- Camera & lens (perhaps a wide-angle of 35mm or wider)
- Tripod & remote shutter release
- Filters (more on that next)
- Why You Need a Reverse Graduated Neutral Density Filter in Your Bag
- How to Shoot Landscapes at Blue Hour
photo by tawatchaiprakobkit via iStock
Tell me if this sounds familiar…
You’re out and about and there’s a spectacular sunset going on. You have your camera and tripod, so you decide to set up shop and capture the beauty before you.
So, you dial in the settings, take the shot, and...your photo stinks.
The exposure is way, way off. Either the sky is too bright or the landscape is too dark. And that beautiful sunset you wanted to capture is gone for good.
This happened to me more times than I care to remember when I was just starting out in photography. But over the years, I’ve figured out a few tricks for how to photograph sunsets that make it a much easier and more successful endeavor.
How to Photograph Sunsets: Plan the Shot
photo by welcomia via iStock
I’m all for the spontaneous sunset photo, and every once in a while I’ll snag one that looks great. But more often than not, it’s necessary to plan the shot to get the best results.
This doesn’t mean you have to spend weeks analyzing the movement of the sun and investigate every possible scenario that could impact the photo at your desired shoot location.
Instead, just take 10 minutes to do some recon on your desired shoot location. Also download some landscape photography apps to help you track the sunrise and sunset times, keep tabs on the weather or the tides, and dial in the appropriate sunset photography camera settings.
photo by bluejayphoto via iStock
Plan your route to get to your shoot location, giving yourself extra time to account for traffic, finding a place to park, walking or hiking to the specific location, and setting up your gear. I always give myself an extra hour at a minimum, that way I’m in position and ready to shoot well before Golden Hour even starts.
Of course, it’s helpful to make a list of the gear you need for sunset photography, that way you don’t forget any of the essentials you’ll need to hammer out a killer shot:
How to Photograph Sunsets: Use Specialized Filters
Image credit: Steffen Hummel
As noted above, one of the biggest challenges you have to overcome when photographing sunsets is the wide dynamic range of the scene.
The sky is often bright, the horizon is even brighter, and the landscape is the darkest of the three, as shown above.
Image credit: Steffen Hummel. With NiSi Reverse Nano IR GND 8(0.9) F11, ISO100, 131s
But if you use a reverse graduated neutral density filter, as was done in the image above, all of that can be evened out.
As you can see above, a reverse ND grad is dark on top, darker still in the middle, and clear on the bottom. This brings all that dynamic range down to a level that your camera can accommodate in a single shot.
So, the advantage of using this type of filter is twofold: you avoid all those exposure problems and you can work more quickly - there’s no need to bracket exposures or spend tons of time in post-processing trying to fix exposure problems.
When using this kind of filter (I use a NiSi 100x150mm reverse ND grad) it’s important to get the positioning just right. The filter can be precisely repositioned in its holder, that way you’re assured of aligning the darkest area of the filter with the horizon.
Furthermore, it’s important to use filters that are designed and constructed for the best-quality results.
For example, NiSi uses high-quality, precision optical glass, and with a finely ground and polished surface, you get superb sharpness and beautiful detail.
I typically shoot sunsets at the beach, so I appreciate the fact that my NiSi filters have a protective coating that makes cleaning water, dust, and oil off the filter a breeze. There’s also a Nano Coating technology that reduces reflections to protect against ghosting and flare.
In other words, a reverse graduated neutral density filter like this is a must-have if you’re going to photograph sunsets (or sunrises). It simply makes the process of getting the shot much easier - and more successful!
Now, you might be wondering, what if you don’t want or need to darken the sky? Then what?
NiSi has the answer - a Horizon Line Neutral Density Filter.
Like the reverse ND grad discussed earlier, the horizon line filter is dark along the midline. However, this filter is clear both above and below the midline, so there’s no darkening effect for the sky.
This filter is ideal for situations in which you don’t need to darken the sky - such as on an overcast evening - or you don’t want to darken the sky because it’s brightness is comparable to the landscape (i.e., when there’s water reflections in the foreground).
How to Photograph Sunsets: Create Interesting Compositions
Photo by Collins Lesulie on Unsplash
Resist the urge to just stand there with your tripod at full height, snapping photos of the same scene over and over again.
While it’s good practice to keep shooting throughout the sunset (the colors will change dramatically, as might the clouds), it’s also good practice to vary your compositions.
Try a low-angle shot that incorporates some interesting foreground elements. As you can see above, doing so turns the sunset into a beautiful backdrop rather than being used as the primary subject.
photo by RelaxFoto.de via iStock
Another tip on how to photograph sunsets is to vary the focal length at which you’re shooting.
If all you do is take wide-angle shots of the sunset, the sun will appear quite small in the frame. So, if you have a zoom lens, crank it toward the longer end of its focal range and turn the sun into a much larger focal point in the shot.
photo by franckreporter via iStock
Another sunset photography idea is to add a human element - a building or a person - which can help anchor the shot and gives you an opportunity to add a silhouette to the image.
Not only is the contrast between a darker human element and the bright sun often quite pleasing to the eye, but it also helps give the shot scale and depth.
So, there you have three quick tips on how to photograph sunsets. Plan it out, get the right gear, and seek out ways to improve the composition. If you can do these things, I think you’ll find that you get much-improved results!