10 Tips for Beautiful Sunset Portrait Photography

Sunset portrait photography tips

Beach portraits at sunset

Since I live only a few minutes away from the beach, many of my portrait photography clients want their photo taken on the beach.  In response to a a question from one of the students in my online photography class, I wrote this list of 10 tips for sunset portrait photography.

Sunset Portrait Tip #1: Use off-camera flash if you have the equipment.  Since sunset portraits are always back-lit, a little fill flash will make all the difference between muddy and dark faces without the flash, compared to beautiful soft light with the right flash.

Sunset Portrait Tip #2:  Although most sunset portraits use flash, you can also capture a beautiful and trendy look by correctly exposing the subject and overexposing the background.  This look is really in style lately.  Learn more about it in this previous post.

Sunset Portrait Tip #3: After shooting the classic shots, try also shooting a few silhouettes of the subject’s shape in front of the sunset in the background.

Sunset Portrait Tip #4:  Try to find a balance between aperture and shutter speed.  You will probably want an aperture of at least f/5.6 so that the clouds in the sunset are relatively sharp, but you’ll want a low enough aperture and long enough aperture to gather enough light during this low-light situation.  I shoot most of my sunset portraits at f/8.

Sunset Portrait Tip #5:  If you can use off-camera flash to illuminate the subject, then use a faster shutter speed to underexpose the background.  Underexposed sunsets are more rich in color.

Sunset Portrait Tip #6:  If shooting without a flash, I prefer to shoot aperture priority mode while the sun is still above the horizon, but I switch to manual as soon as the sun dips below the horizon.  Aperture priority is handy when the sun is in the sky because it will automatically adjust the exposure when your subject moves slightly to block more or less of the bright sun.  Even slight movements of the subject can drastically impact the correct exposure.

Sunset Portrait Tip #7: If shooting with a flash, consider using a CTO gel to warm the light.  Sometimes it looks strange to have a daylight balanced white light to illuminate the subject when the light produced by the sunset is usually warm.  If you haven’t used gels before, you can buy them for REALLY cheap on Amazon.

Sunset Portrait Tip #8: To make sure you haven’t overexposed the sky, point the camera up to the sunset to meter, and then recompose the shot to include the subject.

Sunset Portrait Tip #9: Ditch the auto white balance.  I have never seen a camera nail the white balance for sunsets consistently.  For sunsets, you’ll probably want a white balance between 3,000 and 4,000 kelvin.  If you shoot in RAW, then have no fear because you can change the white balance after the fact.

Sunset Portrait Tip #10: Don’t forget to apply all the general sunset photography tips that aren’t necessarily specific to portraits.  If you missed the post a few weeks ago, check out this post entitled 30 tips for sunset photography.