I have to admit that I rarely plan ahead unless I’m on vacation. Most of the time I just happen upon a beautiful sunset, which is why one needs to know what to do should the opportunity presents itself. Be prepared.
Know the Sunrise/Sunset Time
Know what time the sun rises or sets and try to arrive at least an hour before. Remember, the hour before sunset or after sunrise is known as the "Golden Hour," which is when the strong light of the sun is defused and there is a warmer hue that surrounds everything it touches. Although the sun usually set within 30 minutes, the closer you are to the equator, the quicker the sun sets. Thirty minutes never seems to be enough time for me.
Scout Out a Good Location
If need be, ask the locals where to watch the sunset, they’ll certainly tell you where to go. Everyone in South Alabama knows that some of the prettiest sunsets aren’t taken on the beach in Gulf Shores (facing South), the most beautiful sunsets happen on the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay (facing West). Those lucky few with homes along the boardwalk at Point Clear are often treated to glorious sunsets throughout the year.
Have the Right Equipment
- Wide Angle Lens vs. Telephoto Lens. Many photographers insist on using a wide angle lens for sunsets because it give one an overall view of the landscape and sky. I agree, but I also like having a telephoto lens so I can zoom in on an interesting silhouette. Since I have two cameras, I keep the wide angle on one and the telephoto on the other. A telephoto lens can show the sun as a big disk and give it emphasis, but a wide angle lens can capture the gradient colors of a sunset.
- Tripod and Shutter Release. Using a tripod allows you to shoot using a lower ISO and smaller aperture. A slower ISO, such as 100 or 200, reduces graininess, but also requires a longer shutter to capture the light. A smaller aperture, such as f/11, reduces the amount of light coming into the camera and also requires a longer shutter. You can understand then why having a tripod is a must when shooting at optimal settings.
- Filters. Many photographers suggest using filters such as a polarizing filter, a ND (neutral density) filter, or a half/half ND filter in order to draw out the beautiful colors in a sunset. I haven’t made an investment in filters, so can’t really speak to that. They are definitely a must when shooting with a regular SLR using film, but one can get by without a filter when using a digital SLR because post-processing programs often allow filtering adjustments.
- RAW vs. JPG. I photograph everything, with the exception of sports, in RAW. RAW allows easier post processing and give me room to play around with the white balance. The WB is the greatest tool in shooting sunsets. It creates the hues and mood I desire. If you shoot in JPG, set your WB to "cloudy" in order to give it a warmer hue.
- ISO. Try setting your camera to the lowest ISO (100 or 200).
- Exposure. Some experts suggest shooting in aperture or priority mode. I don’t think either option is very good because the camera then makes adjustments to other settings in order to get a good exposure. That "good exposure" is what the camera wants and not what I want. In my humble opinion, manual is best. It allows me to be in control. You don’t want to overexpose the sun, you do want to emphasize it, which is why most suggest underexposure. Underexposure keeps the colors from being washed out and provides more contrast. To set proper exposure, try spot metering the sky above the sun and then adjusting your settings accordingly. Or, you can be lazy and simply set your camera’s built-in exposure compensation to a value of -1 or -2. Underexposing your shot will result in richer, deeper colors and shades of red, yellow, and orange.
- Aperture. Remember that the lighting of a sunset will be strong initially, but fades as the sun sets. You will need to monitor and adjust your aperture throughout. Setting the aperture to the smallest possible will result in a deeper depth of field and ensure sharpness throughout the photo. It can also give the sun that starburst effect. If you’re able to use a tripod, try using a smaller aperture (like f/16) to begin with and then open it wider as the light fades.
Bracketing is often used by professional photographers to get the best exposure. Bracketing is a setting on most Digital SLRs. Check your manual. I often use bracketing when photographing sunsets. If your camera doesn’t allow it, or if you’d prefer to try manual bracketing, try exposing at f/8 (say, at 1/80); take the photograph and then take another after increasing the exposure by one stop (f/5.6 at 1/80); and then take another photo decreasing the exposure by one stop (f/11 at 1/80). Slightly lighter and darker versions bring out different elements.
Remember the Rule of Thirds which suggests that the subject or any major part of the image should be placed in one of the areas dividing the frame into thirds. Avoid placing the horizon directly in the middle of the frame, dividing it into equal halves. If you lower the horizon to the lower third, it will emphasize the sky; if you raise the horizon to the top third, it will emphasize what is below the sunset—water, ground, trees, streams, etc.
Unless you’re focused on a framed object such as a person, building, or tree, auto focus doesn’t always work. Sometimes it helps to focus on a dark cloud, but if that doesn’t work, try setting the camera to manual focus and setting the focus distance to infinity, otherwise your camera may not be able to lock focus and you will end up with a blurred picture.
Think Outside the Box
Sunset and sunrise photos don't have to be boring, same-old-same-old photos. Spice it up.
We were staying on the bay one summer, so I got ready for a beautiful sunset. I sat there with my camera on my tripod and waited, and waited, and waited. All I got was dark clouds. The sunset was a dud! I packed everything up and sat disappointed, whining to Dave. Suddenly, the sun dropped below the clouds and the horizon lit up. It was the most spectacular sunset I’d ever seen. So beautiful it was that the year-long residents came running to their balcony and yards to watch it, yelling up and down the beach, "Wow! That’s spectacular! What a gorgeous sunset!" Remember there are always warm-up acts to the headliner.
A sunrise or sunset, on a clear, cloudy, or foggy day, conveys hope for a fresh beginning. Clouds, whether thick or wispy or streaked with contrails, add drama to a sunset, just as dusty mornings add drama to sunrises. All are equally beautiful and worthy of being captured and enjoyed for years to come.
Follow-Up Note 02/14/12:
I’m thankful that there are many photographers in the blogosphere who willing to share their mastery of photography skills. Scott Law at Just Used Pixels is one of those giving individuals. He takes spectacular sunrise/sunset photographs, so I asked him to share or emphasize anything I overlooked. Here are his recommendations:
- Polarizing Filter. A polarizing filter will cut about one stop on your light. If you are going to use a polarizing filter, make sure that you purchase a "circular polarizing filter" for digital work. Your dad’s old polarizer, even if it fits, will not work. A polarizer is more effective when it is aimed perpendicular to the direction of the sun or even opposite the sun. It is ineffective when pointed in the direction of the sun.
- Graduated Neutral Density Filter. A half and half ND filter is also called a "graduated neutral density filter." It can be a wonderful help in darkening the sky and sun, but must be kept very clean and spot free. Scott says he has had wonderful sunset shots ruined by a dirty filter because the sun magnifies dust and water spots. "I very often shoot my sunsets with a neutral density filter so that I can get an intentionally long exposure and then by partially covering the top part of the lens for part of the time with a black non-reflective object, even a black-gloved hand, I can darken the sky and give the foreground some additional light. The best way to do this is to rock your hand back and forth while moving it up and down. It takes practice and, especially, the first few times, several exposures, but as you learn you’ll get quite proficient at it."
- White Balance. Scott always shoots in RAW, but will often change his white balance from auto to shade. He finds it easier to process afterwards.
- Subject and Composition. About 90 percent of Scott’s sunsets are taken over the water because he likes the reflection; "It’s like getting two for the price of one." In most of his sunset shots, he tries to have something of interest in the foreground, even if it’s just sand or rocks on the shore, because it adds interest to the photo and gives it depth.
World Through The Lens: Sunrise and Sunset Photography
Digital Photography School: How to Photograph a Sunrise
Digital Photography School: 12 Tips for Photographing Stunning Sunsets
Time and Date.com: Tips on Photographing Sunsets and Sunrises
Jeff Wignall: How to Photograph Better Sunset and Sunrise Photos
Nikon Blog: How to Photograph a Great Sunrise or Sunset
SLR Photography Blog: Tips for Photographing Sunrises
Photo Editing: Photography How to Shoot Sunset and Sunrise
Photopoly: Tips and Techniques to Photograph Sunset and Sunrise