How to Photograph Sunsets

Sunsets: there never was a more evocative subject, and there never was a subject that was more fraught with things that could go wrong. Get it right, though, and you’ll create an image that can stir the soul.

sunset-picturesNow that fall has arrived, the sunsets are more intense, more colorful and infinitely more beautiful. The golden glow in the western sky of an autumn evening can be something to behold. The fire in the sky is an invitation to grab the camera and head for the open fields. Yep, we all, and I do mean all, crave to capture those awesome, inspiring last few moments when the sun slowly sinks into a golden, fiery furnace of its own making.

We’ve all given it a try at one time or another, but most of us fail to really capture the moment. When we print it, or view it onscreen, the blaze of color that so inspired us is now little more than a pink tint in an otherwise blah sky. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of timing: we were just that little bit too late or maybe we were simply in the wrong spot at the wrong time. Whatever, it never seems to turn out just right. But some photographers DO manage it – we’ve all seen those spectacular images – and they can do it, not only consistently, but to order. How?

Well, capturing that stunning sunset is really not as difficult as you might think. All it takes is a little forethought, planning and preparation all done way ahead of the actual shoot; days, maybe even weeks. No, you can’t know exactly when the sun will perform, but their will be indicators as to when it is likely to happen – a partly cloudy, sunny day is often a precursor to a spectacular sunset. And you need to be ready, ready to get out and arrive on-site with at least an hour to spare.

First, though, you need to figure out exactly where you are going to shoot these epic images – you have to scout the locations. And there always is a perfect location; you just have to find it. It could be a beach, a meadow or pasture, a distant farmhouse, or a mountain vista. Whatever it is, there will be at least one specific spot where you’ll be able to capture your sunset better than anywhere else. To find it, you’ll have to scout the location during the daylight hours. You’ll need to figure out exactly where the sun will set, and to do that you’ll need to carry a compass. Drive around, walk the terrain, scout the territory, and MAKE NOTES.

Ok, but there’s more to picking the right spot than just the location. As important as location is, your sunset will almost always be lacking the one essential ingredient that will make it special – a dominant point of interest. And just what might that be? It’s that extra element that gives your sunset an anchor, a sense of scale, a point which will draw the viewer inevitably into the picture.

sunset-pictures2A photograph of a sunset by itself just doesn’t work. After all, one setting sun is much like any other. Even if you manage to capture the gorgeous color, without a dominant point of interest the image will still end up looking rather boring. Now, having said that I should tell you that, without some forward planning, a dominant point of interest is not an easy thing to include. It might be the silhouette of a sailboat on a glittering, backlit ocean, a barn, a horse, a cow, a tractor, or even a lone tree in the foreground. It could be the silhouette of two lovers walking hand-in-hand down a country lane, a little girl with a small dog on a leash – I’ve used both of those – and I’m sure you can come up with many more ideas of your own.

The problem is, of course, you just can’t lift one on these points of interest and drop it into the image at will; or can you? Maybe you can! You can take your dominant point of interest along with you – I used to take a small, collapsible chair, my teenage daughter and the family dog; I’ve even taken my eldest daughter and her boyfriend (the two lovers). You can manufacture just about anything if you want to. I have even asked a farmer if he would be so kind as to drive his tractor across the field for me, and he did. Most people are only too pleased to help when they know who you are and what you’re trying to do.

Ok, so the next thing to worry about is those insipid colors, right? How do we get them to turn out just the way we see them? Well, the answer lies with the exposure. There are a couple of tried and true ways to do it. Obviously, you can’t just aim into the sun and hope it turns out right; it won’t.

One way to shoot sunset or dawn images for the most intense colors is to meter the sky either to the left or right of the sun and then lock in the exposure, reposition the camera and then shoot the image. To do this you can use either the spot meter mode on your camera, or the center-weighted meter mode. First set the camera to manual focus and turn the focus ring to infinity. Now meter the sky either to the left or right of the sun, push the exposure-lock button to lock in the exposure, reposition the camera for the best composition and shoot. Most of the time this technique will work and you’ll be shooting sunsets like a champion.

sunset-pictures3Another method is to use a gray card, or a sheet of newsprint, even the palm of your hand will work. Point the gray card, newspaper, whatever at the setting sun so that the light from that portion of the sky is falling upon it, set your camera to manual focus, and then take a reading by pointing your camera (or hand-held light meter) at the card/newsprint/hand – the side facing the light. Now, lock in the exposure, reposition the camera and shoot.

Yet another way is to go ahead and meter the sun, or brightest part of the sky, and then open up at least 1 ½ stops, maybe even two stops. Aaah, I don’t like that one, but it can work.

Finally, just to make sure, you can bracket, if you have time, that is. Unfortunately, the light at the end of the day changes so rapidly that there’s rarely enough time to bracket. If you can, though, go at least one stop either side of your supposedly correctly computed exposure.

And then, after doing all that, it’s often never quite enough; you may have to head out tomorrow and do it all over again; and then again before you get it just right. Perseverance, though, will pay off in the end.

Finally, of course, you can also make the adjustments in your computer using Photoshop or Photoshop Elements. But come on, that’s not they way to do it. Let’s get it right, in-camera. Time is always of the essence, and I don’t have time to fool around in Photoshop making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, and you probably don’t either.

About the author: Blair Howard is a professional photographer and instructor. His published works include 33 books and more than 630 articlesHe is also the author of two online, study-at-home courses for writers & photographers who would like to sell their work, “The Photo Essay: Getting Your Foot in the Door,” and Beginning Digital Photography. For more information:

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