How to Shoot a Sunset (or Sunrise)
Shooting a nice sunset seems like the easiest thing a photographer can shoot. In reality, it’s bloody hard to get a good one. The difference between the bright whites of the sun and the dark shadows of your foreground is usually more than you camera can cope with. The difference in light is called the dynamic range and cameras generally can’t cope with that much dynamic range.
So, how do photographers get those stunning shots? Well, read on …
First, a great sunset/sunrise shot needs good composition. Otherwise, no matter how spectacularly you manage the exposure, it’ll not be one of those shots people go WOW! over.
Check that you have an interesting foreground. Find something interesting to put between you and that sunset. It could be some cool spinifex grass, a few boats or a pond, let your imagination and eye run wild looking for that foreground.
Once you have the foreground lined up on the sunset, don’t put the sun dead center of the frame. Nothing kills a shot like a perfectly centered sun (unless you’re going for a shot with beautiful symmetry). A very good photographer once told me that I should consider my camera like a sniper rifle, if I shot things in the ‘bullseye’ I’d kill them. He said, get off center and use the rule of thirds to determine where to put your subject.
As you peek through the viewfinder, be sure you get your horizon level. Nothing screams amature more than a crooked horizon.
I hope you’re shooting in RAW at this point or at least RAW and JPG. Not that I think you must shoot in RAW (I often just shoot JPGs when I know I will not need to do much post processing on the images – I dont want to get into a RAW v JPG war) but, when faced with the vast dynamic range differences in a sunset, I think you need the RAW file to get the most out of the image in post processing.
There, you’ve got your composition all sorted and now you’re ready to take that shot. I’d recommend spinning your camera dial to the Aperture Mode (AV for Canon, A for Nikon). I’d use an aperture around F/9 so that you get that stunning foreground in focus with the sunset. While in Aperture mode, you may find you need to tweek your exposure a little bit. Digital cameras are very good at determining the right exposure but sometimes they just don’t get exactly what we want. Your camera has an exposure compensation feature, usually a dial or a button combination, to increase or decrease your exposure while in Aperture mode.
Other tips for a fantastic Sunset
- A tripod may be required as the sun goes down to accommodate the slower shutter speeds required.
- Look for other things to add interest such as birds, clouds, a kite and etc.
- Turn around, often the sky behind you is as dramatic as the setting sun.
- If you want a big ol’ sun in the photo, use a telephoto lens rather than a wide one.
- Check for reflection of the sun and sky on foreground objects.
- Get the right conditions, The best Sunsets occur with some clouds in the sky, usually clouds that break right at the horizon to allow the sunlight to beam through. A completely blue sky is usually boring.
- Get some silhouettes in the shot.
- Hang around after the sun sets. This is when the red and spectacular colors will pop out, often taking you by surprise.