When a rainbow of red mixed with orange, pink and purple lights up the sky you don’t want to be staring blankly at your camera not knowing what to do. So I want to share a few little tips about how to photograph sunsets, properly!
Whether you are travelling the world and witnessing magical sunsets over the ocean or exploring a park in the middle of a city, the tips below will help you change the way you capture the sunset. Forget boring images using the automatic flash, learn how to compose and create natural photographs that showcase the feeling of warmth and display that splash of colour that makes people say WOW!
1. TURN AROUND
An odd way to start but assessing the scene is the most important thing you can do. Sometimes what I like to call ‘The Anti-Sunset’ produces better colours than where the sun is actually setting. Depending on cloud cover and the landscape of course but always suss out the photo possibilities before the sun sets, there might just be a better angle to shoot! If you’re lucky you’ll be able to shoot the sunset then spin around to capture gorgeous pinks and purples of the anti-sunset during dusk.
2. RESEARCH TIMING
Arriving 5 minutes too late for the setting sun is never fun. Before a sunset shoot always check the exact time the sun will set that day and be sure to arrive at least 30minutes before. Sometimes you’ll get amazing sun rays 15minutes prior to sunset and the warm glow is always an ideal light for portraits too. Sunset times and the best vantage points change throughout the year based on the season so it’s essential to research for your exact location.
3. FIND A FOREGROUND SUBJECT
I’m all for being creative and only using the colourful sky to compose your image. Most of the time though you’ll need to find a foreground subject to help create your photo. Whether it’s a wooden jetty, flock of birds, single tree or your travel buddy, use something that enhances the scene and adds perspective to the photograph.
4. WHITE BALANCE
Venture away from your auto white balance and manually adjust the white balance to ‘Cloudy’ mode (usually found on your camera dial represented by a cloud icon). Changing to cloudy will enhance the warmth of your photo and bring out a rich golden tone in the image, ideal for sunsets! If for some reason you find the colours are just a little too golden, ‘Shade’ mode can also work but I’ve found this to be quite temperamental and only works on rare occasions otherwise it’s far too saturated.
5. TURN OFF THE FLASH
This is a golden rule. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen people taking sunset photos with an automatic flash and not realising they are ruining all chances of capturing the warm sunny glow. Using the flash for a portrait is okay to brighten your subject (sometimes!), but in my opinion it takes away the natural feeling of the moment and turns it into a standard, boring photo that screams automatic. There I said it. Instead of using the flash, balance your exposure to correctly capture the scene and keep all the natural beauty of the landscape in your shot.
6. LOOK FOR REFLECTIONS
When the sky is lit up and looking fabulous it’s also a great opportunity to double the magic and reflect it in a puddle, lake, still water, flat glass bench…anything you can find to achieve a reflection. Be sure to get nice and close to the reflective source to ensure a beautiful split image that showcases both sides of the reflection.
7. DON’T BE DETERRED BY RAIN
Rainy days usually result in the most incredible sunsets. Sure if the sky is like a giant waterpark that just won’t quit raining the sunlight might not peek through but…on occasion the clouds part at sunset on a wet day and burst through like they’ve been trying all day. The most incredible sunset I’ve ever photograph happened on a dark day in Spring, overcast, wet and miserable right up until 6pm when the sky opened and a rainbow of reds, orange and yellow appeared across the patterned clouds.
8. LOOK FOR CLOUDS
As mentioned above, clouds can be the perfect complement to beautiful sunset light. Whether it’s the odd fluffy white cumulus cloud or a patterned blanket of lenticular magic across the sky, clouds can actually enhance your sunset photo. A clear sky is pretty but clouds add an element that will be unique to your photograph, who has witnessed the same cloud, in the same spot at the same time of day? Not many people!
9. HORIZON COMPOSITION
Always keep the horizon straight when shooting a sunset photo. When looking through your view finder be sure to check the left and right side of the photo match. Having a horizon that’s slightly leaning to the right or left makes the photo look unprofessional and messy. When shooting reflections it’s always best to keep it straight too, you’ll allow for more colours to enter your image and will avoid cutting the photo awkwardly in the corners.
10. RULE OF THIRDS
It can be a natural habit to put the horizon in the centre of the image but try to use your rule of thirds to make your photo stand out and look a little more creative. The rule of thirds is all about the cross sections of your image and where you place the subject or point of view. For example, placing the horizon in the bottom third of the image will allow more room for the sky to shine above and be the main focus of the photograph.
11. BE PATIENT
Patience is a photographic tool that you always need to ensure you take with you on a shoot. Sometimes the perfect light is thirty minutes before or thirty minutes after the sunset, it’s just about waiting for the right time to achieve the result you’re looking for. During a sunset the light is constantly changing and can take an unexpected turn when you least expect it. It’s about waiting and waiting and waiting…so take snacks!
12. BE THE HAPPIEST SNAPPER
If you love taking photos on your travels you’ve no doubt been called a happy snapper before but I say embrace it! Taking a variety of shots during a sunset will ensure you cover all bases and what you thought was your favourite at the time, might change once you browse through your shots and discover the other angles you took. Use a variety of focal points, subjects, zoom in, zoom out, reflections, just sky, long exposures, panoramics… create your own list and shoot like crazy while the light is at its best!
Sunset is the perfect time of day to capture silhouette images. Framing a subject against a bright colourful sky will form a dark silhouette that showcases the shape of your subject or focused object. To take a silhouette always focus on the brightest part of the photo, more than likely the sky. Hold the shutter half down to focus on the sky and then whilst keeping the button half down, move your camera to compose the subject however you wish. This technique is all about tricking your camera into thinking the darkness doesn’t need to be exposed. Also be sure to turn off your flash!
14. CREATIVE BLUR
One of the best experimental ways to test out your creative skills…intentionally blur the photo! If there is loads of colour in the sky, why not make a fine art image that displays movement and merges the colour tones together. Start by dropping the ISO to something low like 100 or 200, adjust your F-stop to f/16 or lower and then take a test shot standing still to ensure the colours are still vibrant. If they are, stand still like a tripod and click the shutter as you quickly turn from left to right. Amazing right!? This is one of my favourites!
15. SUNSET SETTINGS
Ideal settings for sunset of course depend on the amount of light you have but here is a set to start with and then adjust according to your conditions. Pop your ISO to 200 or anywhere up to 800 if it’s a little darker. Shooting with aperture mode is a great way to control settings quickly when the light changes and have your white balance on cloudy mode as mentioned above. Be sure to keep an even exposure so you don’t lose colour vibrancy, over exposing will result in white sky lacking details whilst under exposing will create a darker image that is difficult to bring back in editing.
If you’re keen to improve your photography be sure to check more of Lisa’s articles on The Wandering Lens or join us for the November We Are Travel Girls Bali Retreat where Lisa will be joining us to host our photography workshops! Read Next > How To Creatively Compose Your Travel Photography
By We Are Travel Girls Contributor Lisa Michelle Burns of TheWanderingLens.com
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Awesome tips! My struggle is I never have my camera on me when there’s a good sunset!
We Are Travel Girls says
Thanks for reading Amber, glad you found this post helpful! Becky x