30 Tips for stunning sunset photography

how to photograph a sunset

Sunset - Jim Harmer

Sunset Photography Tip #1. Underexpose.  This is the most important tip for taking pictures of sunsets.  Slightly underexposing the sunset will make the colors look more rich and defined.  The entire scene will become more dramatic.  You can underexpose by using manual mode and selecting a fast shutter speed, or you can shoot in aperture priority and use exposure compensation.

Sunset Photography Tip #2. Find the foreground first.  The best recipe for a good sunset is some object of interest in the foreground.  It could be a pond, a pier, or whatever else.  Just find something interesting to put in the foreground to add depth to the scene.

Sunset Photography Tip #3.  Don’t put the horizon line in the middle of the photo.  A good general rule is to put the horizon on the bottom third of the photo if the sunset is pretty, and on the top third of the photo if the sunset is lackluster.

Sunset Photography Tip #4.  TURN AROUND!  Sometimes the scene behind you can be gorgeous and all the photographers miss it because they are too busy looking at the sun.  The sunset produces beautiful warm light and a beautiful scene might be bathing in that warm light behind you.  Don’t forget to look over your shoulder.

Sunset Photography Tip #5.  Shoot in aperture priority with exposure compensation while the sun is still in the sky, and then switch to manual once the sun dips below the horizon.  This will allow you to have the convenience of shooting in aperture priority as the light levels change quickly before sunset, and then you can switch to manual mode to get a more precise exposure after the sun goes down.  In low light settings, the exposure meter on your camera will often be innaccurate, so manual mode after sunset is the best option.

Sunset Photography Tip #6.  Stay longer.  The sky will usually light up with color again about 25 minutes after the sun dips below the horizon.  Most photographers miss this second sunset, and it’s more beautiful than the first most of the time!

Sunset Photography Tip #7.  Create silhouettes in the foreground.  Just speed up your shutter speed and you’ll have a silhouette.  The key to taking a good silhouette shot is to find a subject with fine details that will let the sun shine through it and that has a recognizable shape.  If you have something too huge as the silhouette, it takes away from the picture since it is just a large area of blackness.

 

white balance for sunset photography

Sunset from white balance adjustment - Jim Harmer

Sunset Photography Tip #8.  Ditch auto white balance for once.  Change the white balance to “shade” and you’ll get beautiful golden tones out of an otherwise lackluster sunset.

Sunset Photography Tip #9. Before the sun dips below the horizon, consider shooting in HDR to capture most of the dynamic range.

Sunset Photography Tip #10.  Wait for the right clouds.  The ideal conditions are a partly cloudy day with spotty clouds.  When the clouds are just a flat gray sheet of cloud (one of you will surely know what type of cloud this is and inform me in a comment below), it will not light up as much.  Wait for patchy whispy clouds.

Sunset Photography Tip #11. Consider shooting panoramas or vertoramas to contrast the sunset colors with the other colors of the sky.

Sunset Photography Tip #12. Before the sun actually sets, stop down your lens’s aperture to a high value such as f/22.  This will make the rays of the sun more clear.  It will give the sun a starburst effect.  Very cool.

Sunset Photography Tip #13. Ditch the filters.  Yes, that includes. the polarizer.  Polarizers will NOT help saturate the colors in a sunset.  This is a topic I wrote about a few weeks ago.  Go check out that post for more info.  Also, UV filters are discouraged all of the time, but they should be outright forbidden when shooting sunsets.  The extra flat piece of glass–which is often not coated–will cut the saturation (richness of colors) and contrast of your sunset photos.

Sunset Photography Tip #14. Take off your sunglasses.  I promise if you forget to take off your sunglasses, you’ll think the photos are all darker than they really are because the LCD will look unnaturally dark.  If you forget, you’ll kick yourself when you look at the photos on the computer.

Sunset Photography Tip #15. Don’t get so carried away at looking at the pretty clouds that you get buck fever and focus on the clouds.  Remember that, for most landscape photos, the proper focus point should be one third the way up from the bottom of the photo.  This is a rough approximation of the hyperfocal distance.

Sunset Photography Tip #16. Shoot RAW.  I know you’ve heard it before, but sunsets are a time where this is especially important.  There is a wealth of delicate light information in a sunset that is simply thrown in the trash if you shoot JPEG.  Don’t shoot yourself in the foot.

Sunset Photography Tip #17. Look for objects which are reflecting the sunset colors.  Perhaps it is a building behind you, or a car windshield, or a still body of water, etc.  With the reflection, you can incorporate it into the larger landscape or just make it a photo of its own.

stunning tips for landscape photography of sunsets

"Heaven and Hell" - Jim Harmer

Sunset Photography Tip #18. The best sunsets seem to happen on the evening of a rainy day.  If the clouds start to break up at all around sunset, grab your camera and head out.  Just trust me on this one.

Sunset Photography Tip #19. Make sure to use a little flash if you’re shooting a portrait of someone standing in front of a sunset.  Otherwise their face will look dark and muddy.

Sunset Photography Tip #20. If you want the sun to look large in the sunset, use a telephoto lens.  If you want the sun to look small in the scene, use a wide-angle lens.

Sunset Photography Tip #21. Don’t forget to change your picture style.  This can be changed afterward if you shoot in RAW, but if you shoot JPEG, you’ll definitely want to use the landscape picture style (Canon) or picture control (Nikon).

Sunset Photography Tip #22. Watch out for birds!  Including a few flying birds in the sky can really add interest to a landscape.

Sunset Photography Tip #23. When the sun is still up, the bright light in front of you may make your LCD appear darker than it really is.  The same is true for the “second sunset” which happens 20 minutes after the sun actually sets.  When it is darker at this time, you might think your images are brighter than they really are.  Because of the varying light conditions that occur when shooting sunsets, it is best to trust the histogram rather than the LCD.  Don’t delete until you can view the images on your computer.

Sunset Photography Tip #24. Don’t get tricked into using the sunset icon on your mode dial.  That is an automatic mode and will take away your ability to choose a creative aperture, shutter speed, etc.

Sunset Photography Tip #25. Download a good sunrise/sunset app for your phone.  Just search in your smartphone’s app store and get a free app that will give you a calendar of sunrise and sunset times.  Never miss a sunset again!

Sunset Photography Tip #26. No mistake you make in shooting a sunset will be as obvious as an uneven horizon line.  Use the bubble level on your ballhead or the electronic level on some newer DSLRs to make sure the horizon is straight.

Sunset Photography Tip #27. If you’re shooting a portrait of someone standing in front of a sunset, be careful where you place the horizon line.  It always looks awkward when the horizon line is placed at the level of the neck of the subject.  You’re usually safer putting the horizon line around the person’s tummy or chest area.

foreground objects for sunset photography

Tiki Sunset - by Jim Harmer

Sunset Photography Tip #28. Make sure to clean your lens and sensor!  Dust spots will be obvious when viewed against the bright sky when you’re stopped down to high aperture values.

Sunset Photography Tip #29. Use a graduated neutral density filter to darken the sky and allow the camera to get enough light to expose the landscape.  The darkening of the sky will also add color to the scene.

Sunset Photography Tip #30. You’re in charge of this tip.  Leave a comment below (no registration required)  with your favorite landscape photography tip!

Comments from the I.P. Community

  1. says

    Cooleest pics, loved them. I am new owner of Alpha 55 cameras and am looking for camera handlling tips. Pls share more article that you have for alpha cameras. I have checked many sites to read about these tips. Sony India also has some tips on landscape photography and some more tips for beginners, i would like to share here for everybody’s benefit. This was posted on their Alpha gallery http://www.flickr.com/groups/sonyindiaalpha/discuss/72157628711362415/

    Keep sharing more information

  2. says

    Always amazed at the time I know you’ve put into these tips and the grief you must take from some. Thanks so much for sharing your time, knowledge, and experience. For free!

  3. Andy says

    Sitting on the beach eating fish n chips… Throw the last chips up into the air a few at a time. The seagulls fly up into the line of the sun. – You shouldn’t be eating all those chips anyway…

  4. Mike says

    Every real photographer should be extra familiar with camera controls learn it; practice it;
    and the dark won’t matter

  5. Rohan says

    Thank You Jim

    I cut my teeth on motorsport and leart my trade there (never had any opportunity to do any photography study)and always loved incorperating the sunsets and natural sky elements in my work .

    Since I now do a LOT of sunsets due to my location 5 mins away from Frankston beach (I know a nice spot unused by photographers unlike Olivers hill)

    Down here calm nights with high cloud cover provide incredible color especially for the “second “sunset.

    Under exposure is like your best friend in my opinion to really bring to life the changes throughout the sky from the very dark blues to almost greens and the fire reds

    I even think I managed to shoot some form of red auroua down here but not knowing enough about them I really couldnt say but its a beautiful picture .

    Thank you Jim for taking the time to compile this really useful list that I will definately use to improve my work .

    Rohan

  6. Mark Cullenane says

    I live in Darwin so get spoiled with sunsets.
    My tips, use a tripod, a cable release, under expose slightly, use manual white balance set to 8000k or so, keep to horizon level and away from the middle of your composition.

  7. Melody says

    Heading to take photos for my b/f’s sister’s wedding. It is being held outdoors on a sunset cruise in Florida. I need suggestions on how to make them perfect!!

  8. hamed says

    I have tried couple of exposures. yet my photos are looking very soft. colors are not saturated and overally, they are far from what these photos show.

    I wonder maybe its due to the wide open aperture (F1.8) or something else.

  9. Luis says

    A reflector is a very good option if you want to do a portrait. Using a golden color reflector adds warmth to the picture, keeping a sense of a more natural illumination than using flash (unless it is a strobist flash, but that´s another theme).
    Congratulations Jim for your fabulous tips.

  10. Angela says

    Thanks for these great tips! We live on the gulf coast of Florida and get some beautiful sunsets.

    Tip #26 reminds me of the saying, “A crooked horizon offends like a drunken sailor.”

    Hamed: Is your camera set to Vivid Color (Nikon’s words)?

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