sunset photography

Improve Your Sunrise and Sunset Photography

Want to learn how to improve on your sunset photography?

We have the only guide you will ever need!

Sunset photos are a classic type of photography that every landscape photographer should have in their skill set. They make for universally appealing images. Everybody loves a sunset and they always do so well on social media! Even better, they make a stunning addition to your online photography portfolio, helping you land more fans and clients.

Taking great pictures of the sunset doesn’t necessarily require a ton of specialised gear, though it might take a little finesse. Careful manipulation of your camera settings helps to make your sunset photo match the blazingly beautiful scene you see before you. The hardest thing you will have to deal with is trying to match the colours to what is in front of your eyes.

The sun can cause your camera to perceive light incorrectly very easily. This is where you need a bit of understanding.

Photo Credit: Magnus Emlen

Sunset Photography 101

Regardless of how high your skill level is, or how fancy your gear is, there are a few basic sunset photography tips that anyone can benefit from.

Safety first…YAWN.

Be careful when photographing the sun! Looking directly at the sun for a prolonged period of time can cause retinal damage. More importantly in can damage you cameras image sensor. Take my eyes but not my $2000 camera! A safer way to go is to use the LCD monitor on your camera to compose your shot. Just don’t use it any longer than you need to.

Before your date with that big flaming ball in the sky, it’s worth cruising through the online portfolios of your fave travel photographers and landscape photographers for a little inspiration. How are they capturing their amazing sunset photos?

Weather

Check the weather report before you head out. You’ll need a clear view of the sun. If there are a few clouds, don’t despair. Clouds can soak up so much colour and provide drama to your sunset images.

Check sunset/sunrise times before you go out. Get there with enough time in advance to set up your shot and gear. Often, mobile weather apps will also tell you the scheduled sunset/sunrise time for the day, while more specialised landscape photography apps can calculate the precise angle of sunset, shadow lengths, and other in-depth info. Be sure that your lens and sensor are clean! The dramatic lighting conditions will throw annoying speckles of dust and dirt into even more obvious focus.

When in doubt, remember the sun doesn’t necessarily need to be the focus of your picture. The best sunset pictures showcase the effects of the sunset on nearby objects, or on the surrounding landscape, using that saturated lighting to its full potential.

Photo Credit: Elizabeth West

What are the Best Cameras For Sunset Photography?

Those looking to invest in a new camera body or system might be wondering about the best camera for sunsets.

The good news?

Pretty much any digital camera that offers manual control over camera settings will be able to do a pretty good job of capturing sunset photos!

There are, however, some features that make certain models the best cameras for landscape photography. When it comes to sunset pictures, the biggest thing you’ll want to keep in mind is dynamic range, which refers to the amount of detail a camera can capture within both light and dark areas of a single frame. A wide dynamic range will keep you from getting a blown-out image with good detail in darker areas (or, conversely, a dark, underexposed image with good detail in lighter areas).

The Best Camera Settings For Sunset Photography

When it comes to sunset photography, settings and technique are far more important than owning specialized gear (good news for beginners and budget-oriented shooters alike). Camera settings for sunsets (including DSLR settings for sunsets) generally involve maximizing depth of field and accounting for the bright light of the sun shining into the camera over other concerns like shutter speed.

Use your camera’s aperture priority mode, particularly if you’re just getting started taking sunset photos. (Aperture priority is usually found by turning your camera’s settings dial to “A” or “Av”). In basic terms, aperture priority lets you set the aperture, and the camera will automatically change the shutter speed for you. You can (of course) also use your camera’s manual setting.

Aperture

Set the aperture number high (between f/11 and f/16) to get the largest possible depth of field and keep as much of the scene in focus as possible. Shooting at a high f-stop can also create a cool starburst effect in your sunset photo.

ISO

Keep your ISO as low as possible in order to avoid graininess. Keep in mind, though, that you might have to crank the ISO higher as the sun goes down and the scene becomes dimmer in order to keep your f-stop number high.

Want to learn how to tie all these together? Check out the exposure triangle.

White Balance

The auto white balance setting generally works fine, though you may want to experiment with the daylight, cloudy, or even shade settings to bring out different tones in the image—you can get more yellow, purple, pinkish, or red sunset pictures this way.

The amount of detail in sunset photos makes this a prime opportunity for shooting RAW.

Focus

Some cameras have a hard time focusing in extreme lighting conditions; if you find that’s the case, you may want to try switching to manual focus.

Exposure

You may want to dial down the exposure on your sunset photo so that the scene isn’t completely blown out by the intense sunlight. This technique can also be used to create dramatic silhouetted images.

sunset photography

More tips for Photographing Stunning Sunrises and Sunsets

Think Ahead – While sometimes wonderful sunrise and sunset shots can be taken spontaneously without any forethought it’s often the case that the best ones come out of planning. Scope out places that might be good for sunsets in the day or two before your shoot. Look for interesting places where you might not only be able to see the sun track all the way down but where there will be opportunities for shots that include foreground elements and silhouettes. Sunsets only take half an hour or so so you want to think about these elements before they start or you might miss the shots you’re after.


Find out when the sun will set or rise and get there at least half an hour before hand as it’s often in the lead up to and the time after the sun appears or disappears that the real magic happens.

Consider ahead of time what equipment you might need. Include a tripod, lenses that will give you a range of focal lengths, extra batteries etc.

Composition Techniques

Shoot at a variety of focal lengths

wide angle can create sweeping landscape shots but if you want the sun itself to be a feature of the shot you’ll want to be able to zoom right in.

Keep in mind that the sun is just half a degree across so when you shoot with a wide lens it will only be taking up a reasonably small part of the photo. If you want it to be a feature of your shot you’ll need to zoom in on it using anything from a 200mm lens upwards. This will increase your need for a tripod!

Don’t forget, you can start to include Bokeh if you get the lighting and focal points right. Unsure of what bokeh is? Have a read here!

Silhouettes as focal points 

As with all photos, sunsets need a point of interest and one of the best ways to add one to a picture is to try to incorporate some sort of Silhouette into the shot. This could be something large like a mountain range, something that is part of the environment like a palm tree or a pier or could even be a person.

The great things about Silhouettes is that they add mood and context to a sunset or sunrise shot.

Rule of thirds

Remember the rule of thirds in your sunrise and sunset photography. While you can always break the rule it’s often a good idea to place elements like the horizon, sun, silhouettes etc off centre.

Leading lines

Think about the leading lines in your shot. Can you persuade the viewer to focus on the sun using leading lines?

Learn how to creatively use leading lines

Exposure Techniques

Shoot at a variety of exposures 

If you let your camera decide what shutter length to shoot at you’re likely to get a shot that doesn’t really capture the beauty of the light. Quite often the shot will be under exposed because the sky is still reasonably light.

Instead of relying upon the camera’s auto mode a sunset is an ideal time to switch your camera into aperture or shutter priority mode and to take a variety of shots at different exposures.

The great thing about sunsets and sunrises is that there is no one ‘right’ exposure and that you can get stunning results using a variety of them. Also keep in mind that different exposures (aperture and shutter speeds) will produce a variety of different results so it’s worth taking more than just a few shots – the key is to experiment.

sunset photography

Bracketing

Another technique to try to get the right exposure is ‘bracketing’ where you look at what the camera suggests you take the picture at and then take a few shots at both under and over that mark. ie if your camera says to shoot at 1/60th of a second at f/8 you would shoot off a shot at 1/60 at f/5.6 and then at f/11. In doing so you end up with a series of shots at different exposures which will all give you slightly different results and colors. Most DSLR’s and some point and shoot digital cameras have a built in bracketing feature so you don’t need to do this manually – learn how to use it!

Auto Exposure Lock 

Another exposure trick, if you don’t have a bracketing mode or don’t feel confident in using it is if your camera has ‘auto exposure lock’ which allows you to point your camera at a darker place and lock in exposure for that spot (ie you could point it at the ground in front of you and lock in that exposure) and then reframe the picture looking at the sunset. This will mean you get a more over exposed shot.

Take camera out of Auto White balance mode 

when you set your camera to ‘Auto’ in it’s white balance mode you run the risk of losing some of the warm golden tones of a sunrise or sunset. Instead try shooting in ‘cloudy’ or ‘shade’ which are usually used in cooler lights and tell your camera to warm things up a little. Alternatively – if you’re shooting a sunrise and DO want a cooler moody shot you can experiment with other white balance settings.

sunset photography

What are the Best Lenses For Sunsets?

You don’t necessarily need a specialised lens to take a great sunset picture. Many landscape photographers have gotten great results with just a kit lens. Each type of lens will bring something new to your sunset photography.

Wide-angle lenses:

A necessary addition to any landscape photographer’s lens arsenal and they are generally the most popular with sunset photographers. They capture the widest amount of the surrounding area in your sunset photo. They’ll also shrink the sun relative to the rest of the frame, which means your shot will be less affected by a narrow dynamic range. 

Telephoto

A telephoto lens will do the opposite, making the sun look larger, while isolating a smaller portion of the landscape. This can be used to great effect if you’d like to hone in on one specific part of the scene. (Keep in mind that the telephoto lens acts as a magnifying glass, which makes it even more important to avoid looking directly into the sun while shooting!)

Prime

Though some find the fixed focal length of prime lenses limiting for landscape photography, they can also make for incredibly sharp images. If you try experimenting with a silhouette or portrait photography while shooting sunsets, a prime lens will turn that sunset background into beautifully diffused bokeh.

What are the Best Filters For Sunsets?

If you frequently shoot the sunset, filters can be an important addition to your gear.

Graduated ND (Neutral Density) Filter

This filter goes from dark to light in an ombre pattern. It can help boost the dynamic range in a sunset shot, darkening the brilliantly-lit sky while letting the camera take in enough light to make sure the rest of the landscape is properly exposed.

Polarizing filters:

Generally used to deepen colour and cut down on reflections. Hugely popular among landscape photographers, but some experts suggest taking them off before you shoot a sunset, arguing that they don’t necessarily boost the colour in a sunset photo and could cause lens flares in your image.

overexposure

What are the Best Tripods For Sunsets?

When it comes to shooting the sunset, tripods are one of the essential accessories for landscape photographers.

When taking pictures of the sunset, your focus will likely be on capturing the details in a scene over versus fast-moving action, making this a perfect time to opt for the stability of a tripod over the flexibility of handheld shooting (which generally comes with a big side of camera shake). Additionally, a tripod will allow you to play with long exposures, which are particularly great for giving water a fluid, ethereal look in sunset beach photos. 

Shopping for landscape photography tripods generally involves striking a balance between lightness (which keeps your gear easy to carry) and heaviness (which will keep your gear from blowing away in a sudden gust of wind). 

Since beaches and sunset photography go hand-in-hand, you may also want to look for something that can handle a little water and sand. Carbon-fibre tripods, unlike metal tripods, are resistant to corrosion; photographers have also come up with some clever DIY hacks, like sliding PVC pipe from the hardware store over their tripod legs to protect them from sand and water damage. 

Along with a tripod, you may also want to invest in a remote shutter release for your camera for that extra little bit of hands-free stability.

Tripods are essential for shooting sunset landscapes, but remember: veteran landscape photographers caution against letting your tripod “grow legs.” Once you’ve got a few shots you’re happy with at one tripod position, try to move it around a little between shots and test out different angles and vantage points. Feel free to experiment!

Shooting Beach Sunset Pictures And Ocean Sunset Pictures

Beaches, oceans, and seasides are some of the best places to capture gorgeous sunset photos. The interplay between bright light, reflecting water, and shadowy sand dunes and rocks make for some stunning artistic possibilities. 

Showing up early is always a good call when shooting sunsets, but here it’s especially key. Arriving 45 minutes before sundown will let you take full advantage of the golden hour and capture those rich, sunny tones bouncing off the waves. Sunset can also create long shadows that pop up in the sand and waves, adding extra impact to a sunset picture. 

tree photography

When you’re shooting sunset pictures at the beach, you may have to contend with having more people in your shot. Depending on your outlook, this can either be an interesting feature or a nuisance. If you’d rather capture your beach scene free of swimmers and sunbathers, consider hunting for a more secluded section of the beach, or try to visit in the off-season.

Hopefully this guide will get you taking great sunrise and sunset images. Remember, the more you practice the more you learn. It is all about learning! Good luck on your journey towards being a sunset sniper!

Snippets of content sourced from DPS and Format

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