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Photographing sunsets

The secret is, there are no secrets!


Almost anything in the foreground will be silhouetted. When you are shooting the sun, everything else is in the foreground.
Almost anything in the foreground will be silhouetted. When you are shooting the sun, everything else is in the foreground.

As late afternoon turns to evening, you can usually gauge from observing the sky whether the prospects are good for a beautiful sunset.

A cloud-free sky rarely contains enough elements to guarantee a dramatic sunset, and a sun concealed behind a heavily-overcast sky with little chance of a break in the cloud cover is equally as unpromising. The light just gets progressively dimmer as the earth revolves towards night. However, an interesting mix of clouds or even a solitary cloud in the right position has the potential for a dramatic sunset, one you may wish to record on film.

But, what are the secrets to taking a great picture of a sunset?

Surprisingly, there are really none; sunsets are not that difficult to photograph. The first hurdle to overcome in shooting a beautiful sunset is the same one you face in photographing a mountain goat or a rare wild orchid – you have to find one. Ideally, you will do some advance scouting to have a good idea where the sun will be when it sets on a given day, and you will also pre-plan to know where you should be with your camera to take full advantage of the sun’s last rays. Keep an eye out for objects that will look good in silhouette against the sun and sky.


Assuming the evening sky’s conditions are right, with just enough cloud, haze and atmospheric dust to reflect and broadcast the colors of the dying sun, and also assuming you are in the right spot and prepared with everything you need to shoot, you should have no problems producing a number of fine sunset images. If it is a clear day, your best exposures may be of the sky immediately after the sun has dropped below the horizon.

Here are some helpful hints and tips for getting a great sunset picture.

EXPOSURE - If you were to meter the light falling on you as you observe the sunset, the reading would provide you with good exposure settings to use in shooting it. A meter reading of the ambient light using an incident-light meter or a reflected light reading off a gray card that is facing the setting sun amounts to the same thing, and should provide you with reliable exposure settings.

By simply pointing your camera at the sun and using its built-in meter, you run the risk of under-exposure because so much of the sky is still so brightly lit and would probably throw your meter off. Having said that, however, and as strange as it seems, the nature of the light from sunsets is such that under- or over-exposing may produce your best results, so it is wise in any event to bracket your exposures to obtain a variety of differently-exposed shots.

Older-day photographers suggest reading the brightest areas of the sky and then stopping down one or two stops below the meter reading, and this advice may be a good rule of thumb, given normal conditions.

You can also look for mid-tones in the scene to meter; these are typically found in the sky around 45 degrees from the sun. After the sun has dropped away, metering the sky will give you an acceptable exposure, but bracketing is still recommended.

The sun itself may have dipped behind the island but the remaining light can still result in a dramatic picture
The sun itself may have dipped behind the island but the remaining light can still result in a dramatic picture

This was taken with a 120mm lens. A longer lens (200mm to 400mm) would have made the sun look much larger.
This was taken with a 120mm lens. A longer lens (200mm to 400mm) would have made the sun look much larger.

FOOL YOUR FULLY-AUTOMATIC CAMERA - MAKE IT BRACKET

If your camera is fully automatic such that you can’t over-ride its aperture and shutter speed controls, you can still bracket your exposures as long your camera has auto-exposure lock. Here is how. Aim it directly at the setting sun and take a picture. That’s one exposure. Then, aim it down at the terrain in front of or beside you, and lock in the exposure so you can then shoot the sunset with your settings being the same as if your camera were still aimed at the ground. Finally, aim the camera at the sky behind you to lock in another exposure reading, and shoot the sunset with these settings. You have just bracketed three different exposure settings for the sunset, one of which will undoubtedly be superior to the other two. Truth is, no given method automatically produces satisfactory results with a sunset. You have to experiment and gauge the results yourself.

TIMING - A difficult aspect of sunsets is choosing the moment to shoot them. The light changes perceptibly and you cannot tell whether you should shoot now or wait five minutes for better lighting. Our advice. Shoot now if the light looks good; it might be flat in five minutes. But, shoot again in five minutes if the scene has improved. This means you should have a good supply of film handy.

COMPOSITION - A truly spectacular sunset can stand on its own without assistance from the inclusion of many foreground objects. (When a sunset is your subject, everything else is a foreground object.) But a silhouetted sailboat, palm trees or a couple holding hands on the rocks can provide a sense of scale, framing, life or location to the scene, whether the sunset is incredibly spectacular or not. Almost anything in the foreground will be silhouetted, however by opening up your lens, you can often bring out some detail in foreground objects. You can also use flash to illuminate objects within range.


Shoot away from the sun, too - Don’t overlook the opportunities that the warm light from a sunset presents. You may suddenly decide that the romantic couple in the foreground (or behind you) is your subject, and the sunset then either serves as a background to place them in context or as a source of warm and intimate light for the scene.

Mundane subjects can gain new importance at sunset. You don’t always need the unobstructed vista of the ocean or the lakefront or a vast expanse of open country for a successful sunset shot. Sometimes, a sunset will provide you with beautiful lighting for a subject that has been otherwise troubling for you to shoot, whether it is a stolid statue, a dull building or a normally-uninteresting streetscape. The sunset as a backdrop or as a source of lighting may be your answer to enliven such a subject. City scenes can look gorgeous when photographed just after the sun has set. Shoot just before and after building illumination and interior lights become noticeable in the darkening afterglow, and at some point, there will be good lighting balance where your best shots will be produced. Long exposures can capture the lights of an airplane coming in to land or create attractive streaks of light from vehicle traffic.

A sunset can be captured on film (or digitally) with either the sun as part of the image (the style preferred by most photographers) or the sun indirectly shown as a reflection on the landscape, whether it is solid terra firma or watery, depending on the foreground. Reflections in water or on ice will provide your image with up to double the amount of sunset tones.

LENS FOCAL LENGTH - The sun always seems to appear smaller in our pictures than when we actually witnessed it setting, or at any other time of day. Fact is, it actually occupies relatively little of the sky, and a picture taken with a camera’s normal lens shows the truth of this. The choice of focal length is a function of what you are attempting to show of a particular sunset. If it is important to your image to make the sun look larger, the answer lies in shooting with a longer lens to magnify the size of the sun. Although many a wonderful sunset scene has been shot with a wide-angle lens, most sunsets improve with a telephoto lens. A 200mm lens will make the sun itself much more imposing in the picture. A 300 to 400mm lens or longer is even more effective in increasing the sun’s size so that it dominates the scene, like a huge ball. But, if you simply want to show the effect of the sun’s last rays coloring a wide sweep of the sky around you, a wide-angle lens is your best bet. If you do use a long lens, remember to use a tripod to avoid camera shake.

Keep your camera handy on the highway as night falls. In the north woods or the desert, a sunset can be golden.
Keep your camera handy on the highway as night falls. In the north woods or the desert, a sunset can be golden.

A spectacular sunset can stand on its own, without the need for foreground objects to frame it.
A spectacular sunset can stand on its own, without the need for foreground objects to frame it.

Also, and this is important, keep in mind that a long lens acts like a telescope to magnify the sun’s intensity, increasing the risk of harming your eyesight if you were to look directly at the sun before it is low enough in the sky to turn red. One seasoned photographers’ rule to follow in both looking directly at the sun and when photographing it in a sunset is to do so only when you can safely view it straight on without having to squint. In our view, this often only happens when the sun is about to drop behind the horizon and leaves you scant moments to capture good images, but it is a good rule of thumb to observe in terms of exposing your eyes directly to the sun itself, especially through the magnifying components of a telephoto lens.

FILM CHOICE - Most films will provide you with good results, but some films tend to show colors more vividly and you may wish to investigate these if what you are after is saturation, which generally enhances a sunset image. Color film is a natural film choice, but some outstanding sunset images have been shot in black and white. If you are shooting digitally, you may wish to experiment with an image on your computer by making a copy and converting it to grayscale to see how it looks in black and white. You may find it has a dramatic, moody feel that just isn't the same in color.

FILM SPEED OR DIGITAL ISO SETTING - Our inclination is to recommend an ISO sensitivity setting or a film speed in the ISO 100 or 200 range for most sunsets. Light is not a problem; after all, it is what you are shooting. Sometimes, though, you will also want to shoot a scene after the sun has set, and then light sensitivity (film speed) could become critical, and you should opt for a faster setting or film, ISO 400, for example, that will render good detail in the ensuing twilight.

Twilight’s duration is dependent upon season and latitude, often lasting in the northern hemisphere for several hours in summer, but having brief duration in winter. This is often a good time to capture images of nocturnal animals which become more active and visible as darkness falls. Although the horizon may be dark at twilight– often an orange hue building up to deep blue sky – high clouds will sometimes catch the last of the sun’s rays even after it has slipped beneath the horizon. A wide-angle lens to take in more of the sky and a tripod will be needed to frame the full range of this twilight effect.


SUNRISE

What about photographing a sunrise? How does it compare? Good questions. Although there are physical differences caused by the sun at the horizon following a warm day versus following a cool night, there are few differences from a photographer’s perspective between shooting a sunrise or a sunset. With a sunrise, there is greater likelihood of your capturing low-rising mist to enhance the visual effect of the sun’s rays. If you are not familiar with the locale, it is usually impossible to discern whether a picture you're looking at is of a sunset or a sunrise. The same observations and advice about shooting sunsets that we give above apply to shooting at dawn, only in reverse since the sun is rising, not falling. Of course, it is often more convenient and personally comfortable to shoot a sunset than it is to get up early and position yourself in the pale light in readiness for a sunrise, but you will likely have the possible advantage of fewer people around to influence your picture-taking.

FILTERS

Filters are not generally used for taking sunsets. The reason is evident. Sunset shots generally don’t require color correction; it is exactly the emphasis on the warm colors between orange and purple that result in a beautiful sunset.

However, filters can enhance or “intensify” a sunset or give the illusion that a seemingly-natural color is there when it is not. In fact, some manufacturers actually make gradated color filters that are meant to render a normal daytime scene as if it were a sunset. They are effective, too, providing the photographer keeps the noon-time sun out of the frame. A simple means of enhancing sunset colors is through the placement of warm-colored orange, gold or reddish gels in front of the lens and close to it so the gel is not within the depth of field.

The sky's golden glow is offset by the lights of a cruise ship in this colorful scene by photographer, Karen Meeks.
The sky's golden glow is offset by the lights of a cruise ship in this colorful scene by photographer, Karen Meeks.