How to Photograph Sunsets

Photographing sunsets has its own set of challenges. I will share with you how I do it and my tips on how to photograph them, to help you take better photos of sunsets and sunrises. In this blog on How to Photograph Sunsets, I’ll cover:

  • Aperture
  • Shutter speed
  • Equipment
  • Times
  • Camera modes
  • Editing
  • Composition
  • Taking sunset photos on your phone
  • Perspective

Essential Kit

In the essential kit for photographing sunsets is a tripod to hold the camera steady. You can photograph sunsets without one but having a tripod makes for greater flexibility and longer shutter speeds. This is especially helpful in the afterglow when the sun has gone down.

Afterglow - How to Photograph Sunsets

Afterglow – How to Photograph Sunsets

Taking photos in the afterglow can lighten the foreground without overexposing – washing out, the sky. This allows you to capture some great colours both in the sky and on the ground.

exposure techniques

How to Photograph Sunsets – Tripod at work. This photo was taken with a Samsung S7 camera phone with the flash on. The flash illuminates the foreground but won’t ruin the colours of the sunset due to its relatively fast shutter speed.

Most of the photos on this page were taken with a tripod. The exception being the phone photos. Having a tripod that is light, easy to break down and put up will certainly add more to your photographs of sunsets, and your photography in general.

Top Tip

How to Photograph Sunsets – As can be seen above, I have wrapped the camera strap around the tripod. This is so it doesn’t flap about in the breeze and move the camera. Due to the long exposure times of the camera, even the most minute movements can blur and ruin a shot.

The challenge with taking photos of sunsets is that the light intensity and colours change so quickly. So quickly in fact, that there are no hard or fast shutter speed and aperture combinations which will capture it all. The best thing to do is bracket your shots wildly! Let me show you what I mean.

foreground interest composition-2

Foreground interest in this picture used the tree and the cameras built-in flash to highlight it.

Manual Mode – How to Photograph Sunsets

I set my camera to aperture priority then I take a photograph of the sunset and see how it comes out on the back of the screen. Then, I switch the camera to manual. Once the camera is on manual, I set my aperture to give me the required depth of field then I take a picture and about five stops either side of the recommended setting.

What that means is if my camera recommends F8 at 1/60 of a second in aperture priority, then in manual mode I set the camera to F8 and vary the shutter speed wildly. 1/45 of the second then 1/30, 1/15, 1/8 and so on. On the other side, I take a photo at 1/90th of a second, then 1/125, 1/250, 1/500 and so on, you get the idea.

How aperture affects your sunset photos

As can be seen below in the video. The aperture on my phone remains the same but as I move the shutter speed up and down the colour and the light changes dramatically. This explains How to Photograph Sunsets a lot better.

The same happens using a DSLR, I have used the phone above as it is visually better to explain it. With your DSLR, set it to manual and a fixed aperture and take lots of photos varying the shutter speed. Below are some RAW files from my camera. The aperture is the same on all the photos, the shutter speed varies from a 1/4 second to 30 seconds.

how to photograph sunsets

All taken with the same aperture just a different shutter speed – How to Photograph Sunsets

Ignore the Cameras Light Meter

Some of the best sunset photographs I have captured are where, according to the camera’s meter, the picture would be hideously underexposed. i.e. a faster shutter speed than recommended by the camera.

Pointing your camera directly into the sun will give you lens flare that can be those octagonal shapes you see in some photos of sunsets (if you don’t know what lens flare is watch any film by JJ Abrahams)! It’s where the sun captures the corner of the frame. A lens hood can help avoid that but sometimes you just have to take out the lens flare in post-processing. I use the clone tool in Photoshop for this.

composition with foreground interest

How to Photograph Sunsets – I’d found the coconut husk further down the beach but moved it into position for the photo. The shutter speed in this photo was still quite fast as the sun hadn’t gone down. This results in the waves being frozen in time rather than a blur.

Seascapes do lend themselves to sunset photography, the reflections on the water can add extra colour to an already colourful sky.

The effects of shutter speed

Shutter speed and how it affects your photos is an important thing when you are learning how to photograph sunsets. Below are three sunset photos, with fast to slow shutter speeds;

how to photograph sunsets
how to photograph sunsets
how to photograph sunsets
1/30th second F22 ISO 100
1/2 second F22 ISO 100
16 seconds F22 ISO 100

All the photos are shot on ISO 100. This is a pretty standard setting on my camera and I rarely change it, even for night photos. The Aperture is a constant F22. This is because I wanted maximum depth of field. See here for an explanation on DOF.

What is different about all these pictures is the shutter speed. When incorporating water into your sunset photograph, it will change dramatically depending on the shutter speed. A relatively quick shutter speed will leave the water frozen in time and a slow shutter speed will blur the water so much it will take on an almost dream-like quality. A more comprehensive explanation can be found here, how to blur water.

Slow Shutter Speed Photography Tutorial

Another example of sunset photography with a long exposure for effect. There was still light in the sky but the streets were very dark. A wide-angle lens of 10-20mm and a long exposure of 30 seconds lit up the dark streets of Barcelona with rivers of light from the car headlights.

Keep your lens clean!

If you are taking sunset pictures always have a lens pen or lens cleaning cloth with you. The closer you are to shooting directly into the sun the more dust and other marks on the lens will show up in the finished pictures. As I’ve said before, it is a very good idea to have a UV or skylight filter over the front of the lens to protect it. It makes giving it a wipe much easier and you won’t be in fear of damaging the coating on your lens.

Being near water also adds the risk of spray on your lens which will show up in the photos. Always wipe your lens otherwise this will happen as in the picture below.

spray on the lens how to photograph sunsets

Spray on the lens! This is how not to photograph sunsets!

Top Tip

How NOT to Photograph Sunsets – If near water, always check the lens for spray, it really shows up! Check for dust and spray and wipe your lens regularly.

How to cope with an overexposed sky

Have you had trouble getting the sky and ground in balance and correctly exposed when taking your sunset photographs? A graduated neutral density filter can help here. As I have mentioned before, shooting the afterglow will help balance the sky and the ground but what if you want the ground and the sky visible while the sun is still up? Let me show you what I mean.

how to photograph sunsets
how to photograph sunsets
Without a filter
With a 2 stop graduated filter

A graduated neutral density filter can either be put on the lens or applied in post-processing in Adobe Lightroom. In the sunset photos above, I put it in during post-processing, I find that more convenient than adding filters on a beach. It’s less to carry on location. If I can make my life simpler out in the field when photographing sunsets, I will.

However, some purists don’t agree with adding the filter in post-processing. Personally, I don’t think there is a difference when the filter is added. But some people do and I thought i’d mention it.

Editing your photos is not cheating!

how to photograph sunsets lightroom

Apart from the graduated filter mentioned above, the saturation was notched up in the above photo. This was so I didn’t have to use a polarising filter on the beach. The rest of the image had two minutes of tinkering too. The foreground was lightened a touch and the whites in the waves were emphasised.

Also, using Photoshop or other editing programs, even the free one that comes with Windows 10, can alter the light colour and feel of your sunset dramatically. I have posted a link to show how to edit photos in Windows 10.

Some people feel that Photoshopping photos is, somehow, cheating. However, I guarantee the most professional photos you’ve ever seen have been edited in some way! Especially since digital photographs have come along. It was a lot more complex to do back in the days of film cameras.

However, now it is relatively easy! It’s just another skill to learn.

Composition

The composition is as important in how to photograph sunsets as in any other type of photograph. Depending on what’s available, having something for foreground interest can make or break a picture. Some sunsets photos will stand on their own in terms of quality and merit but adding a little something in the foreground can often make a sunset picture even better!

Take a look at the pictures below to see what I mean.

Slow Shutter Speed Photography
Here, the reflection of the sunset on the wet sand was used to add foreground interest. The clouds were amazing and the low angle of the photo and wide angle lens make the sky seen huge. Taken in Thailand with a Nikon D7200 and 10-20mm Sigma lens
Using rocks on the shore to add some interest and blurring the sea just a touch to add a sense of movement to the picture. The rule of thirds comes into play too. The horizon and the rocks are on the horizontal third lines. Also taken with Nikon D7200 and 10-20mm Sigma lens
Using rocks and a bird perching on them for a sunrise in Ibiza. I’m slightly bending a composition rule by having the object of interest dead centre. Yes, there are rules to composition. But sometimes they can be broken to good effect! You have to know the rules before you can break them! Nikon D7200 and 10-20mm Sigma lens

This sunset photo was taken in Indonesia after a boat trip. It was taken in panorama mode on a Samsung S8 camera phone. The sunset is secondary to the main part of the photograph, a rickety old dock.

Check out my composition blog for more tips on how to compose your photographs.

end of day Snorkelling at Abang Island

Top Tip

How to Photograph Sunsets – Add something to the photo for interest. Unless it’s a spectacular sky, a lot of sunset or sunrise photographs will benefit from other elements in the frame

Taking sunset pictures on your phone

One of the good points of having a mobile phone is that you are always contactable. However, some may consider this a downside! Another great thing about always having a mobile phone is that you are ready to take a picture at a moments notice. The technology of camera phones has really come on! They are capable of taking some stunning photographs, as can be seen above and below

panorama leith hill

Panorama at Leith Hill Tower in Surrey – How to Photograph Sunsets

Phones are capable of producing some great pictures. There are Instagram feeds which feature just phone photos and the quality is often excellent.

london to Toronto Price comparison
A sunrise in Mauritius taken with a Samsung S5
Taken on a camera phone from the window of a plane Samsung S8
The Yarra River in downtown Melbourne, Samsung S5

I have and have used Samsung phones for a long time. Currently, I use a Samsung S8. This can be seen in the video at the beginning of the article where I explained shutter speed principles. The phone was set in Pro Mode. In this mode, you have a lot more control of thing like shutter speed and light.

A lazy river pool in the Caribbean taken with a Samsung S7 – How to Photograph Sunsets

Perspective

Perspective is not just about position, it is also, about lens choice. A zoom lens at maximum zoom compresses perspective of the shot. As can be seen below in the left-hand photo, the compression shows the hills lined up with the mist between them. The furthest hills in the background are about 25 miles away.

The car headlights in the right-hand shot were taken from the top of a hotel roof in Barcelona. With a 10-20mm lens and a tripod allowing for a 30-second exposure. Waiting for the end of a sunset, the afterglow will let you take these long exposure shots without washing out, or overexposing, the sky.

Slow Shutter Speed Photography Tutorial
Taken with a NikonD7200 and a Tamron 70-300mm at full zoom
Barcelona, taken with a long exposure during the afterglow to show the car lights

 

A panorama in Mauritius of the sunrise. Panoramas can add to a picture, offering a different perspective from the norm. Just another How to Photograph Sunsets tool. You are looking for yours to stand out and be different.

Timing

If it is my first time at the location I will usually arrive 1 to 2 hours before sunset, that way I can see the lay of the land and plan some shots from different angles and perspectives and generally think about the photos I’m going to take. Then I start taking the photos from about 1 hour before to when the last light has left the sky – the afterglow.

Bear in mind that with long exposures that even if the naked eye can’t see light in the sky the camera will still pick it up. Below are two photos from a beach shoot. One taken at the beginning when the sun was still up and one at the end, after sunset.

How to take sunset photos
How to take sunset photos

Plenty of light at the beginning of the shoot. it allows you time to make sure of your angles – How to Photograph Sunsets

There was very little light left in the sky to the naked eye. However, the camera picked it up – How to Photograph Sunsets

Top Tip

How to Photograph Sunsets – Check out the location on Google maps and Streetview if possible before you arrive so you can get a good feel for the place and start planning your shots

My Equipment

All of the sunset photographs on this page I have taken with either a Samsung camera phone and a Nikon D7200. For most of my sunset photographs, I have used a Sigma 10-20mm lens. I love the way the lens, being so wide can fit of much of the sunset in the frame as possible.

Below is a selection of the actual gear I use. For the full list of equipment I use to take all these photos check out My Travel Camera Bag  

 

I have put together a gallery of all my favourite Sunrise and Sunset photos

Below is a list of my most popular blogs on photography. They form the Basis of  My Top 10 Photography Tips

How to Blur water

How to Photograph Seascapes

Composition – Learn the rules of composition, then break them.

Shutter Speed – Slow Shutter Speed Tips and how to avoid Camera Shake.

Use a Polarising Filter – Take away reflections and boost colours.

Fooling your camera’s internal light meter is easy! – Bracket your shots.

Light changes dramatically with the time of day! Know what’s best for your shot.

Know Your Camera –  Know where all the buttons are for when the perfect shot comes.

The Depth of Field – What’s in focus in your picture and what’s not.

Backup and Memory Cards – and spread your trip out over them.

Plan your Photographs – Spend time on Google street view getting to know the area.

Take your time  For less time editing – Walk around the subject and try from different angles.

How to Photograph Sunsets and Sunrises

Click here for my Photography page with all the links on.

Disclaimer: In short, some of the links on this site are affiliate links. These means that if you click on the link and buy the item, I receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. The money, of course, helps go towards the upkeep of the site – so it’s a win-win for both of us! Any videos used on this site if not my own, are, of course, used within Youtube’s sharing guidelines.

 

How to Photograph Sunsets (1)

How to Photograph Sunsets

 

 

 

 

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