Practical Tips For Perfect Sunset Photography (everytime)
Sunsets are truly nature’s most awe-inspiring artwork. I have no doubt that you’ll have stopped many times before, your breath taken away by the sheer beauty of the site before you…I certainly have.
Honestly, sunset photography (and sunrises of course) can be the most amazing experience – It is relatively easy to get truly stunning images that will have people saying ‘WOW’ when you show them.
Table of Contents
A quick warning at the onset …
You should never, ever (ever) look through a magnifying lens, directly at the sun. It’s really bad for your eyes.
Even though we’re going to be using mostly wide angles, you should still use the live view of your camera.
I really, recommend a good pair of UV protected sunglasses too. I once had a prolonged session watching a sunset while I was photographing, by the end of it I could barely see and had a banging headache 🙁
And Finally… ALWAYS pack a torch. When you set up for your sunset photography it will be lovely and bright. By the time you’ve finished, it will be very dark indeed! You don’t want to be crashing through the countryside without a flashlight.
So, how do I get started?
Ok, so now that we’ve bigged up sunset photography and told you how easy it is to get amazing shot’s we need to talk logistics.
First of all, planning is so important for your sunset photoshoot.
Finding the right location is going to be the single most important aspect in your endeavor to photograph the perfect sunset portrait.
Unfortunately, we are also at the whims of nature… You may travel to your chosen location and find that it’s cloudy, there are people in the way, it may start raining, you name it! I’ve had all of these frustrations in the past while in the search for the perfect photograph of a sunset.
It does mean that you may need to visit this location regularly, possibly even many, many times before you get the shot you’re looking for.
Be patient, the pay off will be huge.
First of all, we need to find where the sun rises and where the sun sets. There are some great Apps like ‘LightTrac’ which can help you keep track of both.
The landscape needs to be relatively flat and you need to have a relatively good view of the sunset.
As you get better, these rules will change slightly, but I’m assuming that as you’re reading this article that you’re just starting out on your sunset photography journey.
Here’s a little tip to save you hours and hours of searching for a great sunset photography spot: Go to Facebook! Yes! On Facebook you will find many, many photography groups, undoubtedly local to you and you can simply ask, ‘Hey guys, I’m looking for great places for sunset photography portraiture, does anyone know of any?’
You will undoubtedly get locations, tips and people will love to show you a few samples of sunset photography that they have taken.
You may even find yourself heading out as a group to photograph some amazing sunsets. I personally love going out as a group. It’s a lot more fun than just sitting on your own and most importantly you get to see other sunset photographs that were taken at different angles to the one you chose.
This to me is one of the best ways to learn more about photography. If somebody else’s sunset photography looks better than yours, but you both had the same light and location you can try and work out what it is that they’ve done that made theirs better.
Do a recce.
Ok, we’ve got our location sorted, what next?
Have you heard of the 5 ‘P’s ??? (Perfect Planning Prevents Pathetic Performance). In photography, this is very, very true.
It is worth visiting your location in the daytime. Take a little time to look around.
See if you can work out (with your app) where the sun will be setting and try and compose roughly how your sunset photography portrait is going to look.
Are there trees that you can use as foreground interest, with the sunset in the background? Is there an interesting lake or mountain you need to work around?
Make sure you know the area well and you’ve taken some good time to ensure that you have a good idea of where the sun is going to set.
This way you will not feel any pressure when it comes to the evening.
Sunset Photography Equipment
The sunset photography equipment you’ll need is fairly minimal… I would suggest the following:
- DSLR Camera
- Wide angle lens (preferably a prime lens)
- Memory cards
- Graduated Neutral Density Filter
- Folding chair
- Flask of cocoa
- Warm coat
As ever in photography, the quality of the lens is always far more important the quality of your camera body. This is especially true when we’re doing sunset photography portraits and looking directly into the sun.
If your lens has any defects, such as heavy vignetting (vignetting is a reduction of an image’s brightness or saturation toward the periphery compared to the image center) or a tendency to flare, when you’re shooting sunsets these will occur without question.
Make no mistake shooting directly into the sunlight (even as it’s setting and will hopefully be less bright) will test your lenses capabilities to the maximum.
The tripod you should pack, but there are different schools of thought on whether you should use it or not.
The reasons you should use your tripod for your sunset photography portrait are:
- It slows you down, forcing you to take more note of your surroundings composition, etc.
- Images taken on a tripod are always sharper and clearer than those taken handheld.
- You can set your camera up, use a shutter release and enjoy the sunset.
The reasons not to use a tripod are:
- It slows you down! I love the spontaneity of hand holding the camera
- You are slightly more ‘stuck’ in one place. Upping sticks and moving becomes a pain.
Honestly, for many years I erred towards handheld running about all over the place looking for the perfect image. I loved the freedom to be able to move around and capture different angles and different perspectives when I was capturing the perfect sunset photograph.
However, when I get back to the studio and reviewed my images, I would generally find that ‘The one’ That perfect sunset photography portrait was just ever so slightly wrong. A touch of camera shake or similar.
Regarding the coat, cocoa, torch, and chair, they may seem a little silly, but I’ve been doing this long enough to know that actually waiting is a big part of photography, so a little comfort is a good thing.
It can also get cold very quickly, so a warm coat is a great idea!
Sunset Photography Settings
Sunset photography and in fact photography, in general, is very subjective… It’s art. What I think looks terrible, somebody else will think looks amazing!
On the whole, though there are some quite ‘rock solid’ rules regarding photography that you should learn, regarding your sunset photography settings.
Once you’ve learned them and understand why they’re used, feel free to go out, tear up the rule book and get creative.
First things first, you NEED to shoot in RAW. RAW is a file format that captures all image data recorded by the sensor when you take a photo. … Because no information is compressed with RAW you’re able to produce higher quality images, as well as correct problem images that would be unrecoverable if shot in the JPEG format.
And happily many cameras these days shoot RAW, including point and shoots! So even if you’re using a little camera, you might still be able to take advantage of the RAW file format (just check your camera manual to see!).
If you don’t shoot in RAW , then it’s like shooting a slide. The exposure has to be absolutely spot on, every single time. There are people who would argue that this makes a good photographer, BUT it makes life so, so difficult.
Many would say that you should shoot in Manual (M), but I would say that Aperture Priority (AV) is the better setting.
The reason for this is that the light changes so quickly while photographing sunsets. Within seconds your light can drop from 1/125th to 1/50th of a second.
I would use a tripod, AV and the exposure compensation dial. Take an image, you know what aperture you need for your depth of field, let the camera take care of the shutter speed.
Use Your Screen
Having a screen has increased my creativity by 1000% because you can see quite clearly that actually if you move a little bit, that you’ll get a better image. In the old days, you had to wait ‘til your film had been developed.
Use that screen and learn to love it!
The optimum aperture for most lenses is f8, so as a rule, we want to be shooting at f8 or more.
However, even while using a wide angle lens, you’ll need an aperture of around f16 or f22, if you want both the distance and the foreground to be in sharp.
Remember we said that sunset photography would push your lens to its limits, well ensuring we stop down to f8 or more will ensure your lens is operating at its best.
So, we know that the ISO adjust the sensitivity of your sensor… As the ISO goes higher, you need less light to capture your image, but you get more grain or noise in the image.
For shooting sunsets, we want the grain to be minimal. So a setting of 100 ISO or even lower will (some cameras have a submenu option of 50 ISO) mean we have the cleanest image we can, to start with before you begin processing your sunset photography portrait.
Frankly, the shutter speed is the least important of your sunset photography settings.
Don’t worry too much if you have water in the foreground of your image, as this can look quite interesting when photographed at a slow shutter speed 🙂
Provided you’re using a tripod and there’s nothing fast moving in the frame of your sunset portrait, such as cars or trees moving in the wind, you can go to down to quite low shutter speeds.
Sunset Photography Portraiture
You’ll need to arrive well in advance of the actual sunset time… You can get amazing pictures up to an hour before the sun actually sets.
Hopefully, your earlier recce will have paid off and you’ll know roughly where you’ll be setting up and what you want to see in your composition.
Don’t be afraid of trying a couple of different shots, and to vary how much of the foreground you see in the image.
Personally, I like to see a LOT of skies with the lens tilted up at an angle to show the sky clouds, etc, but you may prefer to see a lot of foreground interest.
There are no hard or fast rules, as this is entirely personal.
Avoid using autofocus if you can, I find it will hunt back and forwards and not really give you the most accurate focus for your sunset photography portrait.
Now, just keep photographing until you’ve got the most amazing sunset portrait you can.
Remember the light quality will change dramatically as the sun gets closer to setting and don’t stop when the sun has gone down… You can get some amazing images even when the sun has finally set and disappeared beyond the horizon.
A Graduated Neutral Density Filter (ND) can be of enormous help if you want to shoot the sky and foreground. It cuts out some of the light coming from the sky so you can balance the sky and the foreground. The camera should automatically take account of these new sunset photography settings without you having to manually change anything.
Did you get the perfect Sunset Photography Portrait?
But what if you come back from your shoot and it’s not perfect? Don’t panic, you’d be very lucky to go out on your first attempt and come back with the perfect image.
Professional landscape photographers will visit locations time after time and at many different times of the year to get the ‘perfect’ image.
Every time you go back to photograph your location, you’ll get different results. Some will be utterly amazing, others, simply ‘OK’. One day though you’ll come back from a shoot and know that you’ve got the perfect sunset photography portrait.