If there’s one area that many people love, it’s this one: sunset photography. It is obvious and especially when you start photography, you like to take pictures of those beautiful golden evening lights (golden hours). I have to admit that I still take as much pleasure in photographing sunsets myself, even after several years! What about the long exposure at sunset then, magical?
The problem, so to speak, is that everyone today calls themselves a “photographer”, whether it’s with an iPhone 6, a small compact camera at 200$ or a top-of-the-range DSLR! In all cases, the main thing is to enjoy photographing the scene. However, people are not necessarily aware that sunset photography is a complex subject to deal with. The latest phones are often set to “HDR” mode and automatically compile several pictures of the same scene exposed to different lights, for a rendering that appears correct (on the screen) …
Today, the purpose of this article is to give you all the advice you need to shoot great sunset photos, whether from a technical point of view, as well as settings and camera equipment. The majority of these tips and techniques will work for both DSLR and mirrorless camera enthusiasts.
For me, that’s the first piece of advice that might sound silly when you say it like that, but it’s not. That’s just the basis. You’re not going to be able to watch the sunset anywhere, so I recommend thinking carefully. This might make you smile, but I’ve sometimes said to myself, let’s go and watch the sunset from over there, and we couldn’t see a thing! Therefore, I advise to look at this little software: The Photographer’s Ephemeris. It’s a great software that can really help you plan your pictures!
Assuming that you have found a good spot for your sunset photo, say a sandy beach for example, it will now be interesting to find particular spots, things that are out of the ordinary we will say. Because there’s nothing more banal than a beach with a sunset in front… The idea is to already think “composition” (we’ll come back to this later). As with any other landscape photo, look for what could help improve your picture, elements in the foreground, mountains in the background, rocks with a particular shape, basically anything that can “dress” your picture. It’s really important to know the location before coming to take your picture, otherwise you’ll be caught off guard and won’t have time to think about it. Which brings us to the next point.
Once you are fixed on the spot where you are going to photograph your sunset, the most important thing to remember is to arrive there in advance. If I were to tell you about my recent experience when I was in the United States during my road-trip, I would apply the same logic to take sunrise pictures in the beautiful Grand Teton National Park. I would really recommend arriving an hour before sunrise or sunset. You can refer to the website I mentioned in the paragraph above to find out the exact time of the sunrise/sunset.
There’s nothing worse than arriving 10 minutes before sunset and not knowing where to position yourself, what settings to apply, quickly get your tripod out, filters, etc.. In short, it is better to be prepared and arrive early. This will give you the opportunity to rethink your future composition.
In order, I would advise:
- To unpack all your photo equipment when you arrive, to install everything you need (photo accessories), if possible even before you leave (for filters),
- Once installed, start looking for the spot that might go for your sunset photo. If you already know the place (point n°1), go back there first to see if it’s still as interesting,
- Start shooting some “test pictures” to adjust your camera settings. Even if the “real sunset” and beautiful lights aren’t there yet, you’ll already be able to get an idea of the settings. In fact, the more you photograph during these hours, you will end up knowing the ideal settings for this type of photo by heart or almost (see below),
- Finally, try moving to another spot to look for other frames, points of view or composition.
This is a bit of offbeat advice, but clearly, you’re not really going to be able to predict the quality of the sunset without being in front of it. You may get a rough idea depending on the weather at the end of the afternoon, but I advise you to go there anyway, even if you have a doubt.
You’d be surprised how many times I went out for sunset pictures, without much conviction (because of bad weather) and the sunset turned out gorgeous. The opposite is also true, having moved several times for nothing on the same spot because the sunset was not great.
I take the example of a beautiful day with blue skies. Of course, it’s nice, but beautiful sunsets are rarely seen when there are not a few clouds on the horizon to give some relief to the image. On the contrary, if the horizon is completely blocked and very cloudy, the result will rarely be there, the classic orange/red/yellow colors being hidden by this cloudy mass.
In any case, if you have spotted a really nice place where you know you can capture a beautiful picture, it will sometimes be necessary to come back. It’s clearly easier if it’s not too far from home than if you’re on a two-week trip somewhere. For those of you who travel slowly and take your time, you should be able to come back to the same spot to take “the picture” you want.
Now this is where we get right to the heart of the matter and what will very often make you stand out from the crowd and differentiate you from other classic sunset pictures. Because a picture with a centered horizon and a sun illuminating a scene, everyone knows how to shoot… The main idea of this paragraph is of course to make you think about your framing. If you want to shoot a good sunset photo, I think it is essential. As soon as you think about what you want to shoot and how to enhance it, you will without a doubt get better pictures. The few points mentioned below are not to be taken separately but as a whole. You can easily combine the different “rules” below.
This is the classic rule in photography, a rule that does not apply only to sunset photography… It makes even more sense to me in landscape photography to highlight your subject. Try surfing the web and you will soon realize that in most cases, all the pictures you will find beautiful, will respect this famous rule.
For those who are not yet familiar with it, in a few words, it is a “rule” in photography, and in many other fields, in the broadest sense of the term (rather a guideline) that consists of composing one’s photo according to guidelines and points of interest. Your photo is cut out by two horizontal and vertical lines that give you 4 points of adhesion in your image. Here is my full article on the rule of thirds in photography.
I have not yet written a full article on the subject of guidelines in photography, but this is a second important point in my opinion for sunset photography. In short, the idea is to find natural lines in the scenery in front of you. It could be a dead branch, a line of erosion in the sand, a series of drifters, a wall, a series of stones, in short anything to guide the viewer’s eye. In general, you could use a point of attachment (something that will catch the eye, you might say) and guide the look towards that point of attachment.
Even if you are photographing a sunset, it is always important not to see only that in the picture and to be able to “dress the landscape” with a beautiful rock in the foreground or a dead branch that brings the attention to the beautiful golden lights in the background of the picture, will always be a plus.
Last point on the composition especially for sunset photography, try to always privilege either a foreground or a background, in this case the sky for this type of photo. It is usually very rare to center your horizon on a sunset picture and you will have to make a choice.
I tend to see it this way. If your sky is really beautiful, the kind of sky that is burning with clouds and splendid colors, then try to emphasize it by focusing on the sky in the picture. This way you can limit the foreground.
If you have a beautiful foreground in front of you, you may decide to highlight the sunset by dressing it with highlights and guidelines.
For landscape photography, the 16:9 format often gives more dynamic to the image. So try not to focus only on one format and think beforehand about what you want to achieve in the final frame.
Similarly, try to vary the landscape and portrait formats as much as possible. Out of habit, we often choose the landscape format for nature and landscape scenes, but we can very well take beautiful pictures in portrait mode.
It’s not an obligation per se, but I find it clearly gives your sunset photo a plus. This will of course apply mainly to sunset pictures by the sea. The purpose is to reduce the exposure time in order to obtain a milky, vaporous effect on the sea. Depending on what effect you wish to achieve, different techniques can be used. Everything will also depend on the time of shooting. Note (we’ll talk more about this below) that to do long exposures, you will need at least a tripod and often a neutral density filter (ND filter).
Here are 3 examples of long exposures taken at sunrise/sunset that give a certain atmosphere!
This is a general advice that I give very often even for landscape photography. Try to vary the orientation of your shots. You will always think of using mainly a wide-angle lens to obtain an effect of greatness of the places and to fit the maximum in the frame.
However, using a telephoto lens at sunset is clearly a very good solution to isolate specific subjects illuminated by the beautiful golden colors of the evening.
A common mistake many people tend to make is to leave as soon as the sun goes down. However, serious photographers are very familiar with the blue hour, that period just after the sun has left the horizon. During this time, the landscape takes on a beautiful bluish color that looks really good on a picture. So don’t miss these beautiful lights…
You can finally have fun with the sun rays during sunrises and sunsets taking backlit photos of silhouettes.
Here are my main tips for sunset photography. Be careful with your orientation in relation to the sun as this may cause reflections / flare on your picture.
In general, I often recommend in my articles to shoot in RAW format. If you are a beginner, you should know that you’ll need to use a post-processing software such as Photoshop or Lightroom to process your image. If you decide to shoot in RAW, don’t worry about the white balance since you will make this adjustment afterwards.
I would like to add a few words about camera settings when shooting. In general, this is what I would recommend:
- Put yourself in semi-automatic mode Av (Canon) or A (Nikon), i.e. aperture priority. You can also use manual mode if you are comfortable with it,
- Choose your desired aperture, usually a small aperture, f/11 to f/14 to get the whole image in focus (large depth of field). Note that with a wide-angle lens and infinity focus, using a large aperture may be possible, simply for the sake of avoiding the need to raise ISO. Indeed, the light will be weak in these situations and if you fix a small aperture (let’s say f/14), the shutter speed will not be enough for handheld use. In this case, you will have to raise the ISO to gain speed. If you have a tripod, this remark does not apply to you,
- Set the ISOs to the lowest to limit the appearance of digital noise,
- If you are in Av mode, look at the shutter speed displayed by your camera. If it is fast enough to shoot handheld, you can take the picture. If not, you can either double the ISOs to gain a speed stop, or open your aperture (change from f/14 to f/11) until you get a sufficient shutter speed.
Of course, if you own a tripod, it’s even better since you’ll be able to choose the camera settings you want, ideally f/11 and ISO at the lowest setting (50 or 100). You should also remove stabilization and turn off the mirror to limit blur.
The main difficulty you’re going to have is focusing and managing the big difference in scene brightness. Usually you have a darker foreground and a very bright background where the sun is. I normally advise you to always focus on the element closest to you (beach, rock, etc.), which with a small aperture (f/11-f/14) will guarantee you the whole scene in focus.
The problem you will have is that by measuring the exposure on the foreground or on a point in front of you (darker), you will have a sky that is much too bright, or even burned as we say in photography jargon (completely white, without any information). Most of the time, your camera will not be able to correctly expose the sky (very bright) and the foreground (dark). That’s where the graduated neutral density filters come into play, allowing you to block the light only on part of the image (the sky in this case).
I quickly explain below how to choose your GND filters (but you can refer to my full article on the subject). If you use this type of filter, all you need to do is place it in your filter holder or screw on the lens, maintain the same settings that you chose without filter and shoot again. Nothing simpler!
Another solution is to use HDR (“high dynamic range”), where most cameras set to HDR will only take a picture that will underexpose and then software overexpose to make a “virtual” combination, which in reality only allows you to retrieve information that was already present in the picture in the first place and could have been retrieved just as easily in RAW. You can take the photo several times by exposing successively for the sky then for the ground in order to really combine the photos later in a software like Lightroom. Be careful however not to abuse it at the risk of obtaining results very far from reality. Some photographers love the effect, but personally, it’s often too much for me to get a natural result. Moreover, I prefer to spend time behind my camera rather than behind a screen.
To go further here is a complete article on low light and indoor photography.
I end this article with a few tips on how to choose the right equipment for this type of photo. So yes, you can take sunset pictures with an entry-level DSLR, no worries, but I consider that some equipment is more suitable than others. Here are my thoughts on the subject.
There is of course no “special sunset camera” body, but in general, the bigger the size of the sensor, the better the ISO management will be, both in low ISOs (the bodies have a better dynamic range) and in high ISOs. The quality of your photos will be better if you choose a Full Frame or APS-C camera, cameras like the 80D (Canon) / D5600 (Nikon) / X-T30 (Fuji) / A6000 (Sony) – (APS-C) or 6D Mark II (Canon) / D750 (Nikon) / A7 II (Sony) – (full format) will do very well in this kind of situation.
I have already mentioned this succinctly in the article. The interest is to limit the amount of light that arrives on the brightest part of your image (at the top). To know everything about graduated neutral density filters (GND), you can refer to the article in the section “camera accessories”. Remember the following points:
- You will have to buy a filter holder system to place your GND filter. I use the one from Lee which is very good, but there are others recognized from Nisi for example (renowned for its GND too). There are also screwable graduated filters but that I recommend less,
- To place your filter holder, you will need an adapter ring, to choose between a standard and a wide-angle model (depending on the focal length used). You will need to choose the diameter of the ring according to the lens you are using. I use the wide-angle ring from Lee,
- The type of filter should be chosen: Soft or Hard depending on where you use it the most (mountain, sea, etc.),
- Finally, you will have to choose the density of the filter, specifically, the darkness of the upper part of the filter. For sunsets, I recommend at least GND filters with a density of 0.9 or even 1.2. You can also look at reverse filters which are GND filters suitable for sunsets (the darkest part starts in the middle of the filter and degrades upwards).
Here is a table summary of what I personally recommend regarding GND filters.
|Model||Brand||Use||Find the best price|
|GND Reverse filter||Lee||Sunset / Sunrise||Amazon|
|GND Reverse filter||Nisi||Sunset / Sunrise / Low light||Amazon|
|GND Soft Edge Filter 0.9||Lee||Hill / Mountain / Non-linear landscape||Amazon|
|GND Soft Edge Filter 0.9||Nisi||Hill / Mountain / Non-linear landscape||Amazon|
|GND Hard Edge 1.2 filter||Lee||Linear landscape (sea with horizon)||Amazon|
|GND Hard Edge 1.2 filter||Nisi||Linear landscape (sea with horizon)||Amazon|
|Filter holder||Lee||To place the GND filter||Amazon|
|Filter holder||Nisi||To place the GND filter||Amazon|
|ND64 filter (6 stops) - Little Stopper||Lee||Perfect for long exposure at this time||Amazon|
|ND1000 filter (10 stops) - Big Stopper||Lee||For very very long exposure||Amazon|
|ND64 screw-on filter B + W 106||B+W||To screw on the lens directly||Amazon|
|Circular polarizing filter 105mm||Lee||To be placed in front of the filter holder||Amazon|
|Adapter ring for polarizer 105mm||Lee||To adapt the polarizer 105mm||Amazon|
|Hoya HD polarizing filter||Hoya||Perfect for saturating colors||Amazon|
I’ll talk about it very quickly in the article, but you’ll sometimes want to increase the exposure time when shooting to give an effect of movement, especially for sunsets by the water’s edge (sea/river). Even if you optimize your camera settings to get the longest exposure time (lowest ISO and small aperture (f/14)), the time displayed by the camera may not be enough to get a real long exposure.
This is where ND filters come into play. The purpose of the ND filter is to block, more or less strongly depending on the density of the filter, the amount of light that reaches your sensor. Keep in mind that you can use circular ND filters (without filter holder) but that you cannot combine them with a GND filter (a filter holder is mandatory). If you want to combine GND + ND filters, you will have to use square ND filters and place them first in one of the slots of your filter holder.
Personally, I use the Lee Litle Stopper filter (ND64) for my sunset/sunrise exposures which reduces the speed by 6 stops. I find it ideal for low light conditions such as sunsets. The ND 1000 filters will be too opaque and will result in exposures that are too long, lasting several minutes. If your goal is to completely blur the sea, then yes, why not.
I don’t talk about them in the article especially because they are not mandatory for sunsets, but it can be interesting to use them especially at sea (to see through the water) and in the mountains (to limit atmospheric haze). I use Lee’s 105mm polarizing filter to increase color saturation and contrast. I also often recommend the HD model from Hoya which are of very good quality. Be careful when you decide to stack filters, otherwise vignetting may appear on the edge of the photos (simply black edges of the filter).
The purpose of this article is not to tell you everything you need to know about tripods (I already did that in a dedicated article). Just keep in mind that if you want to use an ND filter, and if you want to avoid blurred movements, it will be necessary to use a tripod. The choice will mainly depend on the weight of your camera equipment. I personally own the Sirui M-M3204X which I am very happy with. If you can, I would recommend putting a minimum of 150$ in your first tripod.
Last small photo accessory, the remote control. There’s no need to invest in a high-end remote control, small models do the job very well in my opinion. I personally have this model. The remote control will be very appreciated for long exposures on a tripod.
I’m now coming to the end of this article. I hope you appreciated the advice. You should now be able to shoot great sunset photos. If you are used to taking pictures during these hours, would you have any other advice to give that I might have forgotten? Personally, it is on the beach where I take the most pleasure in photographing a sunset! What about you?
If you are interested in photography techniques and in particular landscape photography, I invite you to read the article on exposure on the right.
I hope to speak to you soon and wish you beautiful sunset pictures.