What aspiring photographer doesn’t want to have great sunset photos from their vacation to show to friends? Who doesn’t want images that are high enough quality to display and sell?
Many beginners are attracted to photography by stunning images of sunsets and sunrises in exotic locations and many photographers have made their career by mastering sunset photography. However, mastering this subject matter requires knowledge, time and practice.
In this post, we will cover 12 tips for sunset photography. These tips will help you in creating stunning images during the golden hours—the period of intense colorful light when the sun is near the horizon—that will make you proud. Can’t wait to take breathtaking pictures? Let’s dive in.
While any sunrise or sunset may be breathtaking, an excellent photograph that captures the full natural beauty will require planning and set-up. Pick a location from which you can see the horizon where the sun will rise or set.
An ideal location will give you a vantage point for the sun light, ideally toward east or west. Look also for compelling subjects in the scene: a mountain, a river or just a tree or some stone that add interest in the scene.
Ask the experts: normally the people living close by, if you are far from your place, will be very happy to assist.
Once you choose a location, visit in advance to scout specific spots from which you can get the proper angle, at a sufficient distance, to capture the sun as it crosses the horizon. If the location is crowded, a good practice is to get there early in the morning when you have more chances to find the place empty.
Remember to turn around and check for spectacular scenes that may be unfolding behind you.
Have you ever missed the perfect moment because you were fumbling with your camera? To get the best photos of sunrise, when lighting conditions change quickly, arrive on location early enough to set up your equipment before the start of the “golden hour” or the "blue hour".
Remember to dress for significant temperature swings and bring a flashlight to help you set up and take down your equipment in the dark.
For sunsets, plan to stay for the “blue hour” after the sun goes down: shortly after the sun dips beneath the horizon, the sky will give you a further chance to capture a stunning image of a colorful gradient of colors along the horizon.
Don’t forget to check your local forecast listings for exact sunrise and sunset times to determine when you will need to be ready and to know what weather conditions to expect. Google will do perfectly for nearly any location.
Cloud cover and atmospheric conditions directly affect the quality of a sunset or sunrise. I recommend not to be discouraged if the atmospheric conditions are not those you expect. In any weather conditions there are opportunities for unique images – just adapt and use your creativity.
Plan which lenses you will use ahead of time to get the specific type of image that you want.
The focal length—the distance, in millimeters, between the center of your camera lens and the object of focus—of your lens will allow you to capture different details in your sunset and sunrise pictures. The minimum advised number of lenses to bring are a wide angle and a zoom: a 70 - 200 mm zoom lens will work well and will give you the full gear support to let your creativity flow.
When you use a wide angle lens, the distance between the foreground and background of your photo will appear exaggerated. A wide angle lens provides negative magnification: you will be able to capture small details with great clarity and your image will have a deeper depth of field.
A wide angle lens amplifies an ordinary lens’ tendency to make nearer objects appear larger than distant objects, so it is good for photos which emphasize a specific, ordinary sized object in the foreground against a majestic sunset. Images shot with a wide angle will make the sun appear smaller.
A zoom, or telephoto, lens captures detail at a greater distance than the human eye can, so choose a zoom lens for sunset photography if the foreground is distant from your vantage point or if want to narrow the perspective.
A zoom lens causes items in the foreground and the background to appear nearer to each other. Useful when you are in front of majestic natural scenes and you may not need to include too may subjects in the frame.
Do you want your images to have the dynamic impact of the moment? This is a great goal that you can achieve with a strong grasp of the fundamentals of composition.
Take care to purposefully frame your shot of a sweeping skyscape: typically, a perfectly centred image amounts to a relatively uninteresting composition. With the sun as main subject and light source of the image, you may want to place it out of the center to celebrate the warm light nuances on the rest of the scene.
As you explore how you frame and compose your photographs, you can use the rule of thirds: imagine a three-by-three grid over your camera’s view finder and place important points of the image at the intersection of two lines. This is not the only and the best composition rule but we suggest to master it and eventually break it.
Another useful landscape composition tip is to frame the horizon near the top of the photo if you want to emphasize the topography of your location, or near the bottom to emphasize an especially beautiful skyscape.
Are you regularly trying to take photos that convey the breathtaking drama of a sunset that you experienced in person? To convey the impact of a sunrise or sunset most effectively, consider the sky as the background rather than the entire image. When your image has a specific foregrounded object, your viewer will be able sense the scope of the scene.
Consider how the sunset or sunrise interacts with your location and make sure that your camera is set up with a clear line of sight to capture this interplay.
You may find your greatest success when you choose the foreground of your image first. A person, a structure, or an object can be used to emphasize the field of depth in the final photograph. Something that reflects the sunlight can help you make especially impactful photos.
An object close to the camera can help draw a viewer into the image. Alternately, a clear linear element can be used to direct the eye from the bottom of the photo to the focal point and create a compelling sense of depth.
An image partially out of focus can ruin even the most spectacular sunrise.
Consider what range you can effectively keep in focus while you plan your photographs.
There are few techniques that can come at hand when it comes to put all in focus.
Choose an object that is about one third of the way into the frame from the bottom. By focusing on an object at this point of the image, you will put more distant objects into focus as well. If your camera automatically focuses in the center of the frame, you can focus first and then recompose the image. If you are on a tripod this can be a hassle. It is far better to switch to manual focus in most of the circumstance to be as accurate as possible.
The hyper focal distance is the distance where you need to focus in order to have the maximum depth of field possible.
It is an essential tool in your toolbox to have as landscape photographer.
In practical terms you need to focus on a point in between the foreground and the background where they are both in focus.
The exact distance varies according to the focal length and the aperture you choose to use. There are tables which provide the values, so no need to the math every time.
Photographers use filters to capture specific images under particular lighting conditions or to achieve special effects with moving subjects as for example water flows with long exposures. Although they are an essential tools, there are drawbacks you need to be mindful of particularly when using filters for sunset and sunrise photography.
Primarily, a filter may lead to a loss of sharpness in your photographs; by adding another layer of glass in front of the lens, you are potentially reducing the resolution of your image. This is especially the case with low-cost filters.
Additionally, filters can cause colour cast—an unwanted tinting of the colours in your photo—and thus limit your ability to capture the full range of colour in a sunrise or sunset scene. While a human observer subconsciously corrects for such tinting, cameras often cannot; this is why a white object in a shadow may appear blueish. These issues can however be fixed when shooting raw and adjusting the white balance in post production.
Do you wonder how professionals get photographs that convey the full range of what can be seen in person? Cameras do not function like a human eye so you need to be creative if you want a detailed photo that shows great details in both the bright sky and the darker foreground of a high contrast sunset image. High Dynamic Range is one of the techniques that solve his problem. In brief you need to take multiple bracketed photos and combine then into a single image that mimics the full range of what the eye sees.
This approach can involve several steps from camera settings to using specific software for post processing the images. The extra preparation is worth it.
The first step is to master your camera’s exposure bracketing (AEB) function and the various adjustments.
This tip is rather obvious but when you shoot at low light conditions it is a basic one.
Perfect sunset pictures can be ruined by a slight tremble of your hand while snapping the picture. Since your carefully planned image may require a long shutter speed, the chance for blurring due to hand movements is especially high. To capture a crisply focused sunset or sunrise, the stability offered by a tripod is a must.
Sunrises and sunsets are dramatic sceneries and photos that capture the movement add the additional impact that make an image outstanding.
Moving clouds and water, especially, can convey the feeling of the scene that you are capturing.
If you want to include a moving object in the foreground, get close to the object and use a slow shutter speed that will capture a discernable movement. To make sure that the rest of the image remains in focus, you need to use a tripod to steady the camera for the extended exposure particularly with low ISO and narrow aperture settings.
Have you found that your photos of sunsets lack the rich colour that made the shot seem so compelling in the first place? Typically, the automatic white balance setting of your camera will lose some of the warm colours and the golden look of a compelling sunrise or sunset.
Your camera likely has some programmed settings that will help you address this issue: in many cases, selecting the “cloudy” or “shade” settings will help you capture the rich colors as they appear in person, though you may also experiment with the “raw” setting.
Silhouettes can help you create great images with a strong sense of atmosphere. They allow you to add a sense of mystery to the foreground of your sunset pictures since silhouettes both reveal and hide an object. With a silhouetted item in front of the sun, and the aperture set to either f/16 or f/22, you can capture unique atmospheric lighting with a strong foreground element.
Follow these sunrise photography tips to increase the quality of your photography exponentially. Some of these steps are easier to master than others, but you will see improvement right away as you follow these tips and create well framed images that convey the natural beauty of sunrises and sunsets.
As you improve your framing instincts and learn more about the basic technical settings of your camera, you will improve your overall photography skills and become ready to experiment more.
Despite the room for growth, you will already be capturing the inspiring sunrise pictures that were your initial inspiration.
Let us know what you found most helpful in the comments, and share this article if you found it useful!
Hi, I am Luca, founder and editor in chief at photographyambition.com. I am crazy about photography and I always have a camera with me. When I am not busy with my day job, enjoying my family or taking photos, I am on Photography Ambition to share what I have learnt so far.
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