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7 Easy Tips for Capturing Stunning Sunset Photography

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Sunset photography is a great way to show off your landscape photography skills. But don’t be fooled. Shooting sunsets are not as easy as it sounds.
It might seem like nature will do the majority of the work for you. But the reduced amount of light and angle of the light source can make sunset photography challenging.
Here are seven surefire tips that will improve your sunset photography.

A picture of a sunset above the mountains and lake

7. Plan Ahead for a Seamless Sunset Photo Shoot

Everything seems to work better with a plan, doesn’t it?
To capture beautiful and interesting sunset photography, ask yourself these questions. And do it before the shoot.

  • Where is the location of the sunset shot you want to take?
  • What about the weather, will you have favourable conditions to shoot in, or is a downpour expected?
  • What do you hope to achieve? Think of the sunset photos 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 you’ll need for each of these shots. And make sure you’ll have everything you need on location to get that sunset photography 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 sunset shot.
Also, remember to check the area you’re going to be shooting in for any hazards, natural or otherwise. Planning is the first step in how to shoot the best sunset photography.

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 one.
I have been using the excellent PhotoPills app for over 3 years, and have been very happy with it.

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 sunset photo shoot.

6. Arrive Early

An unfortunate mistake many inexperienced photographers make is arriving too late on the scene.

In a landscape photography situation, you need time for everything.

You need time for scouting (even if you’ve been there before). You need time for setting up, experimenting with accessories, lenses, and settings. And you also need some leeway for solving possible equipment issues.

Another consideration is that the magic moment might well happen before you expect. The sun might set behind a cloud for a moment, creating beams of light in ways you haven’t anticipated.

Or, some shadows on the ground might just be perfect 20 minutes before the actual sunset.

For these reasons, I strongly recommend arriving at the location at least an hour before you expect to get the right shot.

Doing so will set you apart from amateurs who risk missing out on fantastic opportunities.

Photo by Jenn Mishra

5. Choose Your Gear Carefully

Again, this depends on what subject you’re shooting during the golden hour. For landscape photography shots in general, you’ll want to go in a wide-angle lens.

Or a zoom lens that covers the lower focal lengths. This means 35mm down to 18mm if you’re working with an APS-C sensor system. 50mm to 24mm on full-frame systems.

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.

But you’ll also need a lens that’s capable of framing more tightly if the composition requires.

You will also need a tripod, a staple of landscape photographers. This is to keep your camera stable and steady.

This is essential when shooting at slower shutter speeds. Sunset photography means slower shutter speeds. This is because lower light and smaller apertures are usually involved.

It would be a good idea to also bring along a remote shutter release.

I’m an advocate of not putting extra glass in front of your lens. This almost always degrades the image, if only a bit.

Shooting in RAW gives you some advantages. You can add exposure adjustments and gradients later in post-processing.
And, let’s not forget other gear such as jackets, coats, and hats. Anything that will 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.
Having the right gear is a step in the direction of how to photograph sunsets.

A tripod set up on a beach
A tripod is a must for landscape photographers, especially for those seeking to capture sunset photos, as it allows you to not worry about shutter speed and camera shake.

4. Find the Perfect Camera Settings for Sunset Photos

I mentioned some camera 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. This way, 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. If you haven’t done it already, take the time to learn 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 settings. And it teaches you how light comes into the lens of the camera and falls on your sensor to create a photo.
Make sure you have set your white balance for beautiful sunset photographs. Otherwise, the colour shift will be too warm.

The Exposure Triangle for Sunset Photography

You want your sunset photo to be of the highest quality. This means using the lowest ISO setting possible. We know that ISO 100 will get rid of any noise in the image, which is especially important in low light.
Since your camera is on a tripod, you can use that setting. This is one-third of the exposure triangle we use to get a proper exposure composition.
Next, let’s set the aperture. As a general rule, you want your scene to be sharp and in focus throughout. To do this, you’ll need to set you aperture to a smaller value.
For landscape photos I take on a tripod, I usually start around f/8 and experiment up to f/16.
The last piece of our exposure puzzle is shutter speed. We will now set this to determine the exposure you’re looking for.
Shutter speed can be set higher to ensure a crisp, clean capture with no blur. Or you can set it lower to show movement and provide an ethereal effect.
You can use it with crashing waves, or clouds moving through the sky.

Sunset photography also allows for using other techniques. These include HDR (High Dynamic Range) images and panoramic photos.
HDR images include bracketing several shots of the same scene at different exposures. You then combine those exposures in post-processing software. This produces a photo with a broader dynamic range.
Panoramas are also created in software. Stitch together images horizontally (or sometimes vertically) to produce a single image. This one has a much wider or larger frame of view.

A beach at sunset with 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.

3. Look for Clouds

Clouds can lift up the quality of many types of landscape photographs. The most important of them is sunset photography.

Clouds add detail and interest. They shape, redirect and colour light. They can make boring sunset shots work, and they can make great sunset shots look stunning.

Thin clouds, whispy cloudy, and scattered clouds – don’t treat them as a distraction, rather as a blessing.

Watch for clouds at unusual directions, too. Even if you’ve decided on a particular composition before, look around. There might be another spot where the clouds are just perfect and make up for an even better one.

Be careful, though. Too many clouds will block too much light, giving the opposite effect. At times, there are simply too many of them, and the photo becomes boring and dull. It’s a game of balance.

Watch out for clouds

2. Add Interest to the Horizon

We are habitual beings by nature. Therefore, we usually stick to certain tendencies. When taking sunset photography, we have a horizon to deal with. This is the area where land meets the sky.
For most of us want to compose the photo so that the horizon is in the middle, on a vertical line. That’s because centring the horizon in the image creates symmetry. And this is pleasing to the eye.
For landscape photographs, the problem is that symmetry can sometimes be boring. Our eyes need different and interesting approaches.

When composing sunset photography, 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.
Check if you have interesting rock formations, or beautiful waves coming in at a beach. Then give that part of the scene more weight.
If the sunset is bursting through interesting cloud formations, focus more on that.
Using the horizon is a great way to add interest and drama to your sunset photos.

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

1. Stay  After  Sunset

Many photographers new to natural light photography make this one mistake. They tend to think that magical photos can only happen during the golden hour.

They don’t realize how light levels can change. And create even more magical settings shortly afterwards.

After you got the ‘perfect’ light for your sunset pictures, don’t pack up and head home. Practice some patience, and wait.

There will come a moment when the setting sun will set low-level clouds ablaze. This is a very short, 5-minute window, so you need to be prepared, you need to anticipate, and act quickly.

If you get this right, your reward will be a photo with exceptional light.

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

Overall, I recommend staying at least 40 minutes after sunset. It’s worth it.

After sunset photo of teal coloured waves
Some of the more beautiful colours make themselves known after the sun has disappeared below the horizon.

Conclusion

Sunsets are one of those natural phenomena that are mesmerizing on their own. They almost do all the work for us when we try to capture sunset photography.
Keep these tips in mind when planning your next sunset photography outing. Now you’ll have a head start in making your sunset photos stand out above the rest!

Looking for tips on how to shoot sunrises? Check out our tutorial on Getting Started With Sunrise Photography!

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