20 rules for better sunset photography

20 rules for better sunset photography

Shooting sunsets is like all photography about the light, only more so. I’ll try to give some basic rules that will improve your sunset images and some personal tips that I believe will be useful for you.

If you are using your iPhone you should use the HDR-function. It will then take two exposures and merge into one image with better tones in sky and shadows. You should also keep the lens as clean as possible.

Rule no 1: There are no rules

Sometimes perfect is boring. Having said that I encourage you to break any rules that I suggest below. But knowing the rules is important in order to know what rule, when and why to break it.

Rule no 2: It is all about the light

Know when and where the sun is going down. Be on the location in good time before the sunset. The weather is also very important. A clear sky usually doesn’t present the best occasion. Clouds will reflect light and provide much more colour.

A motive or foreground is important to make the image interesting.

A motive or foreground is important to make the image interesting.

Rule no 3: Find the best location

Merely photographing the sky will not be very interesting. A good image normally demands a foreground and a motive as well. Find the right place and then be ready to change angle or place. Look for reflecting surfaces or beautiful silhouettes or similar.

Rule no 4: Keep your lenses clean.

A dirty lens can destroy an otherwise beautiful image when you pointing the camera into the sun.

Rule no 5: Use a motive and/or a foreground

Sometimes a person makes all the difference.

Sometimes a person makes all the difference.

The sunset will merely provide the background. Be careful however so that the motive don’t dominate too much.

Examples of perfect motives are:

  • People. Normally you don’t want too shoot people from the back, but when the sunset is more important you can use their silhouettes and not let them become a too important part of the image.
  • Trees. A lonely tree can create a very nice silhouette.
  • Water is perfect for reflecting the light and can make the image so much more interesting.
  • Boats.

Examples of foregrounds are:

  • Flowers
  • Leafs

Don’t overdo it if the image is going to be a sunset image. Sometimes a motive can dominate too much.

A flash made the foreground visible.

A flash made the foreground visible.

Rule no 6: Consider using a flash

When shooting towards the sun all details tend to disappear and if you want something that is reasonable close to the camera, like a person or flowers, to be visible you need a flash. It’s the perfect time to use your on camera flash.

Rule no 7: Shoot in raw format

Photography in raw format will give you much more flexibility when editing afterwards. It is especially important to be able to change the white balance afterwards. Raw will save you time and rescue a lot of images for you. Read our article on raw editing here.

Rule no 8: Beware of your cameras automatic modes

If the sky is a major part of your motive your camera may choose different aperture and exposure times than you would. Take alternate exposures to make sure to get a good image. You can also use your cameras bracketing mode to take varied exposures. Read about bracketing and HDR images here. Normally you’ll also want to under expose a sunset image.

Rule no 9: Normally you will want a long range of focus.

A high aperture value is often preferred. You’ll get a larger depth of focus and sunbeams will be clearer. The price for this is of course a longer exposure time.

Bring a tripod and keep shooting when the sun is down.

Bring a tripod and keep shooting when the sun is down.

Rule no 10: Bring a tripod

A tripod is very useful when shooting sunsets. You’ll often get the best images the moment before the sun disappears. And if you have a tripod you can keep shooting into the night.

Rule no 11: Be aware of your ISO value

As it gets darker you camera will increase the ISO settings and if you have the camera on a tripod you might as well set the ISO value to below 400 or 800 so you don’t loose image quality.

Rule no 12: Use a lens hood, stand in the shadow or use your hand to avoid sunlight directly into the lens

Sometimes you can get nice effects by pointing your camera into the sun, but there is also a risk that you’ll wind up with a blurry image with lots of stray lights.

The low warm evening light is perfect for all motives. Perhaps you should turn around and shoot the other way?

The low warm evening light is perfect for all motives. Perhaps you should turn around and shoot the other way?

Rule no 13: Turn around and shoot the other way.

Remember that all motives looks better in the low warm evening light. Sometimes you’ll get the best image when shooting with the light instead of against it.

Rule no 14: Simplify the image.

Sometimes you can get a nicer image through making it very simple and not so full of details. Perhaps a simple silhouette is what you need. Of so you should expose by the sky and let the ground become black. This effect can be enhanced while editing by increasing the contrast. It is also possible to do the opposite. Let the sky become white and create a nice isolation of the motive.

Rule no 15: Zoom in on the sun

The sun will look larger the more you zoom in. With a wide-angle lens it will appear very small. But if you zoom in too much the image may become uninteresting.

The more you zoom in the larger the sun will be.

The more you zoom in the larger the sun will be.

Rule no 16: Move around when shooting.

You may get the best image lying down. Or perhaps you’ll find the perfect image when you block the sun by something in the motive. The difference can be enormous if only you take a few steps to the side.

Rule no 17: Avoid putting the horizon in the middle

The image can often become a bit boring with the horizon in the middle. Try putting it high or low.

Rule no 18: Skip the filters

The only reason to use a filter when shooting sunsets is when you need a really long exposure. Then you would need a ND filter. Any other filter effects are better achieved by image editing afterwards.

Rule no 19: Explore more and enjoy yourself

Don’t ever let photographing become a job and shoot by routine. Don’t stress. Take your time. You’ll get the best images when you are having fun.

Rule no 20: Create your own recipes

Experiment and try new ways all the time. Remember when you are happy with an image. How did you take it? You may want to develop an image style of your own. One day you’ll have a huge collection of images and all great photographers can be recognized by their style. You should try and find your own.