How To Get The Perfect Golden Sun :: Digital Photo Secrets

How To Get The Perfect Golden Sun

by David Peterson 15 comments

I only have one word for this shot. WOW! Of course, I am a sucker for a great sunset photo. The way the bright orange just bursts forth and diffuses itself through the clouds will always take my breath away. We discussed how you can take pictures like this in a previous tutorial, but I would like to use this critique to discuss it in more detail. It takes a lot of playing around with camera settings to get something like this. The more patient you are, and the more you enjoy trying out different settings, the more likely you are to stumble upon a shot like this one.

This photo was sent in by David Lambert. He told me he is happy with the way the color turned out, and he said the “boat isn’t completely silhouetted.” I don’t know, David. I think you hit the boat right on the money. There are a lot of great things about this photo. So many, in fact, that it’s hard to know where to start.

How to get the perfect golden sun

So let’s start with the sun. If there is any reason to learn how to use the manual settings on your camera it is in order to take a good picture of the sun. David had no choice but to manually control the shutter speed on his camera. Whenever you point a camera directly at the sun and try to take a picture of it with the automatic settings, your camera gets confused by all of the extra light and ends up taking the picture with a very fast shutter speed. This will result in a very dark picture.

Why won’t the automatic mode allow you to take a photo like this? Well, think of it this way. The software in your camera was designed to take one kind of picture the best, and that is a picture of something with a light source on it. The programmers never figured out a way to program the camera to “know” when you are taking a picture of the light source itself, so the automatic mode will always fail to capture sunsets correctly. The software just keeps assuming you are trying to take an ordinary picture.

Playing around with manual settings

David got a fantastic golden orange color in this photo. To get it, he had to use the manual mode and play around with the camera’s shutter speed, checking his work along the way. For the sake of learning something new, let’s assume he started with an aperture of f8 and a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second. He then took this picture, but it turned out too dark.

The next step for David, and for you, is to ratchet down the shutter speed one notch to, say, 1/750 sec and see what colors it produces. Is the picture too dark? Is it too bright? Keep asking yourself these questions and continue to tweak the settings until you hit the perfect combination of aperture and shutter speed. The key to using manual settings on your camera is to be willing to experiment. Never assume you know what will work right away. Always check again and again.

Always start with the aperture

Some people tell me they don’t know where to start with manual photography, and I always tell them to start with the aperture. If you know which aperture you’re going to use, everything else just falls into place. While I can’t tell you which aperture photos are best for all kinds of photos in this small space, anything between f8 and f11 will work really well for a sunset photo like this one.

Why would I choose any aperture between f8 and f11? These aperture values are versatile. They provide just enough depth of field and detail without putting everything in the frame too sharply into focus. With the aperture slightly closed like this, David cannot miss the boat (quite literally!).

For the record, David chose 1/400 shutter speed, f5.6 and ISO 100 for his great shot.

I should also mention how important it is to practice your manual settings and to keep trying to take pictures like this. The sun is never just above the horizon for very long. The quicker you are with your camera’s settings, the better chances you will have of getting the best shot possible for the situation you are in. Don’t give up. When you anticipate a great sunset like this is going to happen, grab your camera and run for the door. You might get as lucky as David did here.

I want to thank David again for this shot. It demonstrates a grasp of manual camera settings that can take quite some time to learn.

And to everyone else, please keep sending me your photos. I enjoy writing these as much as you enjoy reading them!

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  1. Roy Chávez says:

    I am confused, everybody says: don't shoot into the sun, you can get blind, well, how do I take a sunset without point to the sun. I guess I sound stupid, but I don't have another pair of eyes. Can you help? Thanks.

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Roy,

      When the sun is low on the horizon, it's usually okay to look at it directly (or through the viewfinder) as it's intensity is a lot less than at midday.

      Alternatively, use your camera's screen to compose the shot rather than the viewfinder. You'll never damage your eyes by looking at the screen.


  2. David says:

    Another trick you can do is to change your White Balance out of Auto and set it to either "Shade" or "Cloudy". This will bias the overall color tone to a nice warm yellow/orange color cast which is perfect for a sunset shot :-)

  3. Stephen says:

    Hi David,
    I am a beginner.
    Do I need tripod for this kind of photos and those setting you talk about (F8, F11, 1/750sec...)?

    • abullaa says:

      if 1/15sec then you will need a tripod for sure for any kind of photography :D

  4. Ajithaa says:

    I would like to send my sunset photo for your comments. Is there an email address I could use for emailing?

  5. Melissa says:

    This photo is wonderful. I was trying to do such a photo a couple of days ago, but without Photoshop, it is not nearly as wonderful as this. David, can you kindly talk about the set up on this photo. What metering mode was used and where do you take your light reading from? I am assuming spot from another tutorial. It it best to over expose?

    Thank you for the tutorials. They are so helpful. I am such a novice and to get the correct combination of settings is a challenge!

  6. David Peterson says:

    Hi Vincent,

    The EXIF details are almost always stored with your image when you take your photo with a digital camera (or phone with a camera). You just need special software to view them. I have an article on What is EXIF as well as How to use EXIF data to take better photos.


  7. vincent says:

    hi David, thanks for all the great tuturials. I have learned a lot but still can't get enough. My question is, how do we save the exif data together with the picture? Seeing the pictures taken with the data of how it was taken would be a great way to learn. tnx

  8. Ken monee says:

    Wow! What a great shot. I'm just a beginner. I Finally bought a dslr and am in love with it. I hope to learn enough to capture such a gem. I love this website. Keep it coming.

  9. emer says:

    This is indeed a great shot, very inspiring for beginners like.

  10. Frederico Derschum says:

    Was there any kind of filtering used? Polarizing, UV, etc?

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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+.