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:
- Shutter speed
- Camera modes
- Taking sunset photos on your phone
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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;
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
I have and have used Samsung phones for a long time. Currently, I use a Samsung S9 and have written about it, Mobile Photography with a Samsung S9. My previous Samsung S8 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 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.
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.
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.
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
For all my tips and tricks see my Photography Tutorials page.
To see all my gear, check out What’s In My Camera Bag.
Below is a list of my most popular tutorials on photography.
They form the Basis of My Top 10 Photography Tips
Click here for my Photography page with all the links on.
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