"Sunset Photography Fundamentals and Actionable Tips” is part of the Photography Basics series on PhotoTraces. You can find the rest of the articles here: Photography Basics.
When you read or hear the expression, “Photography is all about light,” you clearly understand the definition of each word; however, the true meaning from a photography perspective can be elusive. It takes time to fully grasp.
I clearly remember my first true photography experiment that accelerated my understanding of the basics of photography in regard to light.
It was a family camping trip. We had our campsite set on the beach of a small lake nestled in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal. I had plenty of time to experiment with my new Canon Digital Rebel. I set the camera on a tripod and took one picture every hour without changing the camera’s position or settings.
I took a total of 17 shots.
Back home, I transferred the photos to my computer and started analyzing them in Photoshop (Lightroom did not yet exist). I was completely astonished by the results of my seemingly simple experiment.
Depending on the time of day, the location was completely unrecognizable. Any photo taken during the middle of the day looked washed out and quite boring. On the other hand, the photos taken during sunset and sunrise looked vibrant and full of energy.
Anatomy of Light in Sunset Photography
In outdoor photography, the sun is the predominant light source with the earth’s atmosphere acting as a giant diffuser, softening the light as it passes through. Because of the position of the sun in the middle of the day, sunlight travels through the atmosphere almost vertically, taking the shortest distance to reach the surface of the earth. The effect of the atmosphere as a diffuser is minimal.
The midday light produces photos with harsher shadows and stronger highlights.
Before sunset in the evening, the sun is low to the horizon and, as a result, sunlight travels a much longer distance through the atmosphere. The diffusive effect of the atmosphere is more prominent and produces an image with much softer light that creates softer shadows and highlights.
It is easy to understand why the most favorable times for photography are the hours around sunrises and sunsets, which are also known as the “Magic Hours.”
Magic Hours consists of Golden Hour and Blue Hour. It starts with the Golden Hour approximately 30-60 minutes before sunset. After the sun disappears behind the horizon, the Golden Hour transforms into the Blue Hour. The Magic Hours end approximately 30-60 minutes after sunset, which gives us about 1-2 hours of favorable light.
According to Photopills, the Golden Hour occurs when the sun is 6 degrees above the horizon and it ends when it falls to -4 degrees below the horizon.
The characteristics of the Golden Hour are soft, diffused light with a warm golden glow that produces long, soft shadows.
The Blue Hour occurs after sunset when the position of the sun is between -4 and -6 degrees below the horizon.
The characteristics of the Blue Hour are the much darker sky, especially when compared to the Golden Hour, and soft textures that feature predominantly cool, blue hues.
The beauty of sunset photography is that it produces different visual effects in a very short period of time because the quality of light constantly changes. At the same time, it creates complexity. And you, as a photographer, must be ready for the changes and adjust your photography technique accordingly
Sunset Photography Tips
To help you take control of your sunset photography, I put together a list of sunset photography tips.
Tip #1: Invest in Scouting and Research
I consider scouting and research to be the most critical part of sunset photography. Because the duration of favorable light during sunset is limited and the lighting condition changes every minute, we are not given any extra time for experiments and tests.
Ideally, you need to know where to show up, exactly when and what to shoot.
I have the most success with sunset photography when I have a chance to scout the location during the day prior to the sunset shooting. In the middle of the day, I have plenty of time to evaluate the location for the composition, the potential camera placement, lens selection, focal length and so on. Often, as a visual reminder, I snap a few shots with my cell phone with potential composition choices.
I use the Exsate Golden Hour smartphone app to identify the sun's sunset trajectory and the exact spot where the sun will touch the horizon.
I also use Exsate Golden Hour to pinpoint the exact time of the beginning of the Golden Hour, sunset, and the end of the Blue Hour.
Normally, I show up 1.5 hours prior to sunset to ensure that I have enough time to set everything up. I leave around one hour after sunset.
Tip #2: Identify Foreground Elements
It is tempting to photograph the beautiful and colorful sky during sunset since it’s easy to forget that beautiful colors do not, by default, produce meaningful composition. For this, you need a point of interest in the foreground—something like a tree, a rock, a stream, a beach, etc. to create the connection between the foreground and the background to lead viewers into the composition.
Since there is not enough time for creative research during the Magic Hours, it is best to identify the point of interest in the foreground when you scout the location during the day.
Tip #3: Shoot RAW
This is extremely important. When shooting sunsets, you will face the scene with an extended dynamic range of light with exceptionally bright highlights and dark shadows. You will need all the help you can get to recover the shadows and highlights. Shooting in RAW gives you a much better chance at producing a stunning final image without blown highlights or clipped shadows.
Plus, when shooting RAW, you do not have to worry about the White Balance since it can be nondestructively adjusted later during editing.
Tip #4: Use HDR Photography
In some cases, when the dynamic range of light is extreme and exceeds the dynamic range of the camera sensor—which happens quite often—you won't be able to capture the entire range of light even when shooting RAW. In those cases, you must learn how to employ HDR technology.
Trust me, I know HDR sounds intimidating.
The good news is that with the introduction of the HDR Merge module in Lightroom 6, the process of producing HDR images is straightforward and simple. You do not need a dedicated HDR program or even Photoshop. Everything can be done in Lightroom alone.
Tip #5: Shoot Directly into the Sun
I must admit, shooting into the sun is challenging. The dynamic range is extreme and the shot can quickly be ruined with unwelcomed flares since the camera meter can easily be fooled by an extremely bright sun. But, if you manage to master shooting into the sun, you will produce unique and distinguished photos that are well beyond the reach of casual point-and-shoot and mobile phone shooters.
Tip #6: Take Advantage of Starburst Effect
The Starburst Effect is a shooting technique where you select the smallest possible aperture and shoot directly into the sun. The small aperture exaggerates the rays of light making them more visible and prominent.
When I shoot directly into the sun, I start with a normal aperture and, at the end of the series of shots, I crank the aperture to f/20-f/22 and take a couple of shots to produce a Starburst Effect. I can decide later during editing if I want to use a regular shot or the high aperture starburst version.
Tip #7: Shoot in Aperture Priority Mode
When I was first learning photography, I was taught to use manual mode when shooting in difficult lighting conditions such as sunset and sunrise. But, I later found that using Manual Exposure Mode does not work for me. It slows me down.
When shooting sunsets, the lighting conditions constantly change. Most often, it is a consistent decrease in the amount of light. But, in cases when the sky is covered with clouds, the amount of light affecting the camera meter can go up and down in waves. I find it very inefficient to continually evaluate and change the exposure when using the Manual Metering Mode. I find that the Exposure Metering systems on modern cameras are very accurate and can handle most conditions. The Aperture Priority Mode suits me the best.
I set the ISO to a value of 100, the aperture between f/9-f/11, and let the camera automatically set the shutter speed.
My next tip covers extreme conditions when the camera’s metering system needs a little help.
Tip #8: Use Exposure Compensation
Rather than using the Manual Metering Mode, I prefer to use Aperture Priority (see the previous tip) in combination with Exposure Compensation to adjust the exposure manually.
For example, when shooting directly into the sun, the camera metering system is fooled on a regular basis. Because of the extremely bright area around the sun, the camera assumes that the scene is brighter than it is and, as a result, underexposes the photos. To correct it, all I do is set the Exposure Compensation to +1EV.
It is the same logic as shooting snow scenes. You know in advance that the bright snow always fools the camera metering system and you simply use the Exposure Compensation to correct it.
Tip #9: Set Exposure For Highlights
As even a general rule of landscape photography to set the exposure for the brightest areas of the scene, this becomes even more critical with sunset photography. You can always recover the dark areas of the scene when editing, but if the brightest areas (i.e. the sky and sun) are blown, there is no way to recover them because there is no information there.
Set the exposure for the highlights, keep the shadows underexposed and recover them later in Lightroom. (Do not forget Tip #2)
Tip #10: Bracket your Shots
Auto Exposure Bracketing is the functionality of the camera that allows us to take multiple shots of the same subject with different exposure values. In modern cameras, the process is fully automated—you press the shutter and the camera takes multiple shots at predefined exposure increments.
This serves two purposes. First, it is an insurance in case you do not get the right exposure with one shot. Second, it gives us a choice to use the HDR photography technique or Luminosity Blending when editing photos.
Tip #11: Watch for Lens Flare
Lens flare occurs when direct sunlight enters the lens. In some cases, the lens flare serves as an artistic element but, in most cases, it looks like an imperfection or an oversight and can ruin a potentially interesting photo.
The bad news is that it is difficult to control a lens flare. It all depends on the angle of the sun’s rays entering the lens and the quality of light. Plus, some lenses are more prone to produce lens flares. By slightly moving the camera left or right or changing the angle of the lens plane relative to the light source, you can reduce the effect although it is not very predictable.
But, there is good news as well. When you realize that you cannot avoid the effect of lens flares and its ability to ruin your shot, you can always use a proven low-tech trick. First, you take one shot as is without paying attention to the lens flare and, then, you take another one using your finger to shield the sun. You have a giant finger in the frame but it completely eliminates any flares. Later, you can combine the two images in Photoshop using transparency masks. This creates an extra step in the editing process and requires Photoshop, but it is bullet proof and always works.
Tip #12: Use a Tripod
Even though it is possible to shoot sunsets handheld and without a tripod, it makes the whole process more complex. On top of all the challenges that sunset photography brings, you must deal with the shutter speed and ensure that it does not fall below 1/60s-1/100s. And, when you start to bracket your shots as I always suggest, safe Shutter Speed calculations become even more challenging.
Also, to compensate for the diminishing light, you will have to constantly boost the ISO, which adds digital noise to your photos.
Trust me, a tripod is your best friend for sunset photography.
Tips #13: Use Remote Shutter Release or 2 sec Delay
As the sunset progresses and the environment gets darker, the camera keeps adjusting the exposure by slowing down the shutter speed.
When it reaches 0.5 sec, it becomes increasingly easy to introduce blur into your photos by even slightly moving the camera.
To prevent camera shakes, use a remote shutter release or the 2-sec delay functionality, which is typically standard on most modern camera models.
Tip #14: Wait until the Blue Hour is Over
Never leave the location until the Blue Hour is over.
It is the most common rookie mistake to leave the shooting location as soon as the sun disappears behind the horizon. I find that 5-10min after the sun is gone this is when the most interesting opportunities arise. Even though the sun is invisible, it often illuminates the entire sky with the soft light brightening the entire scene before Golden Hour transforms into Blue Hour.
Tip #15: Look for Reflections when Shooting in the City
When shooting during sunset in the city, the sun is often shielded by tall buildings even before the Magic Hours begin. In this case, look for reflections of the sunset on the buildings as they often produce some amazing effects that do not exist in nature.
Tip #16: Use the Horizon Position to Emphasize the Important Parts of the Composition
Even though sunset hours produce the most favorable light for photography, not every sunset generates equal opportunities for potentially interesting shots. If the sky has no clouds and the air is hazy, open sky compositions will produce boring photos. Use the horizontal position strategically to help a viewer recognize the most important part of the photo.
If the sky is boring, place the horizon higher to minimize the impact of the sky and, for example, emphasize the importance of the rock formation in the foreground illuminated by the setting sun.
If the sky is beautiful, make sure its beauty is obvious by placing the horizon even lower.
Tip #17: Bring a Flashlight
I was burned many times by not planning for “post sunset” activities. By the time you are done shooting and have finished packing, it is pitch black and often freezing. Even then, you still have to hike back to your car or campsite.
This is exactly what happened with me in Zion National Park in April. After a successful photo shoot at sunset, it quickly became completely dark and freezing. Only then did I realize that I had a 40-minute hike in front of me. I was lucky I did not break my legs.
A flashlight is a must and, if it is fall or spring, I also suggest bringing some warmer clothes.
Tip #18: Do not Forget to Look Around
When shooting sunsets, we are so preoccupied with the main subject (the setting sun) that we often forget to check for opportunities behind us. Sometimes the setting sun produces a more interesting effect on the opposite side of the scene.
Make a habit to look around every 5 minutes or so.