digital photography tips with Digital Photo Mentor Darlene Hildebrandt

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3 Tips for Creating Spectacular Sunset Photos

Something that we all enjoy is a stunning sunrise or sunset. There’s something about the colours stretching out across the sky and make you feel all warm inside. But capturing that feeling in your photographs can be a bit tricky.

Nicaragua 046 sunset

Tips for Better Sunset Photos

I’m going to give you three tips to help you get out there and create some spectacular sunset photos. These are simple, but effective and if you follow them it will greatly improve and enhance your sunset photos. Remember these works just as well for sunrise also. I don’t know about you but I’m not particularly a morning person so I prefer sunset. You decide which you want to shoot, or get out there and do both!

In short here are the three problems these tips will help you solve:

  • Help my sky is washed out and has no colour
  • My photo is just not that interesting
  • The colour isn’t as warm and rich as I remember seeing it with my eyes

#1 Fixing a washed out and faded looking sky

A while back I explained why your snow might be coming out grey in your winter photos. The problem of faded or washed out sky is the same issue, and has the same solution.

The meter in your camera is designed to measure the light, and set the exposure based on medium grey. Next, when you point your camera at the sunset and take a reading, it tries to average the scene which is a high contrast range from very bright (the sun) to very dark (the foreground objects). It will struggle to find the “correct” exposure and usually thinks it is too dark so tells you to give it more exposure. Doing so will give you some detail in the foreground, but usually that is not what you’re looking for with a sunset. You want the foreground to go dark, almost black, and the sky to be darker and full of richness.

Have a look at this serious of exposures to understand how this works.

Sunset over exposed

Sunset over histogram

The image above is one stop over exposed at: f/10 at 1/13th of a second. Notice there is visible detail in the hills and beach foreground but the sky is almost white it’s so washed out. Look at the histogram. What it tells you is this exposure has mostly light tones and very little in the middle and darker tones.

Sunset normal exposure

Sunset normal histogramThis is a “normal” exposure based on what the camera reading said at: f/10 at 1/40th of a second. This is getting closer, now there is some colour in the sky and minimal detail in the foreground. Now notice this histogram has more dark tones (left side of the graph represents black and darker than middle grey) and that the light tones are now more spread out and not as much going off the chart, or clipping (white with no detail).

Sunset under exposed

Sunset under histogramThis last image is 1.6 stops under exposed according to the camera meter. I usually shoot in Aperture Priority mode so to accomplish this you can just set your exposure compensation to -1.6, or in Manual mode adjust your exposure until you see it showing -1.6 on the metering scale in your view finder. The graph (histogram) is more more evenly distributed on this exposure and you’ll see a lot of middle tones, lots of darker and black tones, and only a very few really light (and pure white clipping off the right side). This is good!

The lesson here is know when to trust your camera’s meter reading and when to override it. Learn to read the histogram and use it to set your exposure. The LCD screen on your camera may also give a false reading if it is set too bright or too dark.

#2 Adding more interest into your sunset photos

Have you ever had the experience of seeing the most amazing sunset, taking a few photos, and then getting home to look at them on the computer and feeling like something is just missing? You’re not alone!

This is a common problem, especially if you are new to photography. It’s really easy to get carried away by the colours in the sky and snap away, only to realize later that there isn’t a centre of interest in the photos. Someone viewing the image later doesn’t have the benefit of having been there to view the scene live. So, it’s your job as the photographer to capture not only the colours but something to hold their attention and invite your viewers to explore the whole image.

The best way to do that is to put something in the foreground. This will do three things:

  1. Adds depth to your image
  2. Adds a sense of place and scale
  3. Adds a point of interest for your viewers

When selecting your foreground object try and choose something that has a distinctive shape, something that will be recognizable in a silhouette. It is also really helpful to have something to help the viewer identify with the location such as a palm tree on the beach, a bicycle, or even a unique building or city skyline.

Lastly by putting something in your shot closer to you than the horizon you add depth, like layers in your photograph. The foreground, or closer object, is the top layer and the horizon or sunset itself is the background or back layer. The more layers you have in your image, the more it will draw your viewer’s eye in for a closer look. It feels more three dimensional, like you could step into the scene, and gives you a sense of actually being there in person.

Sunset foreground object

Sunset foreground layers

Looking at the three images above, can you tell something about the places they were taken just by the foreground objects? That’s the idea!

#3 Making your sunset colours pop

This last tip involves playing with the setting on your camera that adjusts the colours. I’m talking about the White Balance. Usually you think of this adjustment as something that is corrective, such as filtering out green fluorescent light and neutralizing colour. But, it can also be used artistically.

Please read: White balance what is it, how to use it? to get a really good idea of the concept around the White Balance setting and how it works. Once you’re familiar with it, try playing with it by using different settings for your sunset.

If you know that choosing the “shade” White Balance presets will correct for blue shadows by adding orange tones to your image – think what that could do for a sunset. Hmmm?! Or perhaps the sunset was really more pink than orange – so by selecting “fluorescent” it will filter green out of your image by adding more pink.

Here’s a series of images shot using different White Balance presets. See how different they all look and feel? Keep in mind that if you shoot RAW files you can make these adjustment in your favourite image processor later as well. But personally I like to get it looking good on my camera when I shoot it, and get as close as possible to what I envision for the scene.

Sunset white balance 02

Sunset white balance 03

Sunset white balance 04

Sunset white balance 06

Notice there is also something in my foreground. What can you tell about this location from the foreground and even background objects? What type of place was this taken? (Hint: if you grew up or live near a farm you might get this one)

You can also use your “K” setting for White Balance adjustment if your camera has that option. That will give you a range from 2500-10,000 on the colour scale to play with. There might be times when you want more blue in the sky, like just after the sun dips beyond the horizon. Try “tungsten” or 2500K for a bluer image tone.

Some camera models also have a colour shift or correction option where you an customized the colour and shift it any which way: pink, green, yellow, blue. Get extra creative by trying different settings. Just remember if you do customization it may not reset back to zero when you’re done so do a check and reset your camera settings before you head home. That way you can avoid frustrations on your next photo trip.

Bonus tips

Just to leave you with a couple other things to think about when you head out to photograph your sunset.

Where to focus

If you put something in front of the horizon, ideally you want to focus on that object. The sky in effect becomes your background and it doesn’t need to be in sharp focus. A bit tree in the foreground in silhouette however, looks really odd when it’s blurry.

Rules of composition still applies

Composition is a whole book unto itself, so just a quick tip to remember that where you place the horizon will determine what is most important in your image. A low horizon will emphasize the sky, and a higher one (top third if following the rule of thirds) will emphasize the foreground or ground in general. That is usually good for things like reflections in water, or like the beach image above in the exposure examples.

ACTION PLAN

Okay, so what are you waiting for? I want to see some sunset images. Use the tips here to help you and please share your results in the comments below.

Cheers,
Darlene-1-250x130.png

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  • Jen

    Good article – wish I had read it yesterday before I took my sunset photos in Tucson at the Saguaro National Park.

    • still a pretty nice image! Did you shoot raw? Your exposure is good, and you have a foreground object. If you want the colors punchier you can adjust that in processing easily if it’s a raw file. But you’ve nailed two out of three already!

  • ColininOz

    Sunsets ans sunrises are addictive. One of each from my home beach in Queensland Australia

  • You’re most welcome, thanks for reading!

  • wow nice! where do you live Lenny? that’s a great view

  • SueDL

    Hi Darlene, here is one of the many sunset shots I have taken.

  • SueDL

    Sorry, I seem to be experiencing difficulty in uploading the image. Will try again.

    • Great colors. Keep your eye out for something to add to the foreground in front of the sunset – for next time.

  • Doug Bignell

    Thanks Darlene
    Great advise as always. Here is one of mine from a series shot in Fremantle, Western Australia,

  • Rosie Highers

    I’ve been taking sunrise and sunset photos for awhile now but love to read and learn whenever I can

  • Very pretty. If you want richer colors just under expose a little to make it darker.

  • Don’t blame you! That’s why we spent 2 weeks in Cuba and 3 in Nicaragua this winter!

  • KP Karunakaran

    Hi, Relatively new to this site, thought I would post a sunset shot for comments. KP

  • KP Karunakaran

    Hi, new to this site, thought I would post a picture for comments. KP

    • KP your photo hasn’t posted, try again

      • KP Karunakaran

        Hi not sure what I did wrong, could you let me know (or share the link) how to upload photos? Thanks, KP

        • KP when you click “reply” the box opens up. In the bottom left corner is a little icon that looks like a tiny little photo. Click that and it will allow you to select your image and upload it to the comment directly. Looks for this (see attached). Or you can literally just find your image on your hard drive, and drop it into this box.

      • KP Karunakaran

        Hi reduced the file size – I took this at Bondi beach in Sydney Oz (where I live)…

        • great silhouette shot, interesting clouds in the sky very whispy

          • KP Karunakaran

            Thanks Darlene, I pulled up my iPhone dictionary to look up “whispy” but did not find it! I think I know what you mean…

      • KP Karunakaran

        And the moon at dawn looking west

  • Anita Baer

    Sunset with with skyline of Johannesburg, South Africa

  • Yeshna Dookhee

    Hi Darlene, here’s a picture I took two days ago

    • great color, where is it?

      • Yeshna Dookhee

        Belle Mare beach, I’m from Mauritius

    • mizcaliflower

      really beautiful scene. I am so lovin the colors.

  • Ashiq P.M.

    Hi Darlene. As usual another set of useful tips. Thank you.

    On a trip to Maseerah island in Oman I noticed a mother and child searching for something on the shore;

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/ashiqpm/11960575536/

  • Fred Luang

    Hi Darlene, here’s mine.

    • I like the starburst effect here, do you know that’s created by a small aperture? So tell me did you want detail in the foreground here as you’ve chosen to do a lighter exposure.

  • Hedi Kunz-Kueper

    The night before I received your E-mail, I took this Picture. I could have used your advise. Next time!
    Thanks for all your tips. I love it!

  • Garry Patten

    Hi, loved reading your articles. Have been experimenting with sunsets and sunrises. This one I took on the Atherton Tablelands Queensland Australia.

    • I love how the shape of the tree and the cloud mirror each other!

      • Garry Patten

        Thank you Darlene.

  • Garry Patten

    Hi, love reading your articles. Have been experimenting with sunsets and sunrises. Here is one I took on the Atherton Tablelands Queensland Australia.

  • Darrell Bruggeman

    Always great information in your articles. I have been working at getting good sunset shots. Here is my latest.

    • Nice! If you want more color try giving it just a little bit more exposure.

      • Darrell Bruggeman

        Thanks for your input. This is what the image looks like after just a bit more work. I am much happier with it now.

        • Hmm, interesting – not exactly what I meant though. I meant in camera as it is a bit underexposed.

  • Guest

    Having trouble getting the photo to post.

  • Guru Darshan

    Having trouble uploading the pictures.

  • Guru Darshan

    Here is another one.

  • Guru Darshan

    Here is another one.

  • My favorite place at sunset – home.

  • Gary

    WB set for shade. Quick snap from my backyard.

    • nice, have you tried that before?

      • Gary

        That was my first WB adjustment for sunset. The intense orange was the result of fires in So. Cal. I’ve been working on my HDR skills and was wondering if the same WB adjustments would apply for HDRs. Any suggestions?

        • You have to be careful with HDR and adding color, they get oversaturated really quickly. Just err on the side of subtle.

  • mizcaliflower

    I’m not much of a sunriser, so I try to get the sunset when there is cloud drama . . . 😉
    For this latest photograph, I was driving East and this was in my rearview.
    I had to pull over and get out of my car to make these photos, then I just sat in my car and watched it until the only light left were purple slashes of clouds across the sky.

    • Guest

      For some reason the file didn’t load the first time….

    • Guest

      And here is the other side….

    • I love the line of cars seemingly oblivious to the majestic scene behind them.

  • mizcaliflower

    Sundown is my favorite time of day . . .

    • nice shot!

      • mizcaliflower

        Thanks Darlene. I really like the play of the light on the ripples.

  • Helen Curtis

    Hi, thanks for your article. This is one of my favourite pics, taken at Port Broughton, South Australia. I am not proficient with editing software, but would really like to know how (if?) I can tone down the brightness of the sun at all? I don’t believe I shot this one in RAW, so my options might be limited.

  • Don Barton

    Thanks, Darlene.

  • Guest

    I don’t know if this discussion is still active but here’s a recent sunset. It’s HDR but I feel like I’m missing the point with HDR as opposed to good normal post.

  • RLBOSTON2014

    I’m unsure if this discussion is still active but here goes…this is an HDR image and I’m still new to that and I’m wondering if plain post-processing does as well.

    • Nice image. Just curious why HDR on this one? Usually you do HDR to get more detail in both the sky and foreground, which in this shot is a silhouette.

      How far apart did you make your bracketed exposures? And yes I find that often now LR5 does as good a job with one file as more into an HDR in Photomatix.

      • RLBOSTON2014

        ‘Cause I don’t know what I’m doing, LOL. I was wanting more pop out of my sunsets, they seem to come out flat and they don’t look like that when I take them, I discovered part of the problem. I bracket x2 stops but somehow in my fumbling around it wound up shifted to the left so they were all darker than what I’d intended. It’s not exactly what you meant by your 10 challenges but it’s captured my imagination. I’m working my way around the lake. This is an abandoned beach from the week before, no HDR. Beautiful but I’m not bringing it home.

        • To get the colors to POP more just keep it darker like you have here. Try different WB settings and add contrast or clarity in processing.

  • RLBOSTON2014

    Ok, try this again. I don’t know if this discussion continues but here goes…I recently took this sunset. It’s HDR but I’m new to that and I’m not convinced decent post-process would do as well.

    I’ve tried Chrome and IE, I’ve tried dragging and dropping and I’ve tried clicking on the camera and dragging and dropping from a folder. I’m at a loss.

  • Marjorie Bull

    One of my all-time favorite shots. Sunset on Perdido Key, FL.

  • Michael Roth

    Hi Darlene, I just joined your site and I already like it. I spent a couple of hours in Two Guns, Arizona waiting for this sunset. Sunsets, sunrises and patience will certainly pay off in photos and happiness. Thanks for taking the time to mentor others.

  • geoff

    Hi Darlene thanks for tips, one of my worries in sunset/sunrise is that in getting plenty of colour into the sky, I’m changing the colour of the foreground objects too much. Can you comment on that? thanks, pic below also from queensland Australia. I also like turning the other way and getting the pinks.

    • Usually in a sunset the colors are everywhere naturally so you aren’t adding anything that isn’t already there. also if you do it like a silhouette most of the foreground will be dark. If you are adding saturation later just keep it natural looking and not too over the top.

  • geoff

    Hi Darlene thanks for tips. One of my main worries with sunset/rise is that by getting the colours good in the sky, I’m changing the color of the foreground items too much. any comments? I also like turning the other way and getting the pinks. thanks again Geoff (PS photo below also from Queensland Australia)

  • Guest

    A great article Darlene, sunsets are my absolute favourite kind of photography and your advice is always welcome. I’m posting a few which I have taken since taking your course and I’m starting to see the improvement, still a ways to go though 🙂

  • Lynne

    Thanks for the advice Darlene. Sunset is my absolute favourite time and after taking your course I’m seeing a big difference in my photographs, in fact I’m going re-read the notes and do the assignments again as there was so much to learn! These are a few of my recent pics.

    • Lynne

      Sorry, posted as a guest below!

    • Lynne

      Only two loaded so I’m trying again!

      • this is really pretty – one tip for lighthouses. Either use a longer exposure and make sure the light comes all the way around during the time it’s exposing, or time your shot to get the light ON at the top

        • Lynne

          I think I timed this one a bit better but would a longer exposure have made the light brighter? I wanted it to spread out into the sky like in the magazines but had no idea how to make it do that 🙂

        • Lynne

          I’m not sure if I’ve posted twice again! I timed this one a bit better but would a longer exposure have helped to make the light brighter? I wanted it to spread out into the sky like in the magazines 🙂

          • you won’t SEE the beam of light unless . . . there is smoke or particles in the air. Light has to bounce off something to be seen. Yes a longer exposure would help see the light stronger. But not a beam. Often in magazines – I hate to say it – they’d added the “beam” of light in Photoshop later.

          • Lynne

            Oh, kind of disappointing that they would do that but I’ll try the longer exposure as I’m all for artistic photography, but I prefer being as natural as possible!

          • Not saying they all do that but many. Just don’t believe everything you see is 100% as it was in reality that’s all. And there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s a preference and if you’re making art it’s artists choice.

          • Lynne

            True, but I suppose like any art, it’s subjective, and a matter of choice! Every day I see and learn more about photography, it’s an amazing journey 🙂

    • Lynne

      With this one I took your advice and looked behind me, the light was so soft and pretty!

    • awesome job! You’ve got great color, good exposure and something in front to add depth. Great job!

      • Lynne

        Thanks so much Darlene. I do feel like I’m improving and taking much more time composing and thinking about the light and my camera settings. I’m really looking forward to your next course 🙂

  • Thomas Curry

    Funny, I just went to my place in Rehoboth Beach, DE to do a little maintenance and I realized the skies were doing their thing and a great sunset was going to occur. So,I grabbed my tripod and camera and went to the edge of the bay, went out on a pier and these great sunset pics were taken.

  • Thomas Curry

    Here’s some more of my sunsets

  • Sara Messenger

    I tried taking pics of the sunset tonight and wasn’t really happy with how the photos turned out. So I came home and googled tips and came across your page. Here’s one of my best photos from tonight. Unfortunately, I was limited with my location so I wasn’t able to put something in the foreground. And I also forgot my tripod mount. Oops! What else should I have done differently? I was playing around with graduated neutral density filters for the first time. I signed up for your email and look forward to reading all of your tips! Thank you!

    • Looks great. Next time just do the things you’ve already mentioned – foreground and tripod. Keep shooting and have fun!

      • Sara Messenger

        Thank you!

  • Peter Bryant

    I usually don’t have much luck with sunset pictures but I have been practicing using more manual camera settings.

  • Mary James

    I was not preparing for a photo shoot BUT when I stepped into garden the rainbow was there and not trying to capture it in camera was not an option. Perhaps not the greatest composition and no tripod but I did remember to adjust exposure down and get something in the foreground. So: Aperture priority; f7.1; ISO 200; 18mm; -1.7EV; 1/60. Then turning around to look in direction of sun setting, through the trees I captured the lovely colours reflected on the clouds – had time to mount camera on tripod for that shot.

  • Mary James

    Morning light here is often beautiful – today I decided to miss early morning training session in the pool, catch the light and take photos at the beach instead! These were taken hand held on my Nikon D3300 using kit lens. Photo 1) Aperture priority ISO 200; 55mm; -1.7EV; f7.1; 1/640. Photo 2) Aperture priority; ISO 200; 38mm; -1.7EV; f7.1; 1/800. Photo 3) Aperture priority: ISO 200 55mm; -1.3EV; f7.1; 1/200 White Balance was on auto – might try it with shade next time and see what happens. Took time to apply camera settings before I got to the beach. Do find the overwhelming desire to take shots before light changes too much locks me into what I have already set instead of experimenting further.

  • IAmRobyn

    I took some photos last night at Devil’s Elbow north of Florence and was looking for tips on how to get “sunset mode” colors but using the manual setting. I was shocked to see your Devil’s Elbow pictures front and center here! Cool!
    (I posted one on Oregon Coast Images FB page)

  • Evgeny Belashov

    Sunset clouds over Kyiv after a shower.

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