How to Photograph a Sunset
Warm and intense colors in the sky that perfectly blend together, who doesn’t like them? That soft orange and red glow that covers the land just before night arrives really makes you feel calm and at peace with yourself. So, it’s no wonder that people have decided to replicate those feelings through photographs and bring them inside their own homes.
The goal of this tutorial is to help you photograph sunsets accurately and learn how to preserve their colors and feel, but while also capturing all the details under the sky and blending it all together. We’ve also thrown in some tips about editing the photos into the mix and all of it will serve as a nice starting point for your journey to getting great sunset photos.
The better the gear, the better the sunsets
When it comes to picking the right lens to photograph the sunset, any wide angle one will do, as long as it has decent optical quality. Whether it’s a standard 24 or a 28mm lens or a 16mm or 20mm ultra wide lens, all of them will give you a field of view wide enough to capture the entire spectrum of colors in the sky.
Since all the color variations that softly blend together are one of the main characteristics of any sunset, it is very important to have a camera capable of capturing them accurately. This is where a big sensor like Full Frame or APS-C will really make the difference, when compared to smaller sensors in point and shoots or modern smartphones.
A large sensor camera will give you the best possible chance to capture those colors nicely or to adjust them later in post processing. It will also give you the best dynamic range, which is also important for sunset photography, because you’ll be dealing with big differences in exposure going from bright to dark areas.
Are tripods and lens filters useful for sunset photography?
Whether you’ll need a tripod to take photos of sunsets will depend on the techniques you decide to use. If you decide to take normal single exposure images, you will be able to achieve success without a tripod, since your shutter speeds will never be too low for handled photography.
We would advise you to experiment with graduated ND filters in this case, since they will allow you to expose the darker areas in your image correctly, but without overblowing the sky and its bright colors. This can be achieved thanks to their dual design, with half of the filter area being normal glass and the other half darkened and collecting less light.
If, however, you decide to use multiple exposures to get an equally bright photo, a tripod will certainly help you with eliminating any possibility of blurry images and loss of sharpness. Please check the What can you do in editing to get even better photos? of our guide to learn more about this particular technique.
There is one benefit to using a tripod, but has nothing to do with sharpness and its ability to help you get more precise compositions, especially when it comes to aligning your photos with the horizon. If you’re still not confident enough that you will get straight photos every time, using a tripod will certainly help you immensely.
A guide to framing photos the right way
The first thing you should keep in mind when composing a sunset photo is the ratio between the sky and the ground. Imagine your frame is split in three parts, just like with the rule of thirds. If you want the sky to be the focus of your image, frame it the way so it covers 2/3 of the frame and the ground/land covers the rest. The same goes the other way around.
This technique will make your sunset photos look tidy and focused. Also, you can make use of the aforementioned rule of thirds to focus on a particular subject in front of you, like a tree or a person and use the beautifully colored sky or the sun as a background effect.
Also, play around with tree branches, dandelions, window shutters and other solid objects that will let some light through to harvest the warmth of the orange, yellow and red colors to create some really dramatic and unique photos. You don’t have to focus on the sunset itself all of the time, give yourself some room for creativity and playfulness.
Another thing to consider when it comes to sunset photography is the weather. If you want to add more depth to your sunset photos, make use of things like the clouds and the fog, since they will also be bathed in warm light and receive a unique makeover.
Which exposure settings are the best for sunsets?
When it comes to sunset photography, always keep your ISO values as low as possible. Keeping the ISO under control will give you the best color accuracy, the most dynamic range and the least amount of noise, all very important things when it comes to getting the purest images possible.
Your aperture should be at around f/5.6 or f/8, so you don’t lose much light, but still give your lens a chance to shine when it comes to sharpness and depth of field. One thing that will vary in terms of exposure settings is the shutter speed. Its value will depend on how bright the sky is, how you decide to expose the dark areas or if you plan to use HDR bracketing.
HDR, or High Dynamic Range, is a term referring to a technique which uses multiple differently exposed photos to combine them into one photo with much improved dynamic range over a single exposure. This is the best way to capture the sunset photos with balanced brightness, instead of the ground being a dark silhouette.
Set your camera on a tripod and switch to Aperture Priority mode. Set the ISO to 100 or 200, and the aperture to f/5.6 or f/8. Adjust your shutter speed so the dark areas aren’t too black and the sky not too bright. Enable HDR or Exposure Bracketing inside your camera’s menu system, set a timer to at least a few seconds and press the shutter button.
You will end up with three separate photos, one that’s darker than usual, one that is brighter and one that tries to balance the two. Just merge them in a software of your choice, with the final result being a photo that retains the saturation and the brightness of the sunset itself, but while also lifting the details from the shadows and the dark areas.
What can you do in editing to get even better photos?
A great thing about mirrorless cameras and DSLRs is that they often capture pretty accurate photos, but even them sometimes need a little help with the use of RAW format and some editing tools.
Make three things your priority when playing around with sunset photos, color accuracy, saturation and exposure. Adjust the colors in a way that they resemble their natural look as closely as possible and increase their intensity, if necessary. Even though you may be tempted to, don’t go overboard with saturation and try to give the photos a more calm feel.
When it comes to exposure, set it to your desired value, then use the Shadows and Highlights options in your software of choice to make more delicate adjustments and get the most details out of bright and dark areas.
Now, let’s summarize all the important factors of capturing good looking sunrise photos. First, you’ll need a camera with a big sensor, at least Four Thirds or APS-C and preferably, a wide angle lens. A tripod or a graduated ND filter will also do you good for longer shutter speeds or for getting a more balanced exposure.
Also, give HDR photography a try. There is a slight learning curve to the entire process, but believe us, it is well worth it, since It will allow you to pull even more information from the bright and dark areas in your images and show noticeably more details than regular single frame sunset photos ever could.