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5 tips for better sunset photos

An existing light is used to break up the silhouette
on this food building at Hammonasset  State Park
Sunset photos, when all the elements fall into place, can be very powerful images. You can be a casual shooter but as soon as you pull out that one great sunset shot all your friends will be awestruck.

The best thing about sunset photos is that they are relatively easy to get, exposure-wise. The hard part is everything else that goes into getting that perfect sunset. The best time for a sunset shot is during the time period called the "golden hour."

Golden hour is that time period that brackets a sunset by one half hour, 30 minutes before the sun goes down and 30 minutes after. Keep in mind that the light will change drastically during this time period but you can get really great results. Your shutter speed will decrease as the light diminishes so have your camera on a tripod with your release cable ready.

Here are five tips to getting a great sunset image.
  1. Plan your scene - Successful sunset photos work because of the vibrancy and saturation of colors in the sky. In order to get that saturation and color the dynamic range of the scene has to be compressed. This means that much of your foreground is going to go dark. Keep this in mind and think in terms of silhouettes. Keep your subject simple. The stronger and more recognizable the silhouette the more impact your image will have.
    Remember that the scene you will be looking at with your eyes will appear much brighter since your eyes have a much broader dynamic range.
  2. Plan your sky - Unfortunately this is not something you can really 'plan'. It's more like making yourself available when the sky has something interesting going on. Usually just before or after a storm is a great time for sunsets, the skies are full of turmoil and drama at that time.
  3. Under expose your light - Before you can underexpose you have to be aware of what or where you are metering. Metering the sky just above the horizon will give you a different reading than metering higher in the sky. You will also get a completely different reading if you meter the ground or a foreground object. For starters, meter the sky just above the horizon and underexpose the scene by at least two stops. Adjust your shot from there.
  4. Bracket your exposures - Since you'll be working at night in diminishing light it will be difficult to get a good preview of your shots on that small screen. Specially since the camera will be  locked down to a tripod. What may appear great in the preview may be under or overexposed just a touch too much in reality. Bracket your exposure by 2/3 to a full stop and you increase your chances of getting that great sunset shot.
  5. Balance foreground light - This one is a little more technical. As I mentioned earlier, getting that perfect sky will render your foreground into silhouette. If you want to showcase your foreground (subject) you will need to light your subject with flash or some other form of light. To do this you first need to expose for that perfect sunset by stopping down. You then need to add just enough flash to properly expose your subject. Start with your flash at half power and adjust from there.

Here are some examples of a sunset at various exposures. I took these four exposures of the couple sitting on the beach all within seconds of each other. I have included the time stamp along with the camera settings to prove how settings alone can alter an image under the same light. So it's not like I waited for the light to change.

Another note to make is that these images are straight exports from the RAW files. They have not been processed in any way except for cropping and adding the rounded corners. I felt a straight out of the camera view of the images would be more appreciated than anything manipulated.

1) f/8.0 - 3/5 sec. - 100 ISO @ 8:20:342) f/8.0 - 1/6 sec. - 100 ISO @ 8:20:43

3) f/8.0 - 1/13 sec. - 100 ISO @ 8:20:494) f/8.0 - 1/25 sec. - 100 ISO @ 8:20:58

The first image was taken using my camera's meter to properly expose the scene (the couple on the beach). You can see that while the background (sunset and water) is over exposed, the subject is decently rendered. Not necessarily an image to brag about but technically it is a properly exposed image. This is sort of what my eyes were looking at although there was more color in the sky. Kind of what is in image number two.

Image two is the same scene but I under exposed the entire scene by stopping down two full stops. This was done with shutter speed not aperture. While I lost the detail of the foreground I did picked up some color in the sky. Still, nothing to write home about. Again, keep in mind that I originally metered for the couple on the beach and not the sky.

For the third shot I stopped down one full stop again and you can see that the saturation is much richer. This is more to my liking and with a little post processing would make for an interesting image. A touch of brightness and a boost of the black levels would be all it really takes.

For this series of shots I had the camera on a tripod low to the ground and was too lazy to bend over and preview the shots. So to be safe I took another shot.

This last shot was stopped down again by one full stop. This now puts me at four stops under the original meter reading. As you can see in this frame we have pushed past the acceptable level of saturation and now the image is starting to look murky. This shows that you have a fairly forgiving window of settings to use in capturing nice saturated colors.

Based on the images above, it took me three f/stops to get the desired look by metering the scene. Had I metered the sky instead I would have been right there within the two f/stop adjustment I mentioned in point three above; meter the sky and stop down two full stops and adjust from there.

Hope these points help you next time you're looking to capture those wonderful warm colors of a setting sun. Of course, the same rules apply to a rising sun too.

Happy shooting.


  1. As usual, your tips and pointers are great. Thank you for sharing.


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