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As a landscape photographer, there is no greater display of your skill than how you handle sunrise and sunset photography. The soft, beautiful light of the golden hour falling on your subject is one of the most well-known photography setups.

It might seem that nature makes it easy and does the majority of the work for you, the reduced amount of light and angle of the light source actually present some challenges for photographers.

Photo of a sunset at sea with waves crashing on the beach in the foreground

Whether you’re photographing the beach at sunset, a forest, or even a friend posing for a portrait, you might find sunset photography trickier than expected.

Here are 5 surefire tips that will point you in the right direction, and ensure you have a good head start in capturing the sunsets you’ve been dreaming of!

Plan, Plan, Plan

Everything seems to work better with a plan, doesn’t it?

To capture beautiful and interesting sunset photography, you need to prepare for the shoot by answering some questions ahead of time.

  • Where is the location of the shot you want to take?
  • What about weather, will you have favourable conditions to shoot in, or is a downpour expected?
  • What do you hope to achieve? Think of the shots you want to walk away with.
  • Is there a natural feature you’re shooting?
  • Are you looking to grab a shot that requires a bit more preparation, such as an HDR (High Dynamic Range) photo, or panorama?

Think about what is required for each of these shots, and make sure you’ll have everything you need on location to get that shot done.

Scouting the location is a great way to prepare for a shot like this. There’s always a bit of uncertainty when photographing a new location. Going there ahead of time can take out a lot of the anxiety involved. You’ll know what to expect when you go to actually take the shot.

Also, remember to check the area you’re going to be shooting in for any hazards, natural or otherwise.

Screenshot of PhotoPills app as used for sunset photography location research

PhotoPills is a smartphone app that can help you predetermine lighting conditions and sun movements when planning a future shoot.

As always, advances in technology can help us in this area as well. There are several great smartphone apps that can help you plan and prepare for a photograph.

Some can even show you lighting conditions for any point in the world, at any time in the future. The Photographer’s Ephemeris is a very popular, and very capable, one. I have been using the excellent PhotoPills app for over 3 years, and have been very happy with it.

Gather the Proper Gear

Again, this depends on what subject you’re shooting during the golden hour. For landscape shots in general, you’ll want to be prepared to go in with either a wide-angle lens, or a zoom lens that covers the lower focal lengths. This means 35mm down to possibly 18mm, if you’re working with an APS-C sensor system.

When capturing sunset landscapes, you want your frame to be wide and all-encompassing. This gives the scene a bigger sense of scale and grandeur.

You will also need a tripod, also a staple of landscape photographers. This is to keep your camera stable and steady. This is essential when shooting at the slightly slower shutter speeds sunset photography requires, since lower light and smaller apertures are usually involved.

Photo of a tripod on a beach at sunset

A tripod is a must for landscape photographers, especially for those seeking to capture sunsets, as it allows you to not worry about shutter speed and camera shake.

It would be a good idea to also bring along a remote shutter release, and a graduated neutral density filter if you prefer to graduate your horizons in-camera.

Personally, I’m an advocate of not putting additional glass in front of your lens, which almost always degrades the image slightly. Since you’re shooting RAW (you are, right?), exposure adjustments and gradients can be added later in post-processing.

And, let’s not forget other gear such as jackets, coats, hats, and anything else to make you comfortable in the elements. Depending on the time of year, it could be cold, since you’re shooting during and after the sun has set.

Shoot with the Right Settings

I mentioned some of the settings you might be shooting with earlier, but let’s get into that a little more in-depth.

Using a tripod gives you a break, somewhat, in that you know you have a stable platform from which to shoot our image. Settings that you wouldn’t be able to use shooting handheld, you can use now. This is a significant advantage.

Using one of the automatic settings on your camera versus shooting in Manual mode is beyond the scope of this article. But if you haven’t done it already, take the time to learn shooting in Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority, and then move to shooting in Manual.

It is not as complex as you might think. It also gives you greater control over your exposure, and inherently teaches you how light comes into the lens of the camera and falls on your sensor to create a photo.

The Exposure Triangle for Sunset Photography

You want your image to be of the highest quality, which means using the lowest ISO setting possible. We know that 100 ISO will eliminate any noise in the image, which is especially important in low light.

Since your camera is mounted to a tripod, you can use that setting. This is one-third of the exposure triangle we use to get a proper exposure.

Next, let’s set the aperture. As a general rule, you want your scene to be sharp and in focus throughout, from foreground to background. To do this, you’ll need to set you aperture to a smaller value. For landscapes I take on a tripod, I usually start around f/11 and experiment up to f/16.

The last piece of our exposure puzzle is shutter speed, which we will now set to determine the exposure you’re looking for in your composition. Creatively, shutter speed can be set higher to ensure a crisp, clean capture with no blur, or set lower to show movement and provide an ethereal effect. You can use it with crashing waves, or clouds moving through the sky.

Sunset photography from the beach, showing a smooth sea and a pink sky full of clouds with a seagull off to the right

A slower shutter speed can create a smoothing effect on moving elements within a photo, such as clouds or water.

Sunsets also allow for using other techniques, such as HDR (High Dynamic Range) images and panoramic photos.

HDR images are created by bracketing several shots of the same scene at different exposures. You then combine those exposures in post-processing software to produce a photo with a broader dynamic range.

Panoramas are also created in software, stitching together images horizontally (or sometimes vertically) to produce a single image with a much wider or larger frame of view.

Make the Horizon Interesting

We are habitual beings by nature, and usually stick to certain tendencies. When taking sunset photography, we have a horizon to deal with, that area where land meets the sky.

For most of us, our tendency is to compose the photo so that the horizon is in the middle of the photo, vertically. That’s because centering the horizon in the image creates symmetry, which is pleasing to the eye.

For landscape photographs, the problem with this approach is that symmetry can sometimes be boring. Our eyes need to be challenged by different and interesting approaches.

Sunset at sea showing colourful reflections on the waves

The texture and interesting nature of the foreground is a great reason to offset the horizon upwards in this composition.

Therefore, when composing, experiment with the foreground and the background. Make them take up more of the composition in turn, rather than each element being equal in the image.

If you have interesting rock formations, beautiful waves coming in at a beach, give that part of the scene more weight. If you have a fairly plain and simple foreground, but the sunset is bursting through interesting cloud formations, focus more on that.

Practice Patience

Many photographers new to the world of natural light photography tend to think that magical low-light photos can only happen during the golden hour. They don’t realize how quickly the light can change into even more magical settings shortly afterwards.

When you’ve waited for the perfect light for your sunset shot, don’t just pack up and head back home to pull the images off the card. Practice some patience, and wait.

Watch the sun dip even further past the horizon towards the time known as “blue hour”. Colours can become even more saturated and beautiful, and that’s where the real magic begins.

After sunset photo of teal coloured waves

Some of the more beautiful colours make themselves known after the sun has disappeared below the horizon.

Sunsets are one of those natural phenomena that are mesmerizing and beautiful on their own. They almost do do all of the work for us when we try to capture them.

Keep these tips in mind when planning your next sunset photography outing. Now you’ll have a head start in making your sunset captures stand out above the rest!

And if you’re looking to photography sunrises as well, check out our tutorial on Getting Started With Sunrise Photography. 

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

Thank you for reading...

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Thanks again for reading our articles!

David Eldon

David Eldon is a Texas-born natural-light photographer and writer, relocated to the Florida coast and specializing in capturing the landscapes and nature of the area. David is an avid nature-lover and enjoys hiking, music and the Florida outdoors.

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