15 Easy Tips for Better Sunset Photos
Sunsets (or sunrises) are always something I try to stop and enjoy. There is no other time during the day that the sky turns those beautiful colors; pinks, reds, golden yellow, orange, etc. Photographing sunsets is a popular thing, but even I'll admit that your camera doesn't fully capture the beauty you're seeing. That being said, the tips I'm presenting in this post can help you come close.
Read on for 16 (I know the title says 15, but I snuck an extra tip in there for you) easy tips you can implement TONIGHT!
I do get into some of the more technical camera settings that can help. If you're interested in that, jump down to #11.
***I'm going to throw out my disclaimer from back in the day that says this***:
Warning: Throughout this series I will be showing you some pictures that well...are not some of my favorites. Unedited. Never before posted (never before wanted to post). I decided to post these pictures versus finding examples on the internet because 1. that would be copyright infringement, and 2. because I want you to see that I don't always get it right. I have learned by doing and I want you to learn from things I have done. The best way to do this is through some of my mistakes/examples.
1. Know when the sun is setting
This seems incredibly obvious to start the list off, but it’s important you know EXACTLY when the sun is setting, so you’re not guessing. Some of the best color can come minutes before the exact time, and you want to make sure you’re ready.
Download an app, check the local paper, internet, etc.
2. Know where you want to go
Sometimes capturing a great sunset pictures means walking out into your front or back yard, and other times you will want a specific location that you may have to walk or drive to. For instance, for the picture below, I knew I wanted to try and get some prairie flowers in my picture, so I visited this park that I knew I could easily view the sunset as well as the flowers. Knowing this in advance helped me get there well before sunset so I had time to set up and get ready.
4. So can clouds
Don’t be discouraged by clouds. As you probably know, sunsets can be incredibly gorgeous with clouds.
5. Golden Hour
This is a topic I plan to cover more in detail in the near future, because it’s my favorite time to shoot. Ever. Of all time. The golden hour is defined a few different ways, but I look at it as an hour before the sun sets, or an hour after the sun rises. During this time, the sun casts a beautiful golden/red color which makes everything golden. Make sure you’re around to photograph during this time. You’ll be glad you did (and check back next week for a full blog post on just this topic).
6. Blue Hour
The blue hour is a period of time after the sun goes does, or right before the sun rises where the sky is a deep, twilight blue color. I honestly have not explored this topic much, but I wanted to introduce it if you are not familiar, as it is a beautiful time of day for taking pictures. Here is a website that talks more about the blue hour.
7. Winter sunsets
If you live in (what feels like) a tundra like me for six months out of the year, you maybe aren’t always in the mood to get all your snow gear on when it’s 15 degrees and take some pictures. However, I have found that some of the most colorful sunsets occur in the winter (see picture below). The colors are especially beautiful against the white snow.
8. Don’t be afraid of a little rain
‘Red sky at night, sailors delight. Red sky at morning, sailors take warning’’. That is a saying my grandpa would always tell my brother and I, and it still reigns true (no pun intended). If it’s lightly raining, or looks like it might storm, don’t put your camera away. As long as it’s not pouring, lightning or anything more serious, you may be in for a real treat. The sun may light up the sky and reflect off storm/rain clouds and make for an amazing picture.
9. Look around!
I realize the goal of a sunset photograph is to well, capture the sunset. However, I would encourage you to look around while the sun is setting. Remember the golden hour? There’s a reason it’s called that as I mentioned before, and that reason is because everything turns golden.
Also keep in mind things you can use to help compliment the sunset. Not surprisingly, I’m a fan of using flowers. I love the way the light catches the petals. Other ideas can be a friend (make sure you either use a flash or a reflector so their face(s) don’t turn out dark), pet, trees, and more.
As always, I’m an advocate of being creative and trying new subjects and angles.
10. Check that horizon!
You’ve captured the most beautiful, colorful sunset and oops, your horizon is crooked. This tip is especially important in sunset photographs, so make sure your horizon is straight. Check out my post for more information on this tip here.
11. White balance
This is one of the more important tips in my opinion. Have you ever taken a picture of the sunset, loaded the pictures onto the computer and were disappointed? Chances are your white balance was off. For sunset pictures, you want to use the ‘shade’ option. This will return your picture to the beautiful golden/red hue that you’re actually seeing. Do NOT, and I repeat, do NOT use auto for sunset pictures. Your camera will detect the sunlight and adjust the white balance accordingly. I have a whole post on white balance which you can view for more information by clicking here.
To give you an idea of the difference, here is the same picture with the white balance adjusted differently. The top picture is with my camera on 'Auto' white balance. The picture on the bottom is my camera set with 'shade' white balance.
Auto White Balance
Shade White Balance
Depending on when you’re photographing the sunset (meaning how much light you have available), depends on what ISO number you should use. In the early stages, you can probably get away with a 200. Once it starts getting darker, and this changes quickly, change your ISO to 400 or risk getting a grainy picture. For more information on ISO, click here.
If you’re shooting in manual, it is easy to underexpose your sunset pictures by increasing your shutter speed a little bit. Underexposing your sunset shots will darken your surrounding subjects, while allowing the beautiful sunlight to shine.
Remember that picture above with the white balance set to 'shade'? Well here is a similar picture exposed normally.
I also left the ISO at 200, and you may be able to tell that the picture looks a little grainy, especially in the grass area.
14. Sunset mode
If you aren’t shooting manually (which I would encourage you to try!), some cameras come with a sunset mode. Generally, sunset mode increases the red tones in a picture to make your sunset pop. You will not have any control over anything else in your picture, however, which is why I would recommend manual mode.
Normally I am an advocate of tripods, but have never said I think you will absolutely need one. I still stand by that statement, but will STRONGLY ENCOURAGE a tripod for your sunset shooting needs, especially if you’re photographing flowers, for example. As the sun sets, you will quickly lose light. I realize that is the point, but it’s hard to not capture any motion of the subject you’re photographing at times (meaning blurry subjects). A tripod can greatly help with this.
Bonus: 16. Keep shooting
The sun changes so fast while it’s setting, and so do the colors given off by the sun. Don’t stop after just one shot because you think you got a beautiful one (you probably did). Keep shooting until the sun goes completely down (and then maybe stick around for the blue hour)!
What tips are missing? What have you tried that was successful when shooting sunset/sunrise photographs?
Do you prefer sunset or sunrise photos?
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