How to Photograph Sunsets

Kate Miller-Wilson
Panoramic view of South Beach sunset

If you've ever stopped to view a gorgeous sunset, snapped a few photos, and then gotten home to discover those beautiful colors lost in an over-exposed sky, you understand the frustration that comes with sunset photography. Fortunately, it only takes a few tips to make your photos as glorious as the sunset itself.

How to Take the Perfect Sunset Photo

Most sunset photos fail because of over-exposure. When you take a photo of a sunset, you're actually photographing the brightest thing in the scene in front of you. If you expose the shot for the person standing in front of the sunset or that lovely tree that makes up the view, you will lose all the color in the sky. The key to overcoming this challenge is using a careful process to take the shot.

1. Choose the Best Equipment

You don't need a DSLR to take a great shot of the sunset, but it does make sense to use the best equipment you have. If that's your phone, that's okay. However, if you have access to a camera with interchangeable lenses, opt for a wide angle lens, such as a 35mm, 24mm, or wider. This allows you take in more of that amazing sky. It's also handy to have a tripod so you can use a slower shutter speed.

2. Take Your Camera Out of Auto Mode

While auto mode can be handy when you're taking photos on the fly, you'll get far better sunset shots if you put your camera in one of the manual modes. You can go full manual, which allows you to control shutter speed, ISO, and aperture, or you can use aperture priority or shutter priority.

If you're using your phone, you can still control some variables for your shot. You may not be able to control aperture, but you can still control ISO and shutter speed.

3. Spot Meter the Shot

Metering is your camera's way of measuring the light in a scene and telling you what settings you should use. Unless specifically told to spot meter, many cameras will matrix meter a scene. That means they take a measurement of the scene as a whole and choose settings based on that. If your scene includes ground, mountains, trees, or people in addition to that bright sky, matrix mode may lead to overexpose.

Changing to spot metering, which you can do by consulting your camera's manual, allows you to tell the camera how you want to expose the scene. For vibrant colors, it makes sense to spot meter for the sky and allow the rest to fall into shadow.

4. Use a Low ISO

Because there's relatively low light during sunset, you may be tempted to increase your camera's ISO. Resist and keep your ISO as low as possible. Use a tripod if you need to slow your shutter speed. This way, you'll end up with a smoother, higher quality image with less digital noise. Depending on your camera and whether you're shooting RAW, you may even be able to lift the shadows a little in post processing to bring in more detail.

5. Bracket Your Shots

If you aren't sure whether you'll like the shot at the selected settings, try taking three shots at different exposure settings. Make the first shot a stop below where you think it needs to be, the second at exactly where the meter indicates, and the third one stop over-exposed. Some cameras will even allow you to take an HDR (high dynamic range) image with three different exposures and combine the shots together in camera for an incredible amount of detail in the sky and in the shadow areas.

Helpful Tips for Sunset Images

Keep the following tips in mind as you experiment with sunset photography:

  • Hand Photographing Sunset On Mobile Phone
    Choose a focal point, but don't meter on it. Any great photo will have a focal point, whether it's a rock, the vanishing point of the road ahead, a model, or anything else. In sunset photos, this item is usually solid and backlit, so don't meter on it. Meter on the sky instead.
  • Consider using flash or a reflector if you want light on a person or object. Photographing something or someone against a sunset means that the light is coming from behind them, and their face or front is in shadow. That can be great for silhouettes, but if you want more light on them, use a reflector or a flash. You'll still meter for the background.
  • Wait until the sun is actually down to take your picture. If you have the actual sun in your photograph, it will blow out the highlights in that spot in the image. If the sun is down, you'll have better colors in the sky as well. If you really want to take the photo before the sun sets, compose so that the sun itself is out of the frame.
  • Compose your shot so that the sky takes up more than half the image. If you use the classic "rule of thirds," you can have two thirds of the image be sky and one third land or water. This gives your shot maximum sunset impact.

Preserve That Lovely Evening

Once you learn how to photograph sunsets, you can preserve these glorious moments for years to come. Take some time to think about your equipment and process before you take the shot, and you'll end up with a gorgeous memory of a lovely evening.

How to Photograph Sunsets