How To: Sunset Photography :: Digital Photo Secrets

How To: Sunset Photography

by David Peterson 3 comments

Very few things are as beautiful as the sunset. The pinks, the oranges, and the yellows burn an image in our minds that is unlike anything else. It’s easy to appreciate the beauty of a good sunset when it’s happening right in front of your eyes, but it’s much more difficult to capture it with your camera. If you’ve ever been dismayed with a so-so picture you’ve gotten back after seeing the best sunset of your life, this article is for you.

Sunsets play evil tricks on your camera

That’s the first thing you need to know about sunset photography. To get a good image of a sunset, it really helps to use manual settings. The sun is very bright, and it often confuses your camera’s onboard light meter. This usually results in an image that’s either too bright or too dark, and you almost never get back the glowing orange picture you see below.

To get that glow, I am constantly tweaking my shutter speed and checking the image that results on the LCD. During the sunset, the sun is actually moving quite quickly down the horizon, and that means you’ll need to keep changing your shutter speed as it goes down further. That’s why I can’t give you advice like “pick 1/250 s” because, while that might be true for some period of time, it won’t work for the entire sunset.

Those of you with point-and-shoot cameras might not have a manual mode. If that’s the case, your camera might have a pre-programmed sunset mode for just this purpose. Sunset mode is usually represented with a little icon of a sun going down over the horizon. You don’t need to do anything extra once you select it. Just start taking photos as the sun goes down.

Which aperture should you pick?

So long as you’re shooting in manual mode, you’ll need to know which aperture to use for photographing sunsets. In general, I like to pick an aperture between F8 and F10 because details don’t matter as much when the sun is going down. That way, you’ll also get a little more light going through the lens, meaning you won’t need to use a tripod to keep the image stable. Your sunset picture won’t blur when you’re shooting with a 1/125s shutter speed and above.

If there isn’t a lot of light, pick F8. If there is still a lot of light, pick F10. As the sun goes down further, I usually end up lowering my aperture so I can get a little bit more light through the lens. If you don’t want to do this, bring a tripod to stabilize the shot. You’ll need it for those last few minutes of light anyway.

Zoom in more

Try to fill the frame with the sunset you are photographing. It will make your image a lot more interesting. Most amateur pictures of the sunset are taken from too far away. They’ve got the colors right, but there’s too much clutter in the scene. This is highly distracting, and it takes away from the meaning of the shot. Zoom in more, and you’ll notice a huge difference in almost every picture you take.

Clouds are huge. They can make or break a sunset image

If you’re sitting in your house wondering if you should leave for a few minutes to photograph the sunset, consider the clouds outside. If there’s a good mix, make a mad dash for it. If there isn’t a cloud in the sky, stay in. It probably won’t be the most special sunset image you’ll take.

The best sunset photos happen when there are just enough clouds to reflect the purples and pinks as the sun goes down.

Up to a certain point, the more clouds the better. Sometimes there are so many clouds that they effectively block out the sun, and that pretty much destroys all those pretty colors. If you see a nice mix of blue sky and cloud, it’s probably going to be a very photographic sunset.

And this leads me to my final point. The key to taking great sunset pictures is to show up when the time is right. Seriously, that’s it. If you think it’s going to be a good sunset, drop everything you’re doing and get out there. Like many things in life, sunset photography is a numbers game. You’ve simply got to do it a lot to be there for that photographically perfect sunset.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.