Tips for Photographing Sunsets

Sunset landscape scenes can make for some of the most beautiful photography subjects, and this guide will offer you tips for taking better photos of sunsets. Sunset photography can be really challenging, as it (along with sunrise) is typically the time of day when there is the most dynamic range in a single scene.

Add to this the fact that sunrises are typically short in duration and aren’t pretty everyday, and your opportunities to capture great photos of a sunset are very limited. This can make it an intimidating, high-pressure situation when you’re presented with a stunning sunset. Fortunately, much like watching the sunset, photographing the sunset is an awesome experience!

These sunset photography tips will help you make the most out of your potentially limited opportunities for photographing the sunset…

Composition Matters. A Lot.

Sunsets can be gorgeous, but they’re only gorgeous if they’re parts of beautiful-as-a-whole photos. A photo of an amazing sunset in a Wal-Mart parking lot is not going to be a compelling photo. By contrast, a less impressive sunset taken with the Grand Canyon as a focal point is likely to be more impressive. The point here is that you cannot hang your proverbial photographer’s hat on that amazing sky and phone it in on the rest of the photo. A boring photo with a gorgeous sky is still a boring photo.

Avoiding this problem can be as simple as finding a stunning environments for your sunset photos. Photos over bodies of water or normally-gorgeous landscapes will be enhanced by the sunset. It can also be a good idea to include a foreground subject that is not part of the landscape, but will be enhanced by the sunset.

Always consider the rule of thirds, even when photographing the sunset. Mind you, it’s not one of the 10 Photography Commandments carved into stone and handed to Mr. Rockwell, but it’s a good practice to follow most of the time. Chances are, a sunset photo with no foreground, no focal points, and the horizon in the middle of the frame is going to be pretty dull.

Settings

I always use matrix or evaluative metering mode–the one that bases the exposure off of the entire scene, not just a specific point. I bracket all of my sunset shots anyway (see below), and unless I’m shooting silhouettes, the entire scene matters to me. I set my exposure compensation at 0 (rather than my normal -.7) since the sun does tend to “overwhelm” the rest of the scene and skew the exposure in that direction.

I also use aperture priority rather than manual mode, just because it’s less time consuming to mess with. Sunsets are fleeting moments, and each second you take to screw with your settings is a second you don’t have to take photos. No need to prove your photography chops by messing with manual mode, unless you have a specific reason for using it (using a neutral density filter for streaked clouds, etc.).

The rest of the settings don’t really matter. My aperture and shutter speed vary dramatically depending on the scene. I always use automatic white balance (again, for the sake of time), always shoot in raw, and shoot at ISO 100 whenever possible.

Shoot Into the Light

This is one that I’ve already covered in depth in my “Tips for Taking Photos into the Sun,” but I think the importance of this cannot be overstated. At sunset, the range of color and visual interest in the sky is typically going to be in the direction of the sun. Really good sunsets will light up the entire sky, but you can’t always be so lucky. On top of this, the sun and its rays provide an automatic focal point for your images (though hopefully not the only one).

Conversely, it’s important to remember not to just shoot into the sun. If you’re really lucky and the cloud cover is right, the sun will bounce around those clouds and set the sky ablaze with color (this is more or less the scientific explanation for what’s going on during a killer sunset). When this happens, you just thank your lucky stars and go nuts shooting in every direction. Shooting into the sun doesn’t matter so much because you have a beautiful sky in multiple directions.

Be Patient

You know I offered that scientific explanation of how the sun bounces around in the clouds to light up the sky? Well, the same thing often happens a bit after the sun drops below the sunrise. If you wait about 15 minutes, you’ll notice even more color in the sky. I call this the “Sneak Attack Sunset.” Beyond my bouncing around explanation, I don’t know why this happens, but it can be a real stunner.

Many photographers pack it up after the “official” sunset (when they should be waiting to photograph the blue hour anyway ;)!), so it’s worth mentioning. The plus side to the Sneak Attack Sunset is that it is usually a much easier photo to capture because there isn’t as much dynamic range in the sky.

Bracket Your Photos

When photographing sunsets, I almost always bracket. I know most “serious” landscape photographers use graduated neutral density filters, but I don’t see the appeal. For those who are unfamiliar with them, a graduated neutral density filter is one that is darker on one half and then gradually transitions to a clear filter on the other half. To put it bluntly, I am anti-graduated neutral filters. I don’t like them at all. The problem with them is that they’re imprecise. Most scenes don’t transition from light to dark perfectly in the middle of the frame. However, “serious” landscape photographers often scoff at HDR or exposure fusion because of the stereotypical processing styles associated with them. Why be against carrying less gear and achieving the same end–except more accurately–via post processing? That just seems absurd to me. (If anyone has a compelling argument for graduated neutral density filters, I’d love to hear it. Maybe I’m just crazy, because whenever I tell other photographers I don’t use graduated neutral density filters, they look at me like I have 3 heads.)

Instead, I go filter-less and bracket. I do three exposures spanning -2 to +2. Sometimes, when the scene has a lot of dynamic range, I’ll do a series from -3 to +3. My Nikon D600 is limited to 3 frame bracketed sets, but even when I shot with the D700, I stuck to 3 frames. Personally, I think 5 or 7 exposure sets are overkill. Each raw file from modern DSLRs has a ton of dynamic range in it–enough that you have a lot of overlap if doing 5 or 7 exposure sets.

In fact, much of the time, despite bracketing, I’ll end up just editing the even or underexposed photo, bringing out the shadows and bringing the highlights in check. For the most part, bracketing is a safety net, and I trash the files I don’t need. Better to have too many photos than not enough, after all. However, if I’m shooting directly into the sun and it’s obscured by clouds, sometimes bracketing will be necessary to prevent those clouds from being blown out messes in the final photo. Then, I’ll merge the bracketed images into HDR via Photomatix or layer a couple of them together in Adobe Photoshop CS6 and do some layer masking.

DON’T Use a Tripod

Conventional wisdom suggests that you should use a tripod when photographing the sunset, especially after the sun has disappeared below the horizon for maximum sharpness. This is especially true if you’re using a graduated neutral density filter or bracketing your photos. Unlike graduated neutral density filters, I’m not here to say you shouldn’t use a tripod when photographing sunsets. Quite the contrary, as I regularly use a tripod when photographing the sunset. Remember, this post is full of tips, not rules.

Instead, I’m suggesting that you analyze the circumstances, and consider not using a tripod. I say this because for many photographers, a tripod is the default, and there’s not much consideration given to whether it’s really necessary. They set up their tripod and their camera…and wait…they take a few photos…and wait…they take more photos…and wait. So much time is spent setting up the tripod and getting things “aligned” that it’s not practical to go elsewhere to grab other scenes. The whole process of getting the sunset shot will typically take over an hour. Mind you, they have many shots with different light, but the scene is the same in each shot.

This is fine if you’re taking photos in your neighborhood or somewhere that is easily accessible on a regular basis. However, if you’re doing travel photography, 1-2 hours for a single scene during the best lighting is a huge time sacrifice. Now, I’m not suggesting that you run all over the place during a sunset (although if you can do that, I totally am suggesting it), just that you try to be flexible to the situation to photograph as many scenes during a sunset as possible. Sometimes, this won’t even require giving up the tripod, as you can turn the tripod around and take photos in different directions (or with different lenses).

The point of this advice isn’t that tripods during sunsets are bad–far from it–it’s that variety during a single sunset is good. It just so happens that I think ditching the tripod sometimes can be the best way to enable you to move freely and capture that variety. Far too often I see photographers spending their time fixated on waiting until the light is just perfect in a single scene that they’re viewing that they fail to capture numerous other potential photos that are right around them.


Of course, there are other things you can do to improve your sunset photography beyond what’s listed here, but these are my main tips. Like I mentioned above, these are tips rather than hard rules (there’s no such thing as a true rule in photography!), so if this advice doesn’t make sense for a particular scene you find yourself photographing, or for your style in general, ignore them. Don’t let some random dude on the internet make you second-guess your own instinct or style!

Your Thoughts…

Do you have any sunset photography tips to add? Anything you agree or disagree with here? Have any questions? Please share in the comments below!

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3 replies
  1. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    Thanks for the tips. For our one day in RMNP I was really looking forward to the sunset… But we got 60 seconds of bland yellow, then dark. Boo.

    I can see the anti graduated neutral filter stance. I’m admittedly a novice, but I ‘m not sure what they can do that Lightroom/photoshop/etc. can’t do better.

    As a last note – I really like the lighthouse photo that leads the post.

    Reply

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