Sunsets are spectacular. They splash vibrant hues across dull skies and light up clouds with a backlighting that could only come from the heavens.
Sunsets are romantic, overused in happy endings and really exciting to photograph. One of my absolute favourite times of day is the golden hour. That brief interlude between day and night when the sky comes alive…
I’m going to walk you through what you need to photograph a sunset and give you my top tips in this blog so you can nail the sunset shot!
What do I need to photograph a sunset?
Besides your kit and yourself, it’s really important that you invest time into your sunset photography because effort in = results out.
You need to plan your shots as well as your shoot. I personally prefer shooting during the hour before the sun disappears. This is called Golden hour because the light is a rich gold colour. I love to shoot at this time because I like including the sun in the shot. It’s more dramatic and eye-catching. If you’re lucky enough to have a haze free blue sky with fluffy white clouds, it’s even better because there’s detail in the sky.
Is a virtue. When photographing a sunset, patience is more than a virtue. Patience is the difference between a rushed shot and a wonderfully rich one. You’ve done your planning and you’ve made the golden hour. You’re set up and waiting for the light to change. Sometimes it never quite filters through the trees or it dips behind a cloud before streaking across the sky and that can be really disappointing.
Photography is ultimately a waiting game and much like fishing you will often find yourself in position waiting for the right moment just like fishermen waiting for a bite.
Location Location Location
Sure you could stand at your back door and haphazardly shoot glimmers of the sunset in between your neighbours houses but if you want a splendid sunset - you’ve got to put some effort in. This largely falls under planning, but I wanted to reiterate how important it is to find a location that will give you the shot you want.
Sunsets are very overdone, they make great wall art and screensavers but to create something spectacular you want a location that highlights the sunset, adds in some interesting foreground and ultimately blows you away.
Always look around you and notice your surroundings, wherever you are. Carry a compass and see where in the sky the sun will set, or rise for that matter. If the windmills, lagoon and ocean beyond face south, obviously the sun will set to the right, and won’t make an appearance.
I have been shooting sunsets for a very long time and every time I get the shot I still get shivers. There are so many ways you can highlight the colours and make the photograph really special with a unique foreground or a contrasting angle.
There are loads of techniques to learn and so many tools to figure out but my top tips keep it nice and simple.
I love shooting a sunset on manual mode because it lets you have so much more control of the light. Remember the camera sees light very differently from the human eye so having this level of understanding will make a big difference to your images.
It’s paramount you think your settings through.
Camera settings for sunset shots change constantly along with the light. Technically you need to consider exposure but there are creative considerations as well;
- Depth of field
- Shutter speed
- Focal length
A photo angled up a waterfall with the sunset filtering through will look very different from a photo where the sunset lights up the slow moving waterfall. Once you know how you want your photo to look, use ISO to compensate to get the light just right.
A tool I always rely on is the histogram. Because of the stark contrasts between what your eye sees and what the camera takes, the histogram is a brilliant guide. You might look at the back of your camera and see a pale image that in no way displays the blood red sky, but they are there in the RAW file.
The histogram is important because it gives you the foresight you need to bring your image to life. If it shows the dark tones at the left end are not touching the edge, so all the shadow details are there, even if you can’t see them. If the right end has a little spike just touching the edge, that’s the super bright sun and clouds around it that have burnt out. And that’s OK. If you look at the sun with your eyes, it’s burnt out along with clouds that are close by.
So how do we photograph a sunset?
- Think your settings through
- Be creative
- Follow the light
- Use your histogram
If you want to boost the creativity of your images, master the technical aspects and get more confident with your camera to get that perfect sunset shot, take a look at my Masterclass in Photography.