Sunset photography is a great way to show off your landscape photography skills. But don’t be fooled, shooting sunsets is not as easy as it sounds.
It might seem like nature will do the majority of the work for you, but there are a couple of factors that can make sunset photography challenging.
Here are ten surefire tips that will help you overcome these challenges!
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10. Be Confident and Believe in Your Skills
Sunset photography is done all around the world by millions of people every single day, resulting in millions of similar shots.
I’ve met many photographers who struggle to justify going out and shooting sunsets.
Standing out in a crowd so vast is not easy, indeed.
But if you strive to be a better photographer every day, and go out to shoot as frequently as you can, you will steadily develop. Your photos, including your sunset pictures, will become better and better every time.
And, soon enough, you’re likely to find that you’re actually capable of achieving those magazine-quality results you’ve always dreamed of.
Even if you don’t at first, don’t be upset. The joy of doing photography itself, particularly when shooting such a beautiful phenomenon as a sunset, will counteract that.
9. Imagine Your Desired Result Before Shooting
A long-held wisdom of experienced photographers is that if you don’t know what you want to capture, you won’t capture it successfully.
Keeping yourself to this rule of thumb and meticulously pre-visualising a shoot beforehand will result in better photography.
And pictures of sunsets are no exceptions. Whether you’re coming back to a location you know well, or you’re facing a completely new environment, there’s always room for prior planning.
If you’re shooting a familiar place, try to imagine the best possible sunset image you’ll get. Then work accordingly during the shoot.
In a new location, use your experience you’ve gained from shooting your local area.
8. Be Careful but Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment
Some photographers are easily scared off even by the slightest storm in the weather forecast. Don’t be afraid of small weather changes. They can actually help to elevate your sunset photography.
Of course, take proper precautionary steps to ensure your and your equipment’s safety. Pack weather-sealing accessories if your camera or lens are not sealed.
During a thunderstorm, be aware of lightning strikes and their potential locations. Avoid those places, as you’d normally do.
However, enduring some of the harshnesses of nature can yield you rewarding results. Two scenarios can happen: either the sky clears up and you’ll get outstanding sunset shots. Or, you’ll get great storm shots with colorful sunlight leaking through.
In both scenarios, you’ll arrive home slightly wet, but feeling more satisfied than if you’ve just avoided the whole thing completely.
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 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. 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 shooting 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 photo shoot.
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.
6. Arrive Early and Examine Your Surroundings
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 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.
5. Choose Your Gear Carefully for High-Quality Photos
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.
This is essential when shooting at slower shutter speeds. And sunset photography means slower shutter speeds as lower light and smaller apertures are usually involved.
It would be a good idea to also bring along a remote shutter release.
I’m also an advocate of not putting extra glass in front of your lens. This almost always degrades the image, if only a bit.
Shoot RAW files. They give you some serious advantages. You can add exposure adjustments, white balance changes 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.
4. Find the Perfect Camera Settings for Sunset Photos
I mentioned some useful camera settings 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 your image. Settings that you wouldn’t be able to use shooting handheld, you can use now.
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 color 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.
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 a post-processing software. This produces a photo with a broader dynamic range.
Panoramas are also created in software. Stitch images together horizontally (or sometimes vertically) to produce a single image. This one has a much wider or larger frame of view.
3. Look for Clouds to Break the Monotony
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 color light. They can make boring sunset shots work, as well as make great sunset shots look stunning.
Thin clouds, wispy clouds, 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.
2. Add Interest to the Horizon with More Elements
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.
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 symmetry is pleasing to the eye.
For landscape photographs, the problem is that symmetry can sometimes be boring. Our eyes need different and more 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.
1. Stay After Sunset and Keep Shooting
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. Colors 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. Believe me, it’s worth it.
Sunsets are one of those natural phenomena that are mesmerizing on their own. But shooting them definitely requires some patience and skill.
Keep these tips in mind when planning your next sunset photography outing. This way, 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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