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Travel Photography Tutorial

How to Photograph a Stunning Sunset in Seven Steps

by | Feb 18, 2019 | photography, photography tips, travel photography

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Sunset Photography

One thing that never seems to tire anyone is a beautiful sunset. Whether you have traveled far and wide and seen the most spectacular things or not.

Watching the sun go down in all its warm and vibrant colors leaves you with a feeling of peace and wonder. In awe of nature’s beauty. And you want to hold on to it as long as you can.

For years I tried to capture it, never quite succeeding. Always a little disappointed because it did not reflect the experience I had.

But I have been perfecting my sunset photography skills over the years. I discovered the seven steps that are vital to creating the perfect sunset photo. And I would love to share them with you!

Step 1: Preparation

In sunset photography (or sunrise photography) it is wise to plan ahead. You can find information on the time of sunrise and sunset at your location in any weather app on your phone.

Or you can use a golden hour app that not only tells when and where the sun will go down but also where the light is coming from.

I use Golden Hour One from the App Store but there are many different golden hour apps for every platform available.

You can also ask a local! They can give you some insider tips on great spots as well.

The weather has a big influence on your sunset pictures. Look at the sky during the day and pay attention to the clouds. Obviously, if it’s completely clouded the sunset will not be very spectacular but if the clouds are thin you have a great sunset photo opp.

Clouds add texture to the sky especially when they are scattered,  puffy or wispy.

Once you know the perfect location arrive way the sun is setting before so you can plan your shoot. And if it is a well known, absolutely fabulous sunset location being on time will give you the best spot to shoot from.

By the time the sun is at its most spectacular you are ready to capture it. Because once the sun is going down there’s no stopping it. You have a limited window to get the shot you want. When you arrive on time you will be ready at the right moment.

Giving yourself the time to prepare will also give you the focus to create a great sunset picture. Because it’s not all about exposure, white balance, and composition rules.

When you’re photographing you want to be ‘in the zone’. So give yourself the time to get in the flow of things and be hyper-attentive of your surroundings.

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Step 2: Camera Settings | Exposure

If you let the camera have its way it will calculate an average of the lighter and the darker areas in your photo. This can work if the contrast isn’t too large. But in the case of a sunset, the contrasts between the dark and bright areas are huge.

If you leave the camera on Auto Mode your picture won’t be properly exposed. So you need to take control and set the exposure yourself.

To get a good exposure of the bright area around the sun where the beautiful colors are you need to underexpose. If you underexpose the darker areas will become even darker. But that is okay because you are shooting the sunset. That is the area that needs to be properly exposed!

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Want an Overview of All the Ingredients that go into Photographing a Stunning Sunset?

 

Download Your FREE Step-by-Step Guide Here!

Depending on your photography skill level there are several ways to approach this.

Be a Control Freak

If you are a little more advanced in your photography journey and you know how to shoot in RAW and Manual Mode or Aperture Priority Mode, you definitely have to do that. It gives you the most control over the exposure. Shooting in RAW also gives you more possibilities to adjust your shot in the editing phase.

  • In Aperture Priority Mode set the aperture at f 11 or higher. Let the camera decide on shutter speed but don’t go slower than 1/250 sec. Because you want to get a sharp pic. If you go slower the camera might shake and give you a less than tack-sharp image. Use the exposure compensation wheel to underexpose and you should definitely try out different exposure settings.
  • In Manual mode set the aperture at f 11 or higher and choose a shutter speed that will give you an underexposed image. In manual mode, you should also set different exposures for the best results.

If you have no idea what shooting in RAW means and Manual Mode stresses you out you can still be a control freak.

Go back to Step One! Give yourself the time to try out different things. Practice so every sunset you’ll photograph will be better than the previous one.

And who knows it might give you the push you need to get over your fear of Manual Mode 🙂

Smartphone Camera & Exposure

Shooting with a smartphone will give you fewer options but it’s still possible to create beautiful sunset pics.

What you can do with most smartphones is tapping on the part of the screen you want properly exposed. In the case of a sunset that will be the sun.

Underexposing is the best way to go in sunset photography. So if tapping the screen is not giving you the results you want you can adapt the slider to underexpose a little more. Also in smartphone photography trying out different exposures is a good way to go.

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Step 3: Camera Settings | White Balance

Light comes in many different colors. It ranges from blue, cold tones to yellow, warm tones.

To get the colors to look natural to us the camera has a tool called White Balance. It adjusts the color of the light: the color temperature.

If the light is too yellow it will add a little blue. If the light is too blue it will add a little yellow. In a lot of cases, the Auto setting of the White Balance will do a good job.

But when you photograph a sunset the camera gets confused.

It will for sure think: “Yoo…..that is waaayyy to orange. I’ll throw in a lot of blues to make up for that.” And we lose all the beautiful yellow and orange tones in the sky.

There is again more than one approach to fix this issue.

When you shoot in RAW there’s no need to think about White Balance just now (one of the many perks of shooting in RAW). Leave it in Auto and deal with the White Balance in the editing phase.

When you shoot in Jpeg you should deal with the White Balance during the shoot. Set the White Balance to ‘Cloudy’ or ‘Shade’.

By setting the White Balance to ‘Cloudy’ or ‘Shade’ you let the camera think it needs to add a little yellow.

And that is how we get those wonderful sunset photos!

Smartphone Camera & White Balance

Check if your camera app gives you the possibility to set a warm tone in the colors. I can’t say this for every smartphone camera out there but the iPhone gives you that option with the 3 circles icon in the top right corner of the screen. Find out if yours does as well.

It is totally possible to shoot in RAW with a smartphone camera. Did you know that?

  • Some smartphone cameras have the RAW file format built-in in the native camera app. If you’re so lucky set it on RAW before you shoot the sunset. 
  • Another way to go is to download a camera app that allows you to shoot in RAW.

No idea how to work with a camera app download? Enroll in Fabulous Phone Photography and you’ll learn to photograph with a non-native camera app.

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Want an Overview of All the Ingredients that go into Photographing a Stunning Sunset?

 

Download Your FREE Step-by-Step Guide Here!

Step 4: Composition | Angles

Shooting with a wide angle lens is great for landscapes if you want to include the landscape. You have to keep in mind though the sun will take up only a very small percentage of your frame so the environment has to be interesting enough in itself.

If you want more attention on the sun itself you’ll need to zoom in or use a long lens.

Remember to set a faster shutter speed when your shooting with a long lens.

The longer the lens the faster your shutter speed needs to be because the minute movement you make when you press the shutter gets enlarged by the long lens.

If this isn’t possible you should consider using a tripod.

Smartphone Camera & Zoom

Although your smartphone has a built-in zoom I advise you not to use it. It’s a digital zoom and not an optical zoom like a ‘regular’ camera has.

Your sunset pics will become pixelated when you zoom in and that’s a pity!

  • Try to find alternative ways to take an interesting pic if the sun is far away. Pay extra attention to the foreground or create a silhouette.
  • You can make a more compelling crop in the editing phase. That’ll be a better solution than zooming in.
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Step 5: Composition | Rule of Thirds

One of the most common mistakes beginning photographers make is to position the horizon in the middle of the frame. And that, my friend, is extremely boring.

To create a more interesting shot you can divide your frame by three in both directions. You place points of attention at the intersection of 2 lines or along one of the lines. It’s probably the most well-known composition rule in photography. We call it the ’Rule of thirds’.

Most cameras have a built-in grid for you to help you position the lines.

When photographing the sunset place the horizon on one-third of the frame, top or bottom part. This creates tension and a more interesting shot right away.

Smartphone Camera & Grid

Go to the settings of your camera and turn on the three-by-three grid. It will help you to compose your shot according to the ‘Rule of Thirds’.

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Step 6: Composition | Silhouette

When you photograph the sunset your eyes and your attention are focused on the background. That is where it’s happening. Way out there.

It is easy to forget the one thing that is right in front of you: the foreground! And that is a pity because quite often it is the foreground that will intensify the magic in a sunset shot. By adding a layer you’ll get a more compelling picture.

There are a lot of ways to include an interesting foreground in a sunset photograph. The one I like very much is making a silhouette. Because it adds a little drama to the shot. It is the perfect way to get depth in your photographs. And it creates an interesting contrast between the colored and the black shapes.

So pay attention to your foreground and create a captivating silhouette!

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Want an Overview of All the Ingredients that go into Photographing a Stunning Sunset?

 

Download Your FREE Step-by-Step Guide Here!

Step 7: Edit | Align

When you photograph a sunset you should aim for a straight horizon always. Nothing more distracting than a fairy-like sunset with a skewed horizon. It is the perfect turn-off for me.

When you do not succeed in getting it right in camera, you should align the horizon in your editing program. This is the first essential step you need to take when you edit an image.

When you shoot in RAW another thing you have to do in the editing phase is to adjust the White Balance.

Of course, there are some other things you can do as well to make your sunset photos stunning. Try adjusting white balance, contrast, clarity, and saturation for instance.

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Bonus Step: Enjoy!

Preparation is everything when it comes to sunset photography. But don’t let that stop you to shoot a spontaneous sunset when you stumble upon one! And it will get easier after a few sunsets because you’ve learned what works and what doesn’t.

Encountering a spontaneous sunset while you’re not carrying your DSLR shouldn’t stop you either. When you know what you’re doing your smartphone camera can give you amazing results.

Important: Don’t forget to enjoy the sunset!

Share your sunset pictures in the Photography Playground Facebook Group!

Sunset Photography can be very challenging and often results in disappointment. Follow these 7 simple but essential steps to get awesome sunset pictures. Click through for the fully updated post and to download the free step-by-step guide. #travelphotographytips #sunsetphotography
Do you find it a challenge to take great pictures of the beautiful sunset you experience? Follow these 7 steps and you’ll never be disappointed again! Click through to read the fully updated post and download your free step-by-step guide now. #naturephotography #naturephotographytip
How to Photograph a Stunning Sunset in 7 Steps // Sunset Photography can be very challenging and often results in disappointment. Follow these 7 simple but essential steps to get awesome sunset pictures. Click through for the fully updated post and to download the free step-by-step guide. #travelphotographytips #sunsetphotography

Hi, I'm Karin!

A pro photographer bringing 25+ years of experience to your table. Dedicated to teaching you how to capture your wonderful world in expressive photography using ANY camera. Because honestly…..? It’s not about the camera. It's about your vision!

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