Purples, magentas, oranges… the colors of sunset create jaw-dropping views us photographers just can’t resist.
Sunsets reach us at a primal level, tapping into an instinctual sense of beauty all can relate with.
Depending on where you are at in your photo learning journey, you can find taking pictures of sunsets to be highly rewarding or a major let-down.
I know I can relate to seeing an unforgettable sunset, snapping dozens of photos, but coming home with images that are just lacking.
It could be a composition that just doesn’t reel in the viewer. Or worse, it could be a technical hiccup. An exposure that’s too dark or bright – ruining the delicate sunset colors.
The good news is that all great photographers went through their own failures.
Contrary to what many may think, taking pictures of sunsets is more than just pointing your camera at the horizon and snapping shots.
The truth is that sunsets are a tricky subject to capture. Avoid common pitfalls and take better sunset photos with these key techniques.
#1. Avoid AUTO Exposure Modes
Incorrect exposure is the most common reason for sunsets that are too dark or too bright. If your shots are turning out blurry, exposure could also be the cause.
To overcome these exposure hurdles, the first thing to do is get a better grasp of what the light source is.
In the case of sunsets, it’s the sun itself.
A literal fireball hovering in the sky, its intensity is brighter than anything else by a substantial degree.
This is why AUTO mode is an almost guaranteed way to struggle with exposure.
AUTO mode, designed to average the light within your frame to 18% grey, will take beautiful sunsets and almost always create underexposed images lacking in vibrancy.
AUTO mode may work fine for some situations, but not sunsets.
Manual mode is a much easier DSLR mode to work with when shooting sunsets.
While the process may seem complicated if you’ve shot in AUTO mode most of the time, it’s relatively straightforward:
- Set the aperture you would like to use for your image (more details on how to do that here).
- Point your camera at an area of the sky above the sun, fully zoomed in (make sure you’re above the sun enough so the sun’s brightness isn’t as intense). Your goal is to get a light reading of the sky’s light, minus the bright sun.
- Set your shutter speed so that your camera meter reaches ‘0’, making sure it’s fast enough to avoid blur (blur is more of a problem with late sunsets moving towards twilight as there’s less light)
- If your shutter is too slow, boost up your ISO – if not, go to the next step…
- Take the picture and adjust accordingly (you may need to stop your exposure down if the shot is too bright).
For the steps outlined above, it’s recommended to use an area of the sky near the sun, but excluding it, to get an ideal reading of light.
To illustrate, you can zoom in and fill your frame with the sky directly to the right or left of the sun. This will give you a good camera reading you can use to expose the sky colors and light correctly.
The reason we exclude the sun is because it’s brightness will throw off our camera’s light meter, causing us to underexpose the sky colors.
What happens if you meter with the sun within your frame?
The colors and details of the surrounding sky will likely get underexposed and lost in darkness.
Of course, your choice of exposure metering will be determined more on what you’re trying to capture. More on that to come…
#2. Set Your White Balance Settings Correctly
The mesmerizing colors of sunset are one of the main elements that make them so memorable. They’re also one of the things most cameras mess up.
The reason why is AUTO white balance.
While AUTO white balance is great for a variety of scenes, the colors of sunset require a more unique approach.
AUTO white balance works to normalize extremities of color tones to a more normal hue.
This is great for everyday scenes where typically normal color is present. For sunsets where most colors are red and orange, AUTO sees these colors as excessive.
It then works to tone down these colors. The end result is a sunset photo lacking in the beautiful colors you remember when taking the picture.
You can avoid this by either using manual white balance or a different present.
The ‘cloudy’ white balance preset, for example, is designed for days when a large amount of blue light is present. It minimizes the blues and accentuate other colors.
Set your camera to this preset during a sunset and it will work to add more red and orange to the image.
I personally avoid changing white balance modes when shooting. Instead, I opt for AUTO white balance and shoot in the RAW file format.
Doing this allows me to adjust the white balance setting in Lightroom with ease.
Here I can select any of the white balance presets I had upon shooting – as well as make more minor adjustments. This gives me full control and avoids compression issues that I would have if I shot on JPEG.
If you capture your photos in JPEG and want to avoid the RAW file format, just make sure to take more care setting your white balance before you start shooting sunsets.
#3. Don’t Forget the Foreground
It’s easy to get lost in the colors in the sky when a sunset comes. Taking pictures solely of these colors in the sky, however, can make for a photo that feels as if it is lacking something.
Including an interesting landscape element can help.
Beach views, mountain ranges, cityscapes – all of these can add flare to your sunset and help you better compose a captivating image.
Of course, when you combine a foreground area with the bright sunset sky, exposure becomes even more important.
#4 Expose Foreground Elements with Care
When shooting sunsets with a foreground area included, this creates a big problem for exposure. The sunset and sky act as the light source to the foreground. Consequently, there is a large difference in light intensity from the two.
To capture both sky and foreground, you need a wide dynamic range most cameras can’t handle with a single exposure.
There are a couple solutions you can use to solve this problem…
Use HDR Photography
While a single image has a limited dynamic range, High Dynamic Range photography, also known as HDR photography, allows you to expand that range.
With the same composition, you take multiple exposures above and below the ‘correct’ exposure for the scene.
This allows you to capture the highlights, shadows, and middle range of light all within three separate images.
With photo editing software, you then combine these three images into a single image with a significantly more expansive dynamic range.
While three images seems to be the standard most use, you can use HDR photography to combine two, five or dozens of images together.
Use a Graduated ND Filter
Graduated ND Filters are a must-have accessory for any serious landscape photographer. A filter with a light-reducing coat covering half of the surface, it allows you to cut light from half of your composition.
By placing the start of the graduation (or line where the neutral density coating begins) on the horizon, you can reduce the light used to expose the sky. This allows you to expose the foreground more, bringing out details, while still capturing the colors of the sky.
Sometimes shooting with a wide dynamic range isn’t needed for sunset pictures with foregrounds. You can, for example, find a middle-ground where you get some details from the sky and some from the foreground.
You can also wait for the sun to go low enough on the horizon so that the light intensity of the sky isn’t as far from the ground’s light.
Just make sure you have a tripod as this lower light will require longer exposures.
When shooting sunsets, shooting RAW will give you a broader tonal range than JPEG. JPEGs, as compressed file formats, limit the amount of data you are able to capture in your digital file. Your RAW file will be limited only by your camera’s sensor size.
#5. Use Silhouettes to Add Intrigue
Sunset skies can make for great backdrops when shooting silhouettes.
To create a silhouette, simply set your exposure for the sunset sky. Anny objects or subjects placed in front off the sky will then be underexposed, creating a shadowy silhouette figure.
You can vary how intense of a silhouette you want with your exposure. If, for example, you want to add a little detail from your silhouette, you can boost your exposure by one or two stops.
#6. Photograph on Cloudy Days
Essentially, any particles the sun has to travel through makes for more interesting colors. Clouds obscure the sun, adding texture and varying colors as the sunlight is mixed and filtered.
Purples, magentas, varying oranges can result. This is particularly true on rainy days when clouds are filled with moisture.
Smoggy days also are great for photographing sunsets.
#7. Know What You Want to Showcase
There is no one right way to expose a sunset. Each photographer can choose a slightly – or vastly – different exposure based on their vision.
You can meter the sky near the sun (from the first tip above) to get a ‘correct’ exposure of the sky.
You can also underexpose the frame and aim to bring out the shape and texture of the sun.
While the sky and other image details will go dark, viewers will easily be able to peer into the sun as an object of prime importance.
Over-exposure is also an option. While the sun will get blown out and ‘whitewashed’ when overexposed, this can allow you to show more details of the foreground, such as a sandy beach or forest-covered mountain range.
With exposure, you really have an endless option of ways to capture sunsets.
The key to getting the exposure how you want it is knowing what you want.
What are you trying to capture from the sunset?
- Are you looking to capture the details of the sun?
- Are you looking to capture the colors of the sky?
- Are you looking to capture parts of the earth as well as the sky?
The answer to this will then determine where you want to meter and expose your frame.
If you, for example, want to capture the details of a beach as well as the colors of the sky and the sun, you’ll know that your camera can’t do that in a single shot.
Because of the limited dynamic range of cameras (how much light they can capture in a single frame), you will have to choose either to:
- Expose your image for the bright lights and colors of the sun
- Expose your image for the colors of the sky
- Expose your image for the details of the ground/foreground
- Create multiple exposures for HDR
Not too familiar with exposure, metering, and how to use manual mode with your DSLR? Check out the Exposure Den for a more comprehensive training on exposure photography.
#8. Follow Composition Rules
Every photographer has at least experimented once with sunset pictures. With 49 million digital cameras sold in 2016, that’s a whole lot of sunset photos.
One way to make your sunset pictures stand out is with how you compose.
The basic rules to photography composition are a great start.
Use lines to lead your viewer within the frame. Pay close attention to the clouds, colors, and changes within the sky.
Do they create lines you can use to lead the viewer?
Pay close attention to the balance within your frame. Notice how the sunset sky can be balanced with foreground elements.
The sunset is great, but not so much if you just point and shoot at it, capturing cars, telephone poles, apartment buildings, and everything else around you.
See what you want to capture and get rid of everything else.
Feel the Scene
While the above 8 tips are designed to help improve your sunset shots, try not to let all of this information overwhelm you.
Priority number one should be feeling the scene. Being observing to what’s in front of you. Let your vision guide you.
This will do more than anything else to guide you in the right direction.
For once you have a vision, the next step is execution. And while exposure and technical parts to photography can seem overwhelming at first, with a little practice you’ll get the hang of it in no time.