How To Enhance A Sunset Photo :: Digital Photo Secrets

How To Enhance A Sunset Photo

by David Peterson 4 comments

I remember the first summer I got my digital SLR. Back then, I was just getting into everything you could do with, and I was positively fascinated with sunsets. I wanted to capture all of the colors, the reds, the purples, the in-betweens. The light at sunset is like nothing else. I remember religiously dropping everything I was doing and taking pictures at sunset for months straight.

As most of you know by now, the hard part about sunsets is that even though you’re surrounded by beauty on all sides, it’s very difficult to convey that beauty in your photos. You can’t just snap a photo and transport people to the scene you’re living in. There are no smells, no light breeze, no faint glow of the sun through the trees as you pass them by. They may exist as separate entities, but never as the one unified experience of a sunset.

So how do you bring that experience back? How do you recreate it in your photos? I happened to pick up a few tricks during those months on end photographing the sunset and all things surrounding it. None of them are very technical, but when you execute them correctly, it really make that sunset come to life. Try these out.

[Photo By Tom Bech]

Really, truly, get the colors right

Color is the reason you’re taking pictures at sunset in the first place. The biggest thing you can do for a sunset photo is get the colors right. By that, I mean looking for those warm oranges and purples and setting your camera’s exposure settings to capture them perfectly.

Manual mode is the best way to shoot sunsets with brilliant colors. If you're not sure what settings to use, first get your camera to take a shot with automatic or sunset mode and look at the EXIF data generated for that shot. That's a great place to start. Switch over to Manual mode and dial in those settings. Then you get to have some fun - start tweaking the settings like reducing the shutter speed slightly to create a photo better colors.

It’s not uncommon for me to play around with a bunch different shutter speeds, looking for the one that’s just right. This is not an easy feat, mind you. As the sun goes down, you have to increase your shutter speed every so slightly. Why? Simply put, there’s less light, and if you don’t, those oranges and purples will look too dark. Keep checking that LCD screen.

You’ll know you’ve got your colors right when you’re looking at that sunset photo and going oooohh.... aaahhh. If it doesn’t evoke some kind of emotional response, it’s not quite right yet. I’m talking about golden sunsets here. For every beautiful sunset, there is a shutter speed that will make it come out just right. If you haven’t found it yet, keep trying. You will.

Add Dramatic Silhouettes

A picture of the sun going down over any old hill is a rather bland sort of thing. There are no other players in the scene, just the sun. When you’re framing a sunset image, consider strategically placing people and things in the foreground to give it an added sense of drama. Create players.

The sunset over flagstaff Arizona.
The moon and the trees make it almost surreal.
Photo By Josef Rinderer

You may not realize it when you’re out enjoying the sunset, but the light isn’t the only reason a sunset is so dramatic. It’s all the objects the light filters through. Include the backlit trees with glowing edges. Place flowers in your foreground.

Look for Moisture

I know that sounds like an odd suggestion, but I’ve got my reasoning. Clouds and fog can break up the light from a sunset in many unique ways. They also add color. A far off cloud can turn an ordinary sky into a purple marvel. It might only last for a few minutes, but once you capture it, you’ll have it forever.

I’m always on the lookout for large cloud formations that don’t entirely block out the sun. I’m interested in fog wherever I can find it. Because the light from the sunset comes in at the sides, you can actually see the rays when you’re taking your photos through the fog. What a way to add drama to a scene.

The cloud cover in this image provides a great entryway for the light.
Photo By Flickr User dailyjoke23

Use Photoshop Elements

Once you’ve taken the image, you can always make it a little more dramatic with some of the tools available in Photoshop Elements. You’ll usually want to make your photo a little more colorful. There’s a really quick way to do that with the Adjust Color Curves option. You can find it by going to the top menu and selecting Enhance --> Adjust Color --> Adjust Color Curves. (It's called Levels with other paint programs and Photoshop CS.)

You don’t have to do any major tweaks here. I just click on the Increase Contrast option, and it’s usually enough. This will add a little more color contrast to your sunset images, helping them to stand out a little more.

If your sunset image already makes you say “ooohhh” and “aaaah,” there’s no need to bother with Photoshop Elements. It’s more of a tool you can use to get a little extra color in post-production that you couldn’t get from the camera itself. Be careful not to use it too much. If you do, your colors will bleed into each other, and you’ll lose a lot of the gradient between the different colors. This will make it look grainy.

The most important thing I can tell you is to get out of your comfort zone and avoid shooting sunset photos in automatic mode. Your camera doesn’t know right from wrong when it comes to doing sunsets. Take the time to learn manual mode or use shutter priority and sunset modes if you have them available to you. These modes allow you to tweak your shutter speed to perfection so you can get the colors just right every time.

That will make you say “aaaaahh.”

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  1. Selwyn Lang says:

    Homer has nodded. "As the sun goes down you need to decrease (not increase) shutter speed as there is less light".

  2. David Peterson says:


    Thanks, that's also a great tip. Fortunately the white balance / color temp can be changed later in a paint program if you forget to do it on the camera.


    I think you're right - looking at it now, it looks really wrong!


  3. Mark Adams says:

    Good tip.. thank you for that. Another thing which I find enhances sunset shots is to set the camera's colour temperature to 'daylight' (or 'flash', which is balanced for daylight).
    Auto White Balance shifts the image toward the blue end of the spectrum by increasing the colour temperature in an attempt to neutralize the image and thereby robs the sunset of those lovely warm golden hues.
    This simple adjustment, along with your tips on exposure, will definitely help in holding on to the quality of the light which is so typical of sunsets.

  4. Richard Gatley says:

    Hi Dave,

    I like your tips on varying the shutter speed to get true colours. However your photo of the moon over the trees looks a bit suspect. I would ahve thought that judging by the angle of illumination of the moon the sun should be up and away to the right, not down behind the trees. Photoshop wizardry perhaps?


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