Summer is the perfect time to travel and what do you do when you travel? Take lots of pictures, of course! What would a portfolio of beautiful images be without a spectacular sunset shot? It’s easier than you think to capture incredible colors of the sun going down if you know a few tricks of the trade, including how to correctly expose your image. Let’s learn how to photograph a sunset in 5 steps.
Disclaimer: “This post contains affiliate links. I earn commissions on qualifying purchases.”
A preliminary step in getting a great shot is to plan ahead. Find an ideal location beforehand that contains interesting elements to incorporate into your shot. The fantastic colors from the sun will give everything around it and below it a golden hue.
Keep your eye on the weather forecast to know what the weather is projected to be like on your chosen day. The sky doesn’t have to be clear, clouds will add interest and intrigue to your image. Also, find out the projected time the sun will set.
You’ll have approximately 30 minutes or so to capture the sun setting so determining your location, having all your gear in place, and camera settings ready will make for a seamless shoot.
How To Photograph A Sunset Step-By-Step
A tripod isn’t absolutely necessary when shooting sunsets, but I use one as a matter of course in case I need to use a slow shutter speed, if I’m shooting with a telephone lens, (they’re heavy to handhold) or if I’m making a composite.
I like using zoom lenses so I can play around with different focal lengths. It’s a good idea to bring along a couple of lenses for variety. A telephoto lens will enable closeup shots of the sun, whereas a wide angle lens will capture the entire scene.
Be sure to bring an extra fully-charged battery, especially if it’s cold. Cold weather will drain a battery quite quickly. A lens hood can come in handy to block lens flare, which typically happens when you’re shooting directly into the sun. This can usually be taken care of by adjusting your position slightly, along with using a lens hood.
Your exposure will be dependent on where the sun is in the sky when you hit the shutter button. The higher the sun, the brighter the sky will be. Using your camera’s histogram is one of the best ways to nail exposure because it shows you the overall brightness of the scene.
On the left of your histogram, you’ll see the shadows, in the middle are the midtones and on the right are the highlights. Many photographers don’t understand and utilize the importance of their camera’s histogram. It can be extremely helpful for getting a balanced exposure and can also help in post-production. Watch the video below for a tutorial on how and why to use a histogram:
Since the sky will always be brighter than the foreground, you can balance the exposure by using a natural density filter, (ND) which is effective for reducing the brightness of the sky. I like shooting in manual mode so I have full control over my exposure and focus.
Setting your camera to manual will better ensure your images are sharp because drastic changes in lighting will make it difficult for your camera to focus. Alternatively, you can also use shutter priority or aperature priority modes, but I wouldn’t use automatic. Take a series of shots at different exposures. An aperature of f/16 is ideal, if the foreground will be in your shot, to ensure the entire scene is in focus.
ISO And White Balance
Exposures for sunsets are not set in stone so experiment with camera settings, composition, and focal length. I always use the lowest ISO I can and still get my desired settings. Likewise, you can opt to use the dynamic ISO of the camera for the best dynamic range.
Rather than using your camera’s auto white balance mode, try different white balance settings, such as shade or cloudy, to warm up the image even further. If you want a shot with cool tones, use a cooler setting. I hope you’re seeing a theme here, and that is to experiment with your camera settings.
Bracketing is an effective technique to use for sunsets and lunar photography because you can get a series of shots based on what the camera’s meter suggests. Each time you press the shutter button, the camera will take three shots, including one that is one stop smaller than what the camera meter says, and one that is one stop larger.
The colors in each shot will look slightly different based on the exposure. The majority of DSLRs have a bracketing feature you can set automatically, making it simple to execute. Also, do make sure you have a full memory card, especially when bracketing.
[Read More: 5 Tips For Shooting The Moon]
Experiment with different compositions, and remember that your image will be more interesting if the sun and the horizon aren’t directly in the center of the frame. Use the rule of thirds to get a dynamic composition, placing mountains, buildings, trees, and the sun itself ,at the sides of the image, rather than the center.
Trying using a variety of angles and directions. It’s hard to guess which composition will be your favorite. You can lock in exposure by using your camera’s auto exposure lock. Aim your camera at a spot that isn’t as bright as the sun, lock in the exposure, then reframe the image and take the shot. Doing this will prevent the image from being underexposed.
The gorgeous colors of the sun dipping below the horizon are what make sunset shots so fantastic. The lower the sun is in the sky, the more colorful it will be. Keep shooting as the sun makes its descent to take advantage of the gorgeous rainbow of colors that will appear in the sky, such as red, violet, blue, and orange.
5. Post Production
The best piece of advice I can give you for post-production is to shoot in RAW. This will give you the most control possible while editing your sunset images. The sky will always be brighter than the foreground so reducing the exposure of the highlights and boosting the exposure of the shadows will make your photograph more balanced and realistic looking.
You’ll also want to adjust the saturation and vibrance level, but since sunset shots are already vibrant, be judicious in your adjustments. You always want to stay within the dynamic range, which is the difference between the lightest and darkest tones in a scene, so the contrast looks as natural as possible. I use Photoshop but you can also use Lightroom or another editing software of your choice.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this article on how to photograph a sunset. It’s not that difficult to get an amazing sunset shot if you play around with your exposure. Plan ahead to secure a great spot with interesting elements in it, set your camera on a tripod, and bracket your exposure.
And remember – always take a lot of shots as the sun will quickly change in brilliance as it sets. The more images you have to choose from, the better your chances of having a few you’ll want to showcase.
Do you photograph sunsets? Did I leave out any important tips? Let me know in the comments:)
4 thoughts on “How To Photograph A Sunset In 5 Easy-To-Follow Steps”
Thanks for these tips! I NEVER take good photos and maybe that’s because I don’t plan ahead! Sunsets are perhaps the most beautiful photos you can possibly take and I was happy to read these tips. Also, cold weather really does drain ANY battery quickly, including car and phone batteries too! I never thought about a camera battery before, but that totally makes sense. Thanks for that reminder too!
You’re so welcome. Planning ahead will assure that your shots are the best they can be. Sunsets are gorgeous and capturing a stunning one is easier if you follow a few rules. Yes, I’ve had personal experience with camera batteries draining fast because of cold weather. I always bring an extra fully charged battery just in case. I learned my lesson the first time. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!
Thank you very much for this amazing post about photography. I myself have just started getting the hang of photography for my own blog, but I would love to start taking scenery pictures as well. Also, I really appreciate your advice on what kind of equipment I need to take high quality pictures.
I’m also looking into purchasing a high quality camera in the near future because I make skin care, and next year I will need some good quality pictures of my products. So thank you again for your advice on which equipment is best.
Thanks so much for reading. Much success to you in taking pictures of your skin care products. The equipment I mentioned is high-quality and you’ll love how your images turn out.