David Lenhert Photography | Tips for Shooting Sunsets

Tips for Shooting Sunsets

February 16, 2012  •  Leave a Comment
Images of Sunsets are one of those iconic American landscape scenes that seems universally pleasing to just about everyone who looks to the evening sky.  I think one reason is that each sunset is so unique and yet so pleasingly familiar all at the same time. Like any great photograph, the image should invoke an emotional response in the viewer.  Sunsets and cloud laden skies seem nearly always to do that.
I heard it once said of Ansel Adams that  he made images of dramatic skies with interesting landscapes beneath them. Which brings up an important point.  If “light is everything,” composition is “everything else.” That’s just an odd way of saying that whatever else is in the picture is just as important as the sweet hues of celestial light.
So here are some specific suggestions for shooting sunsets, or sunrises for that matter.
  1. During the day, try to scout locations for your sunset shots, specifically looking for interesting foreground elements like rock formations, trees, piers, boats, bridges to name just a few. Keep in mind that you may want to use these objects well lit or to provide silhouettes.
  3. Arrive about a half hour before sunset.  Early sunset shots can be quite nice depending on the clouds.  A clearing storm almost always adds pleasing drama, color and texture to the scene.  For advanced planning you can use an online sunset calculator to determine actual sunset time for any location or day of the year.  Here is a good one here: http://www.timeanddate.com/worldclock/sunrise.html
  4. Bracket your shots.  Camera meters are often confused when the sun is in the scene. By bracketing your shots, you can usually come up with a usable image. The resulting experience gained from this exercise will help you anticipate your camera’s response.  You can usually get good results by metering the sky about 30 degrees distance from the sun. I also like to slightly underexpose which helps saturate the colors.
  6. Since the sky will almost always be about 2 fstops brighter than the landscape, a graduated neutral density filter is a huge benefit. These square filters can be positioned so that just the sky is darkened leaving the lower foreground unaffected.  They come in different densities with a hard or soft transitional edge.  I suggest a 0.6 (2-stop) soft-edge filter for your first purchase. Although you can just hold the filter in front of your lens, a Cokin P series holder is a cost effective way to get started.  Be aware, however, a holder may cause vignetting with wide angle lenses.
  8. Before the sun goes down try using a foreground element like a tree branch, or other object, to block the sun. This will also help even out the exposure range. Also, get close to foreground elements. Let them lead you into the picture.  By using an f-stop of f/16 or higher and focusing about one third of the way into the scene, you can keep most everything near to far in sharp focus.  Another option is to use a method championed by Bryan Peterson, Founder of PPSOP.com, which is to use an f-stop of f/22 and set focus manually to 3-feet/1-meter.  This should work well with wide angle lenses in the 14mm to 24mm range (full frame equivalent).
  10. Stay well past sunset for the best color.  This is when the real magic happens. Often people leave right after the sun goes down.  While the sky can often go flat and uninteresting in the first few minutes following sunset, a little patience will nearly always yield the best, most dramatic colors of the day.  Of course, a tripod is a must as your shutter will likely be open for several seconds and the light fades.  Just keep shooting.  You’ll no doubt be quite surprised what the camera records versus what your eyes perceive. And, don’t forget to turnaround.  Often some of the best light will be right behind you.
  12. Auto White Balance is usually a good starting point, but don’t forget to experiment a little with some of the other white balance settings which can have a dramatic affect on certain colors, especially reds and yellows.  My advice is to always shoot in RAW. That way, you can easily and non-destructively change the white balance in post-processing.
  14. A few last words about composition. Be sure to keep your horizon level. This is especially important for ocean shots.  Also keep in mind the Rule of Thirds.  If the sky is a significant part the story being conveyed, I find putting the foreground element in the lower 1/3 part of the frame and giving two thirds to the sky usually works best.  Why not try it different ways and decide for yourself?  Finally, for a beautiful sunset image to be successful it absolutely requires a secondary story element.  This goes back to the Ansel Adams comment I made earlier. That secondary element can be a silhouette of person, interesting trees, animals, just about anything.  Just don’t make it only about the sunset.



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