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Sunset Photography Tips

Back when I got my first job as a photographer, I was told by my boss—himself an accomplished pro with four decades of experience—that autumn produces the best sunsets. It has to do with the angle of the sun and cold, dry air that arrives throughout much of the United States. It’s also helpful that sunsets come earlier at this time of year than during the summer months, meaning you can shoot the sunset and make it home in time for dinner. With all of this in mind, here are six tips for making the most of this fall’s sunset opportunities.

1. Choose The Right Time

First and foremost, understand the nature of a sunset. The light will be warm and golden in the minutes before the sun dips below the horizon and is great for portraits and landscapes bathed in glowing sunlight. But it’s after the sun disappears below the horizon, in twilight, that the sky begins to light up with vivid reds and oranges that make autumn sunsets notable. Be sure you’re ready to shoot once the sun disappears because you could only have a 15-minute window in which the light is at its best.

And if you want to shoot while the sun is still visible in the sky, it’s best to hide it behind an object in the foreground—be it a person, a building or a tree. This will not only help to avoid an overexposed hot spot, but it also makes for an interesting compositional element. It’s an ideal choice when the sun hasn’t quite set.

2. Pick A Perfect Spot

Sure, skies alone are beautiful. But what really makes a sunset image special is the context surrounding it. Often, that could be a landscape, structures or people in silhouette. Another great option is anything illuminated, such as a streetscape or landscape lighting that will glow in harmony with the sky. Whatever you choose, though, the important thing is to include something in addition to the beautiful sky if you’d like to make a truly beautiful photograph. 

3. Bring Your Tripod

If your goal is a sunset landscape, a tripod is all but essential in the low light of dusk. Sure, you can always crank up the ISO (if you don’t mind a bit of noise) and you can use a faster shutter speed for a vivid sky and silhouetted foreground, but for the most compositional and exposure options, a tripod will be key. (Remember, too, that you’ll need a cable release or self-timer to ensure your hands are off the camera for a long exposure.)

4. Dial In The White Balance

If you use an automatic white balance setting, your camera probably responds admirably in most circumstances. But in the vibrant light of sunset, however, it could attempt to remove some of the saturation of that golden glow. Instead, dial in a daylight white balance preset (or something around a 5500˚ kelvin) to ensure accurate rendering of the bright colors in the sky.

5. Consider Balancing With A Fill Flash

A subject silhouetted against a vibrant October sky can be a powerful picture. If you try to open up the aperture so that a foreground subject is correctly illuminated, however, you’ll blow out the deep, vivid colors of the sunset background. The compromise is to first establish the correct exposure to render a beautiful sky with a silhouetted subject, then add a fill flash to illuminate the subject. Better still is to get that flash off the camera, but even an on-camera flash balanced appropriately with the sunset makes for a powerful one-two punch.

6. Nail The Exposure

Set your camera to capture RAW image files as this will provide the most options for fine-tuning the color and luminosity of the sky after capture. This also frees you up to miss a little bit with the exposure without worrying about a deep, dark underexposure or a blown-out, overexposed sky. (If you’re uncomfortable with RAW, instead try bracketing JPEG exposures at half- and one-stop over and underexposures.)

Then it’s up to you to choose the best settings. I suggest a manual exposure mode—especially because it’s such a tricky lighting situation—and a low ISO such as 50 or 100. All things being equal, choose a nice, sharp middle aperture like ƒ/8 and then whatever corresponding shutter speed is most appropriate. (An autoexposure is likely to overexpose due to the low lighting situation, but if you prefer to use one I suggest aperture priority followed by a minus one-stop exposure compensation.) You can check your work on the LCD and fine-tune that shutter speed until it looks just right.

And if you were paying attention earlier and your camera is on a tripod, you don’t have to worry about the shutter speed in conjunction with handholding. But do remember that if you have a subject that’s moving, or even clouds in the sky sweeping by, you’ll want to ensure you use a fast-enough shutter speed to prevent motion blur—unless of course, that’s a creative choice you make deliberately!

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