There’s no big secret that sunset photography is popular. What’s not to love about a beautifully pink or dramatically red sky?
It takes something special to have your golden hour images stand out from the crowd as there’s an abundance of images with nice colorful skies. However, far fewer can be considered impactful.
So what does it take to create professional-looking images of sunsets? How can you tell a story beyond the colorful sky?
The good news is that there isn’t all that much extra that needs to be done. It’s often enough to make just a few simple changes in your approach. Let’s find out what.
#1 Arrive Early and Stay Late
Patience is a key ingredient in becoming a better photographer. You can’t expect to simply show up, fire off a couple of shots, and leave with great images. Those situations are rare.
Instead, you need to arrive at the location early and stay late. This will drastically increase the likelihood of returning home with great images.
Exactly how early you should arrive depends on the location. If it’s one that you’ve never visited before, you want to arrive extra early so you have enough time to explore the area and find the best compositions. If it’s your local go-to, you might not need as much time. In that case, you just need to be all set up before the best light arrives (though it’s not a bad idea to shoot through the different phases of a setting sun either)
I also recommend staying for a while after the light starts fading. It’s not over before it’s over. Sometimes the best light comes unexpectedly late or closer to blue hour. There’s no worse feeling than being in the car on your way home when the light suddenly becomes amazing!
Trust me, I speak from experience.
#2 Know the Sun’s Position
There certainly is a fair bit of luck involved in sunset photography but there are some factors you should pay attention to in order to increase the chances of capturing impactful images. The sun’s position is one of them.
Knowing where the sun will be during sunrise or sunset is important in order to get an idea of what the light will do. It means you know whether your main subject will be bathed in light or left in the shadow. Knowing how the light affects the landscape will better prepare you for what’s to come.
It also gives you an idea of how the sky takes on color. Of course, there are more factors involved in colorful clouds but the sun is definitely one of them.
A common misconception about sunset photography is that the sun needs to be in a particular direction. This is not true! Good light comes in many variations. It doesn’t matter if you get backlight, sidelight or if you shoot directly into the sun. What matters is that you adapt to the light you’re given.
#3 Watch Out for Lens Flare
Lens flares are one of a sunset photographer’s worst enemies. They can be hard to avoid, especially when photographing towards the sun, and they instantly remove the ‘wow’ factor an image could’ve had.
There are two basic methods to avoid unwanted lens flares:
- Use a lens hood (though this doesn’t work when using filters)
- Adjust your perspective until the sun is out of the frame
These methods work ok in most scenarios but they aren’t ideal. The first option doesn’t work when using filters and the second means you’re altering the composition.
The third option is to capture two or more images that are to be blended together in post-processing. This is a slightly more advanced alternative but it works wonders.
Start by placing the camera on a tripod. Set up your composition and take the shot. Now, place a couple of fingers in front of the lens and cover up the sun, such as in the example below. Then take a shot. Make sure that there are no more flares in the landscape.
The next step is to blend the two images together in post-processing using a software such as Adobe Photoshop or Luminar 4. This is done by opening both images as layers (where the covered image is placed on top), then using a black brush on a white layer mask to paint back the sky.
Recommended Reading: Understanding Layers and Masks in Photoshop
There are going to be some of you who want to comment and say that lens flares can add an extra dimension to a photo. You are, of course, right. What we’re talking about here are unintentional lens flares. Those, you want to avoid.
#4 Avoid Silhouetted Landscapes
Just as with lens flares, there are scenarios where a silhouetted landscape can do wonders for a photograph. But, again, that’s only when they’re intentional.
Generally speaking, unintentional silhouettes are distracting and an indicator that the photographer is new to the craft. Focusing primarily on the sky while leaving the lower portion of the image pure black makes the storytelling much harder.
Silhouetted landscapes are, unfortunately, very common when photographing sunsets. The high dynamic range of the scene, i.e. bright sky and dark landscape, make it difficult to correctly expose the photo. There are two main methods you can apply to avoid this:
- Expose for the landscape. This means using a longer shutter speed to introduce details into the foreground. In some cases, it might lead to overexposing the sky.
- Use a Graduated Neutral Density filter to darken the sky. This is a great way to balance the exposure and brighten the foreground without overexposing the sky.
Modern cameras have drastically improved their dynamic range performance and you are able to recover details in a bright sky and bring them out from dark shadows. So, combining one of the two options with some basic raw adjustments in your photo editor will help your sunset photography a lot.
#5 Bracket Images
Exposing for the landscape or using a Graduated Neutral Density filter isn’t always the best solution. Sometimes the dynamic range is too big, other times there’s a mountain or object projecting from the horizon. Whatever the reason might be, those basic solutions won’t always work.
That’s when you need to bracket the images and do some magic in post-processing. It’s a technique very similar to what we looked at when avoiding lens flare. The main difference is that instead of placing your fingers in front of the sun, you capture multiple images with different exposures. For example, you can capture one image exposed for the sky and one for the landscape.
This gives you two files that then need to be blended together in post-processing. You can put the darker exposure on top and paint back the landscape, or vice versa. The result is an image that is correctly exposed in both the sky and foreground.
Now, this is a more advanced technique that requires a certain understanding of post-processing. Most importantly, it requires practice. When it’s done right, this technique is brilliant. When it’s done wrong, however, it looks bad.
Recommended Reading: Capture the Full Dynamic Range by Taking Multiple Exposures
I recommend capturing a few images with different exposures and using these to practice your blending in Photoshop. When you get comfortable with the basic methods, you can use Luminosity Masks to get even better results.
#6 Experiment with Shutter Speeds
The shutter speed is arguably the most important camera setting when it comes to the creative aspect of photography. Even slight adjustments can make a significant difference.
There’s no blueprint of what works best. It often comes down to personal preferences. Personally, I’m a fan of what water looks like when using a slow shutter speed. It makes less of a difference when there are no moving elements in the frame.
This tip is best explained with some visuals so let’s take a look at the same image shot with at different shutter speeds:
- Image 1 has a shutter speed of 1/25th second
- Image 2 has a shutter speed of 20 seconds
As you can see, the difference is significant. Personally, I find the image with a slower shutter speed much more interesting. It adds a new dimension and steps away from reality. The first photo is ok but feels a little more ordinary.
Experimenting with shutter speeds is still a big part of my workflow. While I have an idea of what an image will look like with a quick or slow shutter speed, I still set aside time to try different settings. Having Neutral Density filters is crucial for this.
#7 Use Different Focal Lengths
It’s not only the shutter speed you should experiment with; the focal length is just as important. I’ve written extensively about the importance of focal lengths before and have gone in-depth about this in my eBook ‘A Comprehensive Introduction to Landscape Photography‘ but it’s worth repeating.
An image captured at 14mm will have a completely different meaning than one captured at 200mm, an image shot at 200mm will be different than one shot at 400mm.
Again, there’s no right or wrong. This is another aspect that comes down to personal preferences but it also depends on the scenery you’re photographing. Some situations benefit from a long focal length while others look better when shot at an ultra-wide angle.
Having at least two lenses with different focal lengths is going to be a huge advantage in your development as a photographer. Not only will you be able to photograph a large variety of scenes but you’ll also learn to better observe your surroundings.
It wasn’t until I started photographing with a telezoom that I learned to look beyond the grand landscape and appreciate the smaller details it consists of.
#8 Focus on the Composition
All the tips shared above are important parts of improving your sunset photography but they make little difference unless the image has a good composition. This is the fundament of a good photo.
I know that it’s easy to get carried away when the sky is exploding in colors. In those moments, you forget about everything else. But it’s also in those moments you need to take a deep breath and put a little extra effort into your image. At least if you’re aiming to become a better photographer.
The most important part when setting up your composition for sunset photography is to incorporate the sky into the composition. Yes, that often means you include less of the sky. Less sky means more foreground, so it’s essential that you find a foreground and composition that guides the viewer through the frame.
A sky is there to complement the rest. It’s the icing on the cake!
Sunset photography is without a doubt popular amongst landscape photographers. The golden light and colorful skies look great in a photo. It’s also the perfect time to be outside and simply observe.
Capturing a great sunset photo doesn’t come without challenges. Dealing with the dynamic range, light, lens flare, and even the sun’s positioning can be frustrating. A few simple mistakes are enough to make an image less appealing.
Luckily, it doesn’t take that much extra effort to create a beautiful image. Implement the tips above and you’ll quickly see a difference. Are you ready to get back out there?
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