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.

Comments from the I.P. Community

  1. Marcela says

    We sorta have a beach–Utah lake. It works I guess. Most portraits around here are in orchards or out in the country though.

  2. says

    Tip 2 I think is backwards. For sunset color intensity, you want to underexpose the bg 1 stop to bring out the colors, then properly expose your subject for skin tones and brightness.

  3. says

    @John Huegel – You’re right that color intensity is increased by underexposing, but this would make the face look dim and muddy. It simply isn’t possible to properly expose the face AND the background without flash. That’s why the tip was to let the background go and just let the background fade slightly. In my opinion, it’s better than dark faces.

  4. says

    I just have to say that I am completely in love with your site! Whenever I have any questions at all, this is my “go to” place. I am so happy to have found you! Sticking around for sure! Thank you for all of your wonderful and extremely helpful advice!!!

  5. Kristen says

    Seems strange only one person from Wyoming and one person from Colorado accessed this site recently. I visit at least once a week (Ohio). I love the articles and helpful tips…along with the fact that you don’t get overly technical for a newbie :)

  6. Peter J van Niekerk says

    Thanks, I am new to flash photography and
    found your site very interesting.I have been doing landscapes and nature for years.

    Kindest Regards,

    Peter.

  7. Deborah says

    Often times when I take photos of sunsets over the water on Cobb island, MD, the sun will appear as a big, beautiful ball of red, but in the resulting photo that red ball is always yellow. How do I get a red sun to photograph red, and not yellow?

    I’ve tried (1) photographing it with and without a polarizing filter; (2) metering the sunset sky nearest the sun; (3) changing the aperture, ISO and/or white balance settings — including the Kelvin number — but nothing seems to work. The only times I’ve successfully reproduced a red sun in photographs is when I had a Sony point and shoot DSC-H5 about ten years ago. However, since I bought my Nikon D80 several years ago, I’ve been unable to reproduce a red sun as red.

    I would be most grateful for any suggestions you — any of you — might have.

    –Deborah

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