I’ve had a passion for photography for many years now, especially landscapes. I’m also lucky enough to live by the sea, so naturally I’ve taken hundreds of sunset photos! But first, I had to learn to take advantage of HDR photography.
Sunset is my favourite time to capture photos, which you can see by looking through my portfolio. The time when the sun sets is also easy to work out and most phones have a weather app telling you the exact time. This will help you plan your next sunset photography shoot!
However, when I first started out photographing sunsets, they were either too dark with no detail in the foreground, or too bright, blowing out the sunset. Which is why I learnt to take HDR photography sunsets.
What Is HDR Photography?
HDR (High Dynamic Range) is the process of capturing multiple images at different exposures then blending them together in post-production to create a more realistic image.
Why Use HDR for Sunset Photography?
When you have a tricky subject to capture, such as a sunset, there are a wide range of contrasts between the darker and brighter areas. Therefore HDR photography is the most suitable option for you.
Where sunset HDR photography can differ from normal HDR photography is the fact you may need more then 3 exposures to capture every detail. In the hours during sunrise and sunset, plan to take around 5 exposures (-2, -1, 0, +1, +2). This will increase the detail in the sky and foreground.
So here are my tips for capturing the best sunset pictures with HDR photography.
1. Tripods are a Must!
Tripods are the most important tool in HDR photography, if you don’t already own one I highly recommenced you purchase one. The reason they are so vital is even the slightest movement can alter the framing of the image. And your images won’t line up when you merge them together.
Look for a lightweight but sturdy tripod as you don’t want to be lugging around a heavy tripod. If you need help choosing the right tripod click here.
2. Shoot in RAW
Capturing every detail within your sunset scene requires you to shoot in RAW. This is simply because RAW adds more tonal data then the compressed jpeg format. In addition, RAW files allow your software to work with more data as they keep the detail in the dark and light areas.
If you’re keen on ‘over editing’ your HDR sunset make sure you shoot in RAW, this allows you to push the effect to its limit.
3. Use Reflections
Reflections in rock pools, lakes or even puddles can make any sunset more dramatic. A sunset and its reflection would be hard to capture without using HDR photography. This is because the area around the reflection would be too dark.
In addition, a reflection of a sunset will increase the amount of sky in your image, making it more dramatic. In order to achieve the best sunset reflection you’ll need to be low to the ground with your tripod. This allows parts of the sunset which are on the horizon to be in the reflection.
4. Don’t Over Edit
When editing your HDR photography landscape there is a tendency to be ‘over the top’ and create an unrealistic image, therefore overdoing the effect. You will find that sometimes one half of the image looks fine while the other half doesn’t. You will need to find the perfect exposure between the two for the most authentic HDR photography image.
5. Use a Low ISO
When capturing overexposed images, the dark areas tend to create noise. So when you stitch the final images together the result can be very grainy. Therefore, use a low ISO, ideally 100-200 as this will minimise the noise within your image.
When it comes to stacking your multiple exposures, the lower the ISO the better the end result. If you use a high ISO, more noise will appear in the final image, destroying all the detail.
Plus, with a low ISO you’ll almost certainly need a tripod. These Low ISO images cause longer shutter speeds, therefore handheld photographs will produce shakey images.
6. Watch Out for Moving Subjects
During your sunset photography shoot you may encounter birds, people, trees or even dogs moving across your scene. Therefore, when you merge your series of images in post-production you may encounter multiple subjects moving across your scene. Although you can edit these out in using software, getting it right in camera is always better.
7. Clean Your Gear
When capturing sunset photos with HDR photography you’ll need to keep an eye out for dust spots within your camera, it is highly important that you keep your lens and camera sensor clean and free of dust. Especially if you have a wide angle lens! Sorting this our first can save you from editing them out later and the final HDR photo will be a better quality as dust spots reduce the detail in the image.
As I explained earlier, if you stack images with a high ISO the final image will have less detail then with a low ISO. This is the same for dust spots within your lens, you may not notice them at first but once you’ve stacked three images or more together you’ll definitely notice them. Reducing the quality of your final image.
8. Stay Low to the Ground
The next time you try sunset photography select the lowest setting on your tripod and find an interesting subject for the foreground. As you’re using HDR photography you can be certain the detail in the foreground will be in the final image, which will not happen if you didn’t use HDR photography.
If you use more interest in the foreground it will create a higher depth of field. However, make sure you use a small aperture to keep the whole scene in focus. Be creative, you may be surprised at the final outcome and being low to the ground is one way to achieve this.
9. Keep an Eye on the Horizon
Used correctly, the position of the horizon can improve your image greatly. The main rule, you’ve probably heard of before, is that you shouldn’t place the horizon in the middle of the image. You should place it on either the top or bottom third. However, you need to consider which line is best for your scene, not what the rule says!
If you have an amazing sunset and the foreground is also interesting, why not sit the horizon in the middle. If you’re using the sea or a lake as a reflection, placing the horizon line in the middle is more appropriate.
Alternatively, if the sunset is the main subject in your scene, place the horizon line towards the bottom third. Try not to do this if it’s a clear sky, mainly if it’s a dramatic sunset. Otherwise the scene is less entertaining to the audience.
Furthermore, as you’re capturing a photography HDR sunset you can afford to include as much of the foreground as you’d like. Moving the horizon towards the top third can make the foreground draw the viewer towards the sunset, enhancing your image.
10. Use the Right Settings
You may have been told in the past to use the ‘Manual’ mode for capturing sunset pictures. However, this may complicated things as your camera can do most of the work for you with HDR sunsets.
Use aperture priority mode (in most cameras this is either ‘A’ or ‘Av’). This means you control the aperture and the camera automatically works out the right exposure and chooses the correct shutter speed. This can be a difficult concept to get your head around, so I highly recommend you check out this article to help you with aperture.
Now, especially if you have interest in the foreground, you will want your whole scene in focus. This is why i’d recommend starting with a large aperture of f11, then judging it from there.
I use the bracketing function on my camera, this allows me the hold down the shutter while the camera takes all 5 images in one go. Or if I want to minimise camera shake I use the self timer mode and then the camera captures the series of images for me without having to touch the camera.
11. Be Patient
The tendency with sunset photography is to leave once the sun has set. However, there’s many photographers out there who don’t like having the sun in the image. This is because the more dramatic and vibrant colours appear after the sun has set. You’ll definitely need your tripod for these shots as the exposures will be longer.
Plus, another bad habit photographers have is turning up to the location as the sun it setting. I always arrive at a location at least an hour before the sun sets, allowing me to find my favourite composition and to set up my gear. Also I can work out where the sun will set within the scene giving me enough time to move locations if there’s trees in the way or if the tide isn’t quite right.
To summarise, using HDR photography to capture your sunset pictures is vital if you want realistic looking landscapes. So go outside and capture your next sunset. However, don’t be put off if it’s not what you expect, waiting for the perfect sunset can take time. Be patient and get out there! We recommended trying our 30 day sunset photography challenge too!
We have a great article on using Photoshops burn and dodge tool instead of HDR you should check out too!