Have you ever seen an incredible sunset and photographed it, only to find that the image you took didn’t come close to representing what you saw with your own eyes?
But with these essential tips, you’ll be more likely to capture the beauty you see with images that have improved color, better exposure, and spot-on composition.
The Color is Better the Longer You Wait
Many sunset photos are taken with the sun still above the horizon. And while these photos can be impressive, waiting a few more minutes until the sun dips below the horizon can reveal much more vibrant and varied colors. Parts of the sky will be darker, like blue and violet, while other parts of the sky will brighten up with reds and oranges.
This is because as the sun gets lower and lower, its rays have to travel through more of the atmosphere. This causes the light to scatter, which results in the more varied colors you see once the sun goes down. So, if you want to have an immediate, positive impact on the sunset images you take, spend a few more minutes taking more shots after the sun actually sets.
Quick tip: Keep shooting, even after you think the best part of the sunset is over. The colors of the sunset will change from minute to minute, and you might miss out on spectacular coloring if you start packing up too soon.
Work the Exposure
Don’t settle for one or two exposures. Instead, experiment with your exposure settings to see what works best. Typically, this means putting your camera in aperture priority, shutter priority, or if you’ve got the chops, manual mode, and taking several exposures at slightly different settings. A good place to start is to use shutter priority mode with a faster shutter while the sun is still visible, and increasingly slower shutter speeds as the light fades.
Another option is to bracket your exposures. This simply means that you take an image at the exposure settings suggested by your camera, then slightly underexpose the scene in another shot, and slightly overexpose the scene in another shot. The resulting series of images will be just a little bit different and give you some variety in terms of the exposure and coloring in the shot.
Quick tip: Use your camera’s histogram to keep tabs on the exposure level of the image rather than merely looking at the camera’s LCD screen. The histogram measures the luminosity of the scene and is much more accurate for determining the level of exposure.
The Most Important Part is Composition
As important as it is to have the colors and the exposure right in a sunset image, if it’s composed poorly, nothing else will matter.
A common problem with sunset compositions is that photographers place the setting sun smack in the middle of the frame. Just because it’s a sunset doesn’t mean you still shouldn’t use the rule of thirds! Shift the sun to the left or right of center, and move the horizon line towards the bottom third or top third of the frame if you want a more dynamic composition.
Another option is to include silhouetted subjects to act as additional visual interest in the shot. Everything from people to trees to buildings to mountains can work as an excellent silhouetted subject. What’s more, adding silhouettes to your sunset shots is easy from an exposure perspective - you don’t have to change your settings at all! Just expose for the sky, and the subjects you want to silhouette should be nice and dark.
Quick tip: Silhouetted subjects add instant mood to a sunset shot. If you have a scene that’s a little boring, try adding a silhouette of a person to spice up the visual interest.