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Techniques & Gear \ Aug 3rd 2017

How to Take Sunset Photos that Will Make People Cry (of Envy)

“He who travels for vacation, displays sunset photos with pride.” – you may have never heard this quote, but apparently, it is attributed to a person who chose to stay anonymous within the Wix Photography Blog Team. And if you want people to be absolutely dumbfounded by your sunset creations (and jealous of your vacations!), you better know how to navigate that twilight zone with your image capturing device.

Whether you’re using a top-notch DSLR, or simply a smartphone, these tips will help you discover how to take fab sunset photos. Think that sunsets are too corny? Think again. No matter the subject, a truly striking snapshot can skip the cliché kingdom, and fall directly into your online portfolio. From composition to exposure, to some great shots for inspiration, we’ve compiled the best sunset photography tips for you to win this summer. Get those camera settings ready and prepare to catch the sun going down (and the number of website visitors going up!).

couple in sunset

Sunset: the challenge

Why is it tricky to photograph sunsets in the first place? Glad you asked. There are a few reasons that can make this type of shots challenging:

  • Being caught off guard without the proper gear.
  • Conditions are changing too quickly.
  • Light is too strong at the beginning, and too weak at the end.
  • Photos are prone to overexposure.
  • You want your image to stand out of the millions of sunset photos out there.
  • Your partner is upset that you’re spending it with your camera instead of them.

While we can’t help you deal with the latter, every one of the other challenges above can be easily solved if you follow the tips below.

Resist the temptation

The colors look perfect, the composition – magnificent, and it looks like the perfect shot is one shutter click away. While that might be true, and you’re just about to make your Instagram followers go green with envy, capturing genuinely stunning sunset photos requires some preparation. Take the time to find the best viewpoint in your location, and snap a few test shots. These will allow you to see later on how different camera settings result on actual photos (and not on the display).

Sun sets, time flies

A sunset normally takes about 30 minutes, during which conditions change quickly, not allowing a lot of room for improvisation… If you chose a location in advance, try to get there at least half an hour before the sun actually starts setting. You can use one of the many sunset calculator apps (or websites) available today to find out the exact time and at which angle the sun will go down at your spot. Let the magic happen in the right place, at the right time.

Prepare the right equipment (did someone just say “tripod”?) and make sure to check the weather too. Don’t be afraid of dust or smoke in the air – these can actually contribute to the stunningness of a sunset photo. By the way, a rainy day has a terrific potential for an awesome sunset, as the clouds start to break up and create a canvas thirsty for colorful sun rays.Photographer with tripod shooting the sunset

Let the composition begin

According to the rule of thirds, every third photo of a sunset comes out perfect. Just kidding 😉 We brought up the most well-known rule of photo composition to remind you that it’s as relevant as always: try to place the main point of interest (like the horizon or the sun) not in the image’s center. It will help to create a balanced scene that is pleasing to the eye. For example, if the sunset is beautiful, give it more space by placing the horizon line in the bottom third. If the foreground is more eye-catching, it’s recommended to place the horizon line in the top third of the photo.

Another good idea is to include silhouettes. Be it a boat, a hammock, a rock, or a couple holding hands – these elements have the potential of becoming the image’s main “show”, performing on a spectacular sunset backdrop. What would make the best silhouette? An easily recognizable shape positioned between you and the sun, through which the setting sun can shine through.

Choosing the right composition might also depend on the sun’s position. For example, if the sun is still high in the sky, the light might be too intense. The best way to handle this situation is to hide the sun (or hide from the sun, depends on who you ask) behind an object in the foreground, like a lighthouse, a tree, or a silhouette. This way the colors will remain rich, but with no extra glow. On the other hand, if you want the sun to play the leading role in your frame, you’ll have to wait until it gets closer to the horizon line. Even though the light won’t be as strong, you still might need to fine-tune exposure settings to get it right.

Narrow it down

A wide angle is great for landscape photography, but if the star of your story is the sun (literally speaking), you might want to zoom in or use a narrow lens. The tripod you brought along for the shoot should become very useful at this point. Just make sure not to zoom directly when the sun is still high above the horizon, as it might be dangerous for your eyes and the sensor.

Time to get exposed

A sunset is a perfect opportunity to sip a good glass of red wine; it is also the best moment to turn the camera’s automatic settings off. Now is the time to experiment with different exposures, instead of counting on the camera to decide what’s right. In fact, there is no right and wrong when it comes to sunsets. Using a variety of aperture and shutter speeds will generate gorgeous results, and will also give you plenty of photos to choose from.

Go for underexposure first: a fast shutter speed in manual mode will fill the entire scene with dramatically richer colors. Then, try different exposure settings. Here are two neat tricks to do it:

  • Bracketing. The idea is to take the same photo a few times, the first – with the camera’s recommended setting, then some intentionally underexposed shots, and then with overexposure. If your camera doesn’t have this feature built-in, you can do it manually using the recommended exposure as a reference point.
  • Use the Auto Exposure Lock option. Point the camera at something darker than the sunset (for example, the ground), and press the Auto Exposure Lock button (labeled as AE+L on some cameras). Now, reframe the photo to include everything you wanted to capture. This way, the sunset shot will be overexposed.

sunset photo with different exposures

By the way, if you’re shooting next to a water source (like the sea, river or a waterfall), definitely experiment with a long exposure to capture the motion blur of the flowing water.

Balance the white balance

If you want the final image to reflect the intensity of colors that you see with your own eyes, Custom White Balance option is the way to go. Leaving the white balance on Auto will make the camera correct the colors by itself, resulting in weakly captured hues. Don’t have a grey card within reach? You can make your sunset colors warmer by changing the White Balance setting to Cloudy or Shade. This way the camera will make up for the color warmness that’s normally lost in shady areas. Golden tones, here we come!

Shoot ‘em while they’re RAW

Whatever settings you choose, it is highly recommended to shoot in RAW rather than JPEG. This will give you an opportunity to fix any white balance or color saturation issue on your computer (or photo app) afterward.

Stay curious

This time of day and setting provides many opportunities for other interesting shots. It would be a pity to miss them! Look around and try to find scenes not only in front of you. Perhaps you’ll see an object, a building or a waterway with a beautiful reflection of the firy sky? As the day fades out, you might capture a wonderful portrait, a macro, or a landscape photo to complete your photo adventure.

Get inspired!

Grab your chance to see how the sun sets down through the lens of talented Wix photographers:

Edge of the Map

sunset over the sea

Paulius Kumpys

Sunset over a wheat field

Ilya Lisauskas

woman on the beach in sunset

Robert’s Camera

sunset over a landscape with a silhuoette

Takashi Mukai

Red sunset

 

Ready to stun the world with your sunset photos? Create a free online portfolio with Wix!

Julia Ronen
By Julia Ronen
Creative Content Developer for Wix Expert Communities

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