What Modes to Use for Each Phase :: Digital Photo Secrets

What Modes to Use for Each Phase

by David Peterson 0 comments

You've come this far, so by now you know a simple truth about sunset photography—it's not the sort of leisurely, relaxed pursuit you may have once imagined it was. Taking photos of sunsets is about as leisurely as taking photos of cowboys herding cats. Okay that's a bit of an exaggeration, but you know what I mean.

  • Canon EOS 5D Mark II
  • 100
  • f/11.0
  • 25 mm

Evergreen Mountain Lookout Sunset by Michael Matti by Flickr user Michael Matti

Things happen fast at sunset. That sun that seemed to take forever to get all the way from the eastern sky to the western sky is suddenly dropping down towards the horizon faster than you can say "aperture." You have to be ready for it, and you have to know the best settings to use at each stage. What? You don't know the best settings to use at each stage? Well, you're in luck.

Golden Hour

    Vamos a Tagle... (hdr) Cantabria by Flickr user heegle

    "Golden hour" is a term you've heard many times, and it refers of course to that short period of time just before sunset. Typically we think of golden hour light in terms of what it can do for our subjects rather than as a subject in and of itself. But the golden hour—especially the latter moments of the golden hour—is actually the first stage in a sunset and can make a great photographic subject, especially if you have some of those supporting elements in your scene that we talked about earlier in the month, such as a dramatic, cloud-filled sky.

    Now as you know, the golden hour may or may not last a whole hour, depending on where you are on the globe. In fact if you're lucky enough to live in the Arctic (or unlucky enough, depending on your perspective), during certain times of the year you can take golden hour photos for an entire day, if you like. But most of us live in parts of the world where sunrise and sunset are fairly rapid events, so we don't have the luxury of those "golden days." Instead we have to be prepared.

    Start by knowing exactly what time the sun is going to set in the location you happen to be in. If you have a smart phone, there are a number of smart apps that can help you with this—many of them will even let you know how much light you'll have between the time the sun goes down and the time that darkness falls. But most importantly, they're going to let you know what time the sun is going to disappear behind the horizon, which will in turn give you the ability to plan ahead.

    I use an excellent app called Photo Ephemeris. It's available for both iPhone and Android phones and provides the sunset/sunrise time as well as the location in the sky on a map so you can see if there are any hills (or city towers) in the way. The app costs around $5, but is well worth the money.

    • Nikon D90
    • 500
    • f/11.0
    • 0.001 sec (1/2000)
    • 70 mm

    Icarus by Flickr user Len Radin

    So make sure you arrive on site before the golden hour, or at least allow yourself enough time to find a good spot and set up your gear at a nice, unhurried pace. Then put your camera in aperture priority mode. As the sun gets lower in the sky and closer to the point where it becomes a worthy photographic subject, take a few test shots. The light is going to be changing pretty rapidly as the sun approaches the horizon, so it's handy to have your aperture dialed in and to let your camera take control of the shutter speed as the light fades. Those first few test shots are important, though, because remember that your meter can be fooled by all that bright light in the sky. If those first shots are too dark, use your camera's exposure compensation to brighten them up. Try a +1 and a +2 and see which one works best, then fine tune it if you need to. Most cameras will let you add or subtract exposure compensation by 1/3 to 1/2 stops. And don't forget to bracket—if you're using aperture priority, you can either use your DSLR's AEB function to do this, or you can do it by changing your exposure compensation on the fly.


    Technically, "sunset" is the stage at which the sun actually arrives at the horizon, and then dips down below it. This moment happens very quickly, within a few seconds, so there isn't going to be any time to muck with your settings or to play around with things like composition. The most important thing to remember about that sunset moment is that you need to have very clear goals for what you want to accomplish. Make sure you've framed the image exactly the way you want it, and make sure you know what you want that final image to look like. Are you going for silhouettes or do you want to capture visible form and detail in your landscape? You'll need to make sure you have a very good idea of what settings you'll have to use to accomplish your goal, and that you're prepared to bracket a few shots while you're at it, in case you're wrong.

    • DSLR-A700
    • 200
    • f/14.0
    • 0.013 sec (1/80)
    • 16 mm

    This photo is of the sunrise, not the sunset—but the same basic ideas apply.A Dream Reality by Flickr user satosphere


    Twilight is that time just after the sun disappears behind the horizon, and just before darkness falls completely. A lot of photographers just pack up and go home at this point, thinking that the show is over. It's not! You're still going to get a lot of spectacular colors on the horizon even though the sun is no longer visible. But you will need to switch to manual mode, since you'll have a lot less light in the sky and hence, a much more confused meter (and you thought the poor thing was confused when the sun was still in the sky!). Using manual mode will give you the ability to override that confused meter, but remember that it's still a good idea to bracket since the light will continue to change as dusk approaches.

    And did you know there are three phases of twilight! We'll stick with the three phases of sunset for this course though!

    • Nikon D90
    • 100
    • f/16.0
    • 10 mm

    together we stand. by Flickr user Preserved Light Photography


    Do you prefer taking photos of Sunrise rather than Sunset? The same sequence of events occur - just in reverse!


    It's not herding cats, or photographing herded cats, but sunset photography does require some fast thinking and coordination. You may need to practice capturing sunsets a few times—or many times—before you get to the point where you're completely satisfied with your images. Definitely follow the above guidelines for those three phases of sunset but don't forget that sunset photography is often as much about luck as it is about smart choices, so if you don't get it right the first time, don't worry. Practice is absolutely going to reward you with some amazing shots.

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