Sunset photography is a great way to show off your landscape photography skills. But don’t be fooled. Sunset photography is not as easy as it sounds.
It might seem like the 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 five surefire tips that will improve your sunset (and sunrise) photos.
How to Plan for Sunset Photography
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 weather, will you have favourable conditions to shoot in, or is a downpour expected?
- What do you hope to achieve? Think of the susnet photography 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 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, and very capable, one.
I have been using the excellent PhotoPills app for over 3 years, and have been very happy with it.
What Kind of Gear Do You Need
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.
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 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. And a graduated neutral density filter.
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.
Best Settings for Sunset Photography
I mentioned some of the 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, 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. 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 image to be of the highest quality, which 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, 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. We will now set this to determine the exposure you’re looking for in your composition.
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.
How to Add Interest to the Horizon
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, on a vertical line. That’s because centering 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 how to photograph sunsets.
Why Shoot During the Blue Hour
Whether you own a DSLR or mirrorless, Canon or Nikon – you need to practise. We recommend that you shoot RAW, and even priority modes can help you out.
Many photographers new to natural light photography make this one mistake. They tend to think that magical low-light photos can only happen during the golden hour.
They don’t realize how the 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.
Watch the setting 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.
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 captures stand out above the rest!
And if you’re looking to photograph sunrises as well, check out our tutorial on Getting Started With Sunrise Photography.