The first thing I was told to do when I wanted to learn how to photograph landscapes and cityscapes, was to always shoot during the sunset. I have always asked myself why, but the answer is actually pretty easy. You get amazing colors in the sky, dramatic clouds, and soft light.
You can photograph the most beautiful place in the world and I can guarantee you, it will look much better during the sunset. The only problem with this mindset, is that you will never take another image in the middle of the day. If I find a really cool spot to photograph, but there won’t be any sunset anytime soon, my go to option is to create a desaturated long exposure. The second option is to come back another day.
In this article, I am going to give you some tips on how to shoot sunsets to get the best results possible. These tips can also be applied to photographing a sunrise, if you have the energy to wake up at 5am and go outside.
How to predict the best sunsets
Depending on where you live, the sunset will be different. You can’t really predict a nice sunset, but there are some signs that can help you decide wether you should go out and give it a try or not. Of course, I would recommend going out and photographing all the time, but if you’re a busy person and do not want to go back home frustrated, then you should consider these few tips.
There are some areas in the world where sunsets are not vivid, and you won’t see any colors in the sky. For example, I have lived in the United Arab Emirates for a year and during that period I have only witnessed around 10 beautiful sunsets (no joke). However, when I go to the south of France, there is a dramatic and vivid sunset everyday.
One of the better sunsets in the United Arab Emirates. This is considered as an amazing sunset over there, but in reality it is just very average.
An amazing sunset in the south of France: I was really surprised because I got the same sunset five days in a row. and it wasn’t even summer.
There is a simple reason explaining this – clouds make all the difference. I am talking about patchy white clouds with a blue sky. These clouds will catch some amazing colors and give you the best results possible when the sun sets.
There were some patchy clouds in the sky, and during the sunset the colors turned out really nice in this image.
If there aren’t any clouds, then your sunset will be pretty boring. You will only have a nice gradient of color going from blue to orange.
Example of a sunset without any clouds.
I usually don’t bother going out when there is an overcast day to shoot sunsets, because the results are quite disappointing. The clouds cover the sky and you can’t see it, so you will end up having no colors at all.
If there is some light rain during the evening, then you can be pretty sure you will get an amazing sunset. I really can’t explain it, but trust me, it works all the time.
Planning and patience
Planning is the most important thing, I would recommend going to the location around 30 minutes before the start of the sunset to compose your shot, especially if you don’t know the location.
With sunsets, the scene can change very very quickly. I highly recommend composing your shot, placing your camera on the tripod, and not moving until the sunset is totally finished.
Sometimes a nice color can appear on a cloud for only two minutes, and if you’re not ready then you won’t be able to photograph it. There is an app called Magic Hour which you can download on your mobile device (for iOS only) Based on your location, it will give you the time that magic hour begins, the time of the sunset, and the time it ends. It also does the same thing for the sunrise the next morning.
With this information, you have the time to look around, try different compositions, and decide which one works best. I will repeat – once you find your composition, place your tripod, and do not move it. It’s better to have one good photo of a sunset then five different average ones.
You will stay behind your tripod for 30 minutes, taking an image every time the sunset changes, with the clouds moving and new colors appearing. It is quite frustrating, but at the end you will have the best composition possible, with an image of the best clouds, and the best colors of the whole evening.
I waited in the cold for one hour to photograph this sunset. At first it looked terrible, but it started developing very well. I ended up having some nice cotton candy looking clouds.
Lens and composition
I would recommend using a wide angle lens to capture the whole scene, if you’re going to compose your image to include some foreground, middle ground and background, which I highly recommend. This enables the viewer to position himself in the image, and it adds a good sense of depth. Also, try to make the sky or the foreground at least a third of the image.
The trees as the foreground, the Eiffel Tower as the middle ground, and the sky as the background, all give nice depth to this image.
If you cannot find that type of composition, then using a long lens can be a good alternative, while using the rule of thirds.
I could not find a good composition for this shot, so I used a long lens to compress everything. and composed it using the rule of thirds.
Composing my shot using the rule of thirds.
Settings and extra gear
A tripod is essential because you will want to shoot with an aperture between f/8 and f/13 for sharp images, and ISO 100 for the best image quality. This cuts down the light quite a lot, and you will end up having a slow shutter speed to compensate. To avoid any shaky images, use a tripod with a cable release or a two second timer.
I highly recommend exposing your images for the highlights (which means you are exposing for the sky). The rest of the image will be underexposed, but if you’re shooting in RAW you will be able to recover details in the shadows.
Another solution is to use a graduated neutral density filter that will cut down the light on your highlights in the sky, and keep your mid-tones and shadows well exposed.
A graduated filter that you can stack.
I usually leave my white balance on auto, because with RAW files I can take more time to change it on Lightroom. If you’re shooting JPEG, the white balance that works the best with sunsets is Shade or Cloudy. It gives a nice warm magenta color to the image, and makes the vivid colors in the sky pop more.
Polarizing filters are also a good alternative to recover details in the sky, and make the colors more saturated without any post-production.
Using manual focus can be useful if it gets too dark and your lens has trouble focusing by itself.
For sunsets, in my opinion the best thing to do is to get creative – either do HDR or digital blending.
In both cases, it’s better to take three different exposures to get the full dynamic range of the scene. Especially because there will be a lot of contrast between the brights and the darks, it’s difficult to get all the details. You can merge the exposures automatically with a software, or manually with luminosity masks.
This sunset looks good, but because I did not shoot three different exposures you can see in the middle there are white pixels in the sky that I could not recover.
You can also get creative by doing long exposures and stretching the clouds. And of course you always have Photoshop and Lightroom to finish your art the way you like it.
This is an example of a creative sunset: I shot 3 different exposures, a long exposure of the clouds, a long exposure of the car trails one hour later, and merged everything on Photoshop to get the best of both worlds.
Now it’s your turn. Do you have any other sunset photography tips to share? Please do so, and share your images as well, in the comments below.