally, I advise you to always focus on the element closest to you (beach, rock, etc.), which with a small aperture (f/11-f/14) will guarantee you the whole scene in focus.

The concern you’ll have is that when you do the exposure metering on the foreground or on a point in front of you (darker), you’ll have a sky that’s much too bright, or even burnt out as they say in photo jargon (completely white, without any information). Most of the time, your camera will not be able to correctly expose the sky (very clear) and the foreground (dark). This is where the gradient filters come in, which allow you to block the light only on a part of the image (the sky in this case).

I quickly explain below how to choose your gradient filter (but you can refer to my complete article on the subject). If you use this type of filter, you will just have to place your filter in your filter holder or screw on the lens, keep the same settings you chose without filter and trigger again. Nothing could be simpler!

Another solution is to use HDR (“high dynamic range”), where most cameras set to HDR will only take a picture that they will underexpose and then software overexpose to make a “virtual” combination, which in reality only allows you to retrieve information that was already present in the picture at the base and could have been retrieved just as easily in RAW. You can make the photo several times by exposing successively for the sky then for the ground in order to really combine the photos afterwards in a software like Lightroom. Be careful however not to abuse it at the risk of obtaining renderings very far from reality. Some photographers love the rendering, but personally, it is often too advanced for me to get a natural rendering. Moreover, I prefer to spend time behind my camera than behind a screen.

Choosing the right equipment for sunsets

I end this article with a few tips on how to choose the right equipment for this type of photo. So yes, you can take sunset pictures with an entry-level SLR, no worries, but I consider that there is some equipment more adapted than others. Here is my reflection on the subject.

The Case

There is obviously no “special sunset camera”, but generally speaking, the more you increase the sensor size, the better the ISO management will be, both in low ISOs (cameras have a better dynamic range) and in high ISOs. The rendering of your photos will be better if you choose an FF or APS-C camera, cameras like the 80D (Canon) / D5600 (Nikon) / X-T30 (Fuji) / A6000 (Sony) – (APS-C) or 6D Mark II (Canon) / D750 (Nikon) / A7 II (Sony) – (full format) will do very well in this kind of situation.

The GND filters

I have already touched on this in the article in a succinct manner. The interest is to limit the amount of light that arrives on the brightest part of your image (above). To know everything about GND filters, you can refer to the article in the section “everything for the photo”. Remember the following points:

    You will have to buy a filter holder system to place your GND filter. I use the one from Lee which is very good, but there are others recognized at Nisi for example (famous for its GND too).

    To place your filter holder, you will need an adapter ring, to choose between a standard and a wide angle model (depending on the focal length used). You will have to choose the diameter of the ring according to the lens you are using. I use the wide angle ring from Lee,

    The type of filter will have to be chosen: Soft or Hard depending on where you use it (mountain, sea, etc.),

    Finally, you will have to choose the density of the filter, specifically, the blackness of the upper part of the filter. For sunsets, use at least GND filters with a density of 0.9 or even 1.2. You can also look at reverse filters which are GND filters adapted for sunsets (the darkest part starts in the middle of the filter and degrades upwards).

The ND filters

I talk about it very quickly in the article, but you will sometimes want to lengthen the exposure time when shooting to give a movement effect, especially for sunsets at the water’s edge (sea/river). Even if you optimize your camera’s settings to obtain the longest exposure time (lowest ISO and small aperture (f/14)), the time displayed by the camera may not be enough to make a real long exposure.

This is where the ND filters come into play. The purpose of the ND filter is to block, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the density of the filter, the amount of light that reaches your sensor. Keep in mind that you can use circular ND filters (without filter holder) but that you can’t cumulate them with a GND filter (filter holder mandatory). If you want to combine GND + ND filters, you will have to use square ND filters that you place first in one of the grooves of your filter holder.

Personally, I use the Lee Litle Stopper filter (ND64) for my sunset/sunrise exposures which reduces the speed by 6 stops. I find it ideal for low light conditions such as sunsets. The ND 1000 filters will be too opaque and will result in exposures that are too long, several minutes long. If your goal is to completely blur the sea, then yes why not.

The Polarizing Filter

I don’t talk about them in the article especially because they are not mandatory for sunsets, but it can be interesting to use them especially at sea (to see through the water) and in the mountains (to limit the atmospheric veil). I use Lee’s 105mm polarizing filter to increase color saturation and contrast. Be careful when you decide to stack filters, at the risk of seeing vignetting on the edge of the photos (black edges of the filter simply).

The Tripod

The purpose of this article is not to tell you everything you need to know about tripods (I already did in a dedicated article). Just keep in mind that if you want to use an ND filter, and if you want to avoid blurred movements, it will be mandatory to use a tripod. For the choice, everything will depend mainly on the weight of your photo equipment.

A remote control

Last little photo accessory, the remote control. There’s no need to invest in a high-end remote control, small models do the job very well in my opinion. I personally have this model. It will be very appreciated for long exposures on a tripod.

That’s it, I’m coming to the end of this article. I hope you appreciate the advice. You should be able to make a success of your sunset photos. If you are used to taking pictures during those hours, would you have any other advice to give that I might have forgotten! Personally, it is on the beach where I take the most pleasure in photographing a sunset! What about you?

If you are interested in photography techniques and especially landscape photography, I invite you to read the article on exposure technique on the right.

I look forward to seeing you soon and wish you beautiful sunset photos.