There's something about a sunset that's just good for the photographer's soul. Maybe not so much the sunrise, because you have to get up too early for that—but the sunset ... it's just not possible for a photographer to look out at a beautiful sunset and not take a picture. We have a genetic predisposition towards photographing each and every sunset we see.
So why do so many sunset photographs fail to impress? You know exactly what I mean, because like all of us, you, too have taken disappointing sunset photos. You've probably taken a few where that beautiful red-orange light was transformed into a wimpy yellow. Or, you have an almost black photo with just a hint of that beautiful color somewhere on the horizon. And then you ask your camera, "why, oh why do you hate me?"
It's not your camera's fault. It's your meter's fault. Your camera wants to capture that beautiful sunset exactly as you see it with your own eyes, but your meter goes, "Nope, 18% gray, baby." Your meter has a very prejudiced view of the way the world should look and it's up to you to tell it, "Not this time."
Get the exposure right
The first Law of Sunset Photography is to ignore your meter. During a sunset, your meter is mostly going to give you bad advice. That's because your meter doesn't really know what to do with a sunset. When there's a lot of light in the sky, it wants to underexpose the shot. When there's very little light left in the sky, it wants to do the opposite. So you'll either end up with a shot that's too dark (which means you'll lose all those beautiful colors) or a shot that's too bright (which means you'll lose all of those beautiful colors).
Marina del Rey by Flickr user szeke
One way to deal with this is to switch to manual mode, but we'll get to that later on in this Dash. For now, you can cope with sunset conditions by selecting the sunset mode on your camera. In this mode, your meter understands that you are shooting a sunset, so it is going to make a pretty accurate guess about what you want that sky to look like in your final image. An added benefit of sunset mode is that it will warm up your image a little, which will make all those reds and oranges richer.
Another way to compensate for a meter that wants to underexpose or overexpose your image is to use exposure compensation. For a bright sky (one that still has the sun in it) figure on using EV -2, though you'll need to experiment to get it exactly right. It always helps to take a shot at your best guess, then subtract a stop or two based on what you see on your LCD.
DespuÃ©s de la tormenta by Flickr user Jaimito Cartero
Don't just stop at a few different exposures—keep going until your foreground elements become silhouettes. Silhouettes and sunsets go together like ham and cheese, so don't walk away without a few good examples. They might become your favorite shots of the evening.
You don't need a whole lot of gadgets to take great sunset photos. A tripod can be useful because it will allow you to keep shooting even after the sun has disappeared behind the horizon. A camera with manual mode is almost essential, with the only exception being a camera that has a sunset mode. Now like all scene modes, sunset modes are pretty effective but they're not always going to give you perfect results. So for the best chance at success, bring along that manual-capable DSLR.
If you want the colors in your sunset photos to be true, it's important to take your camera out of the "auto white balance" mode. Like your meter, your camera's automatic white balance mode thinks it knows everything, but it doesn't. In the auto mode you're going to lose some of that amazing color. What you'll need to do instead is fool your camera into reproducing those reds and oranges by switching to a white balance setting that is for scenes on the cool side--"overcast," for example, or "shade." These settings will warm up your image and bring out all those reds. Of course you may have seen fabulous sunset photos that are all about the blues and purples—if you want your image to be a little cooler, you can play with the warmer white balance settings such as tungsten, which will bring out those blues and purples.
Pacific Beach in Purple by Flickr user San Diego Shooter
When shooting a sunset the temptation can be to shoot wide. After all the sky is huge and sweeping and dramatic, why exclude any of it from the shot? Well it's true that wide shots of the sunset can be spectacular, but they can also be too much of a good thing, and sometimes a little bit of a bad thing, too. Wide angle shots may contain too much information and other visual "clutter," and they also de-emphasize the most spectacular parts of the scene (the sun, for example) by making them appear, well, smaller. So by all means take a few wide shots but don't neglect to zoom in and fill the frame with that dramatic sky. If you want to include the sun in your shot—as more of a sun and less of a pinprick—you'll need a zoom lens of at least 200mm.
Look for clouds in the sky and zoom in on the most interesting ones, if you can. Clouds are infinitely more dramatic (and interesting) than a plain, cloudless sky and should always be an important element of your sunset photos.
Caspersen Beach Sunset by Flickr user DonMiller_ToGo
Don't forget your photography 101—always consider the rule of thirds for sunrise photos because you're going to have a visible horizon in the shot. Most of the time, the sunset is the star so you will want to place your horizon in the bottom 1/3rd line. The sun itself can also be placed on a 1/3rd intersection, but placing it centrally can work too, depending on where the scene's other important elements lie.
Your mom always told you not to look straight at the sun and I'm going to tell you the same thing. Take care when photographing the sun that you don't damage your eyes—if it's too high in the sky, it's not a good idea to look directly at it, even if you're doing it through your viewfinder.
Once you know what your meter is up to (bad meter), sunsets really aren't difficult subjects. As long as you know when to expect the sunrise, you're in the right place at the right time and you've got a good idea about how to get the shot without your meter sticking its nose into your business, you're ready to get some truly amazing sunset photos. Or sunrise, if you really want to get up that early.
[ Top image Splish-Splash by Flickr user DonMiller_ToGo]