Sunsets are one of the most popular subjects in photography. The warm, soft light is a great compliment to all kinds of compositions, from architecture to portraits to landscapes. The drama in the skies is a bonus as well! But there is some skill involved in finding the absolute best locations for a sunset photo.
Let’s review the steps you need to take to find the best sunset locations to get those fantastic sunset shots you’ve been dreaming of!
Do Your Research Early
The best sunset shots are those that are planned well in advance. Part of the planning process is vetting potential shoot locations. When you have a moment during the daytime, head out to potential spots with minimal gear, perhaps just your phone to document the scene. Working fast and light will allow you to give the area a thorough inspection for the best vantage points. The point here isn’t to take pictures - mid-day light is often too harsh anyway. Instead, the purpose is to get a feel for where you might position yourself for the best views at sunset.
Part of your research needs to include the direction of the travel of the sun. You don’t want to scout the location and find a “perfect” perch, only to find during sunset that the sun is far off to your left or right. There are all kinds of apps available that will give you the information you need to know about when and where the sun will set.
Think About Versatility
Ideally, the location you select for a sunset shot will offer you more than just one type of compositional choice. Look for spots that afford you a nice view towards the sun, for a dramatic backlit or silhouette photo. These compositions benefit greatly from interesting terrain, like mountain peaks, or other subjects like buildings or people that will create interesting lines, forms, and shapes when backlit by the setting sun.
But also look for spots at the same shoot location that allow you to face away from the setting sun and capture the beauty of its warm, colorful light illuminating the scene. With that kind of light falling on a landscape, for example, you can show the features of the landscape in an entirely different way, with gorgeous natural light highlighting its every nook and cranny.
By looking for backlit and frontlit photo opportunities, you not only maximize your time during the sunset, but you also have a backup plan if something goes awry. If there’s clouds obscuring the mountain peaks you wanted to silhouette, you can simply turn around and with the sunset at your back, take a nice, soft frontlit photo of the landscape instead. Just be sure your different vantage points aren’t too far away from each other, otherwise you will spend your precious moments of sunset shuffling between points rather than actually taking photos.
Tips for Maximizing Your Sunset Time
Once you’ve got your location nailed down, be sure to arrive early, perhaps a good hour before the sunset will occur. This will give you time to get to your selected spot, set up your gear, and have time to snap some frontlit shots as the sun is descending toward the horizon behind you.
When shooting frontlit sunset shots, look for elements in the scene that can add interest, like foreground objects that will draw the viewer’s eye inward, or tall objects like buildings or mountains that will still be illuminated by the setting sun, even as the rest of the scene has already descended into shadow.
Then, once the sun has dipped below the horizon, turn around, head to your backlit location, and work on snapping your silhouetted shots. Here, you no longer need to worry about foreground interest as it will be deeply shadowed anyway. Instead, focus your attention on highlighting the shapes we mentioned above - mountain peaks or people - that will give your silhouetted image the strong forms they need to have the most visual impact.
When pursuing sunset photography, being prepared is a key element to your success. But so too is remembering that sometimes all the planning in the world can be for nothing if Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate. But the unpredictability of Mother Nature will also give you some incredible, spontaneous opportunities to take photos as well, so having your gear at the ready and heeding our advice for finding the best sunset locations will increase your chances of snapping truly stunning sunset photos.