Sunset Season: The Photographer’s Guide to Sunset Photography
It’s sunset season and that means if you can ditch your day job early enough and gawk at the sky you’ll (more often than not) see beautiful sunsets.
Why does winter have the best sunsets? Sounds counter-intuitive right? The skies are usually cloudier and the sun (at least theoretically) seems less intense. Low humidity + cleaner air = more intense sunset colors. Look for beautiful displays after rainfall or snowfall depending on where you live.
I used to think Los Angeles had the best winter sunsets but these Southwest sunsets I have been experiencing in Nevada and beyond have made me re-think my assessment.
Sunset Photography — The Essentials
Nothing can match the beauty of a golden sunset at the end of the beautiful day. In fact, seeing wonders such as this are so breathtaking, they can only truly be enjoyed to their fullest in person. However, that doesn’t mean that photographers who aspire to become great at sunset photography don’t try to capture the awe that comes with seeing a beautiful sunset at the end of the day.
Bringing to life the colors, feeling and beauty of a sunset can be extremely difficult, but it isn’t impossible. With the right setting, exposure and technique, you can capture sunsets so clear, it almost seems as if you, and the viewer, were there in person.
If you have ever felt underwhelmed after taking a sunset photo, pay close attention to these tips, they may just make all of the difference in the quality of your final creation.
As always it’s important to take your time when photographing beautiful natural elements.
What You’ll Need
Capturing beautiful sunset photography doesn’t require many photography accessories, however, having these tools can make or break your opportunity to capture a beautiful sunset
- A tripod: Having a tripod will allow you to steady your shot so you can capture the sharpest results
- ND Filters/ Polarizer: These tools can help you limit the amount of harsh sun light that hits your lens. ND filters have the added benefit of allowing you to take long exposure shots while the sun is still out
- A DSLR camera : DUH
- A sunset tracking app. My favorite and most reliable app is SUNSET WX — it’s run by a team of meteorologists that track a number of elements.
Tips and Tricks
- The Clear Horizon Effect: I made up this term of art but its a phenomena that I often witness right before a killer sunset. Essentially if you see high clouds and a low horizon right above the western horizon where the sun sets you can expect an amazing colorful sunset
- Avoid Dark Clouds: I’ve also found that dark rain clouds that aren’t accompanied by light clouds often create sunsets that are dark and dreary
- Winter Sunsets: If you live in a tropical or desert climate you’ll often find that the most amazing sunsets occur during the winter months — Los Angeles is a great example of a city that has amazing winter sunsets.
Wouldn’t it be great if you spontaneously stumbled upon the world’s most beautiful sunset and instantly captured it in all of it’s glory?
It probably would be, but spontaneous sunset photos rarely turn out in the way that people want them to. If you want a truly stunning sunset (or sunrise) photo, scope out your location first and make sure you are clear on the timing. Typically, you only have less than 30 minutes to capture the sun, so you need to be there at the right moment.
Make sure to arrive with plenty of time to set up.
As you look for a location, keep in mind, it isn’t just the sun you want to capture, it is the shadows and dimension that this sun creates. Look for a location that highlights the beauty of nature and that will be enhanced by the sunset and that will create more visual interest in your shot—the sun alone typically isn’t enough.
Plan on Taking Different Shots
Shooting something as vast and as beautiful as a sunset can sometimes be a challenge, as you never know what you are going to get when it is time to actually time to capture your photo.
Plan on taking your shot from a variety of focal lengths. In some settings a wide angle lens that captures the landscape of the area can be the perfect way to depict the beauty of the scenery around you.
With other sun shots like sunrise, you may want to hone in on the sun itself, and zoom into the star of the show.
- Either way, you need to be prepared and to make sure that you have a tripod to help you out. Whether you go wide angle or zoom in, don’t forget the old adage of the rule of thirds. In some situations you may want to break the rule, but in general, keep it in mind when looking at your horizon, sun and silhouettes so you can keep the big picture in mind, instead of just the sun.
Don’t Ignore the Clouds
There are so many photographers that place so much emphasis on the sun in their sunset photos that they completely forget about the other huge element in the shot—the clouds. The clouds in your photo will make or break your shot. So pay close attention to the cloud situation before you take your photo.
Typically, the more clouds you have in a sunset photo, the better as they can help reflect the beautiful hues in the sky as the sun goes down. Of course, there are situations where too many clouds can overwhelm your shot, you want that perfect balance of clouds and blue sky before the sun sets in order to get the full range of colors in your final product.
Start With the Settings
One of the most difficult parts of capturing sunset photography, comes in actually capturing the sun itself. When the sun appears in your photo, it can be extremely bright and it can throw off the onboard light meter in your camera.
Any easy fix for this? Use your manual settings. Give it a try. This will prevent you from getting a photo that is too bright, or too dark and will help you get that deep, glowing orange that looks just like the sun itself.
Choosing Your Aperture
For many photographers, choosing the right aperture with something like a sunset photo can be very challenging. Typically, when shooting a sunset on manual, somewhere between a F8 and a F10 is a great place to start, with F8 for shots where there isn’t a lot of light left and F10 when it starts to get darker.
Getting the Right Exposure
A lot of shooting the sunset comes in finding the right subject, setting the scene and creating something beautiful and memorable, but there are some technical aspects to keep in mind as well, especially when it comes to exposure.
The first thing to remember is there is no right exposure for a sunset photo. For some photographers, using an auto exposure lock on their camera is a great place to start, especially if you aren’t a fan of only shooting in manual. You focus on a dark portion of your shot, such as a tree or the ground, then reframe the photo so you focus on the sunset, this results in a more over exposed shot.
There is also bracketing a technique where you use the camera’s suggested exposure then take a few shots both under and over the suggested mark. This will give you a series of images at different exposures with slightly different colors and results so you can choose the one that works for you.
Framing Your Shot for Sunset Photography
Framing can make the difference between a mediocre shot and an awe inspiring capture. A few elements that I’ll cover in a future post on photography basics are : symmetry, the rule of thirds and leading lines. The basic principle of of the rule of thirds is to imagine breaking an image into thirds (horizontally and vertically) so that you have 9 sections. The theory is that the center points act as intersections where a viewer’s eye naturally gravitates. By doing this you can highlight important cross sections of your photo and bring more balance to a shot.
Symmetry is a basic principle that doesn’t need much explaining. Focusing on symmetry can make or break a photo — and can create a provocative image.
Finally leadings lines draw the viewers eyes to a certain element in the photo that you want to highlight. Like a mountainous peak or a road leading into a city scape (like below)
Getting Your Perfect Shot
You’ve tried manual settings, messed with the exposure and set the scene. Now that you’ve taken your shot, you’re not done. The most amazing thing about sunsets is how much they change in just a matter of minutes. So, keep shooting, and be patient.
If you’re looking for a challenge set up a timelapse and capture the changing elements of a sunset . You’ll need to set your camera to AV mode and wait for my time-lapse tutorial post to really dig into this method. As always if you’re anxious to find out how to do it and can’t wait for the blog post — email or message me 🙂
Your shot may look completely different from one minute to the next, so imagine the different options you can get if you wait it out for all 30 minutes of the sunset. The key to the perfect sunset shot all lies in patience and in testing out different options with your camera and your scenery. There is no one recipe for how to do it.
Keep playing around and if you give your shot the time it deserves you may just end up with an image that looks as good as the real thing.