The perfect components for your sunset image :: Digital Photo Secrets

The perfect components for your sunset image

by David Peterson 0 comments

What makes a great sunset photo?

It may surprise you to hear that it isn't just the sun. Well, the sun is a big part of it—after all you can't have a sunset without it. But the sun alone does not make for a stunning image. You have to have other elements working together in your image in order to make the scene into something splendid.

The Sun

the fog by Flickr user alexcoitus

OK yes, you do need the sun. But it doesn't have to be visible—your photo can work just as well if the sun is behind a cloud, or even if it's just disappeared behind a mountain range.

It is important, though, to be aware of where the sun is in the frame and take care with how you position it. Remember that the sun is your brightest light source--even if it's behind a cloud, it's going to be the dominant source of light in your scene. So don't expose for the sun because if you do you're going to get a washed out sky. Instead, expose for the part of your scene where you'd like there to be the most detail, whether that's something in the foreground or the clouds in the sky.

Also take care where you position the sun in your frame. Start by placing it on one of the rule of thirds lines, but remember that it doesn't have to go there. If it works in the center of the frame, by all means place it there. If your sky is more interesting some distance from the sun, you could even place it off-camera. Experiment with the other elements in your frame to see what works best. That particular sunset is never going to happen again, so make sure you cover all of your bases.


  • E-5
  • 100
  • f/2.8
  • 15
  • 12 mm

almost may by Flickr user paul bica

Many sunset photos feature clouds, and for good reason. Clouds add drama. A sunset on a cloudless evening can be lovely, but put some clouds up there in the sky and you go from lovely to stunning. Clouds add texture and visual interest, but they can also suggest that something is going to happen. A storm is coming.

Clouds are really important elements for sunsets, so don't neglect them. If there are some great clouds in your scene but they aren't in the same part of the frame as then sun, you should still take a few shots that include them. Don't pass up all that drama just because you want to make sure the sun is in your frame. The sun can add something to your scene, but it's not everything.

Foreground objects

  • Olympus E-3
  • 100
  • f/2.8
  • 60
  • 12 mm

sunset by Flickr user paul bica

For many beginning photographers, the foreground during a sunset is kind of a non-issue. But it shouldn't be for you. You can't just forget about the foreground, even if there isn't anything of particular interest in it. Nothing is more disappointing than looking at what you thought were going to be splendid sunset photographs only to discover that there's a long line of power lines cutting right though the most important parts of your scene. Always be aware of visual clutter in your foreground and take steps to angle it out. If you can't angle it out, try exposing so that it becomes a silhouette—hopefully blending into obscurity with other silhouettes or perhaps just becoming less of an eye sore. Of course you may want to include those foreground elements too—in that case you will need to do the opposite—make sure that you expose for the foreground so those elements won't become silhouettes (unless that's what you're going for). And as always, take care how you place them in the scene so that they add to the composition rather than detracting from it.

Reflective surfaces

  • EX-F1
  • 100
  • f/3.0
  • 0.004 sec (1/250)
  • 7.3 mm

Rorschach of the Almighty by Flickr user ecstaticist

Reflective surfaces such as large bodies of water (or even small puddles) can make great compositional elements in your sunset photos. This is one of those scenes where you might want to break the rule of thirds—when your beautiful sunset is reflected in a lake, creating a perfect symmetrical composition.

You won't always have the opportunity to include a reflective surface in every sunset shot, but don't you dare miss the chance when it presents itself. Think of it like this—if the sunset is dramatic all by itself, then you'll get twice the drama by including it in the sky, and reflected in the lake as well.


  • Casio EX-P505
  • f/5.4
  • 0.003 sec (1/400)
  • 14.2 mm

Into Darkness by Flickr user ecstaticist

Birds going home to roost for the evening can add that final "wow" to your sunset image. Often, birds in flight are going to show up as silhouettes against that dramatic sky, and that's certainly going to add some strong visual appeal to your composition. But do be ready for those birds when they come—if you're using a tripod and a slow shutter speed, they may show up as motion blur. If you're going to include them make sure your shutter speed is fast enough to adequately freeze them in the sky.


  • Canon EOS 30D
  • 400
  • f/8.0
  • 0.01 sec (1/100)
  • 14 mm

Sunset Surfer by Flickr user szeke

Do you want to create a sense of longing in your viewer? Nothing does that quite so effectively as including people in your sunset photos. A beautiful sunset implies the end of a beautiful day, and when there are people in the image we can't help but think about all the wonderful things those people must have spent their beautiful day doing. That's why so many travel brochures include images of people enjoying the sunset. Those sunsets with their warm colors are inviting. When we see people enjoying sunsets, it makes us wish we could be there too. Hence the 800 number under the photo.


Yes, the sun—or at the very least its light--is most definitely a key element in creating a compelling sunset photo. But the sun in a plain sky does not by itself guarantee a stunning photograph. To do that, you need to pay attention to all the other elements in your composition. Look out for the elements I've mentioned above, but don't be afraid to include others, too. Anything that adds visual interest without adding clutter is a good call. Remember that your goal is to make your viewer want to be there—or better still, make him feel like he actually is there.

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