- August 27, 2018
- 24 min to read
Why Most of Your Sunset Photos Turn Out Crappy (And How To Change That)
Have you tried photographing sunsets on many occasions and had disappointing results? Did the sun turn out looking like a big, blurry, yellow ball? Did the overall photo look dark and gloomy or totally blown out?
After your many attempts, you may think that it is impossible to capture those beautiful and colorful sunsets. Don’t despair, there are ways to seize those stunning sunsets that you can be proud to show. There are also options available to adjust your photos afterwards with a few quick and easy edits.
Photographing sunsets can be tricky and does necessitate some basic technical knowledge and also a little bit of patience and preparation. Some tips are more technical, while others are on a more creative level. This means that the success of your sunset photos does not entirely rest on the settings you set in your camera. You need to analyze and notice your environment to use it to your advantage. Many factors come into account when shooting sunsets. We’ll take a look at a few tips and tricks to successfully photograph sunsets.
You don’t need to be a professional photographer to take great sunset photos, but you can learn to take them like one.
Enough with the crappy sunset photos!
Common Mistakes to Avoid
There are a few common and routine mistakes that amateurs and photo enthusiasts make when photographing sunsets.
Shooting The Sun Directly
Most sunset photos turn out bad because we tend to want to shoot into the sun directly. This is mistake number one! There are various angles and numerous compositions to take into consideration to get interesting and well-exposed shots.
There is also a debate about the sun being harmful to your camera sensor. Some argue that it’s harmless and others are adamant that shooting directly into the sun can damage your camera.
When we think of a sunset, we tend to think of the few minutes before it disappears on the horizon. Sunsets are a lot more than that! Shooting only these few minutes can prevent you from getting some pretty amazing and unique sunset shots.
Sunsets are continuous light and color-changing events. Applying an exposure setting and leaving it without changing may result in overexposed or underexposed photos.
(In this photo the focus is on the foreground which makes the sun blown out)
(In this photo the focus on the sun, the camera underexposes the scene)
It’s easy to take a bad sunset photo and want to adjust it in a photo editing software to try to fix the exposure and other elements in the image. This can result in unnatural looking photographs that look exaggerated and over edited. Try to get the best shot you can in camera and try to do the least edits possible.
(Over-edited sunset photo)
12 Great Tips and Tricks to Shoot Sunsets
There is no magic formula to shooting sunsets. Nature is unpredictable and is ever-changing, so you need to be aware and armed with a few basic tips and tricks to have at your disposal that you can apply when going out to shoot sunsets.
Let’s take a look at a few of these useful tips to help you get the best sunset photos that you can.
1. Consider The Sun PLUS The Surroundings
A common mistake photographers make is to want to shoot the sun. Only the sun. Yes, it’s beautiful from where you are standing and you desperately want to capture the colors and the beauty in the moment, but a sun and nothing else will most often than not make an uninteresting photograph.
Analyzing your surroundings and noticing interesting elements to include in your shot will almost always make your photos more captivating. Having the setting sun as your main element will not always provide you with an extraordinary photo.
Think about it. You as the spectator of this scene is observing a natural event that includes a setting sun plus many more surrounding elements. The beauty of it is probably the inclusion of many elements together. This is what makes this scene so remarkable! The sun does not have to be the focal point of your photo and it still will be considered a sunset photo.
Mountaintops? Trees? Buildings? Beach rocks? A fence? Look around, walk around, and try to find a spot to frame the setting sun naturally and organically.
(Framing the setting sun within the palm trees)
(Use foreground elements to add interest and dimension)
2. Weather and Skies
The weather will have an impact on your photos, obviously, but maybe not the way that you may think. Observing a lot of clouds in the sky will probably have you thinking that you can’t possibly get a great sunset photo.
On the contrary, when the sun has set, observe the colors that the clouds reflect for many minutes later. This phenomenon can last up to a full half hour past the official setting of the sun. This can be a magical occasion for some great sunset shots.
A flat and cloudless sky can also provide good sunset photos, but will have less texture and will tend to be slightly less interesting. This is when you can use techniques like silhouetting (we’ll look into that later in the article).
(A rainy day can actually provide great photo opportunities during the sunset hours)
3. Golden Hour and Blue Hour
The Golden Hour is the hour preceding the actual sunset and provides exceptional light and photo opportunities. During this time the light is warm and shadows are soft and long. Try to play with these elements to create some original photographs. Don’t wait until the last minute to shoot the sunset. Try to prepare at least an hour before the sun actually goes down to grasp all the possibilities available.
Look around and notice the shadows that are being created. These can be interesting and creative elements that you can add in your photos.
Blue Hour happens the hour after the sun has set and the skies are still changing and morphing. You may need a tripod to avoid camera shake at this time as it gets darker. Remember that it is still a very interesting time to get amazing photo opportunities. The sky will photograph dark blue and look more dramatic and intense.
Try to prepare your sunset photography and remember that it isn’t only those few minutes where the sun is hitting the horizon. There sometimes is a 2-hour period with great photo ops you can take advantage of.
Look for sources of water. A lake, a river, the ocean, even a puddle of rainwater in the street. All these make great reflecting elements to get some pretty stunning sunset photos. Get creative and shoot the setting sun from a different perspective.
If you’re in a cityscape, try looking at the buildings around you. Maybe the sun is hitting a building and providing a stunning reflection! Take the time to observe your surroundings and you’ll start noticing mundane elements can actually become interesting features in your photographs.
Remember that you don’t have to make the sun the focal point and put it straight-center in the middle of your photograph. Sometimes this will work well, but sometimes composing your photo in a different way will make it more interesting.
The rule of thirds is a tried-and-tested composition method used by photographers worldwide. For all types of photography, this rule often works very well to capture a photo that looks structured and pleasing to the eye. Try putting the main element off to one side of the image if the scene offers other interesting features. Don’t put your horizon line in the middle of the shot. Instead try putting it on the bottom third of the composition, leaving more space for the sky. And make sure that it’s straight. Nothing says amateur photographer like a crooked horizon line!
(The sun is on the left hand side of the photograph. The buildings are an interesting and colorful element and should occupy a good part of the photograph in this composition)
There are also many other composition scenarios. Check out this great article explaining various composition tips and tricks that you can apply to your sunset photos.
Silhouette photography is a fun way to get creative, and during golden/blue hours are some of the best times to capture these shots.
Place your subject in front of your light source and expose for the background and not the subject.
(Shooting silhouette photography during the blue hour, after the sun has set)
7. Get Inspired!
Take a look at what other photographers are doing in terms of sunset photography.
It’s always fun to look at great photographs! Browsing other photographers’ works will give you inspirations and possible ideas to apply to your own photography. Just remember not to copy anyone else’s work. Use your creativity to develop your own unique style.
You may have all the creative ideas down-pact, but if you don’t know how to set your camera’s settings in order to capture what you have in mind, you may end up frustrated.
Now, let’s get a little technical.
Every sunset is different and every sunset will require different settings to achieve good exposures. There is no magic formula, but there are a few technicalities to keep in mind when shooting sunsets.
You will need to get out of auto-mode and experiment with manual or semi-automatic modes in order to achieve interesting sunset photos. Shooting in full manual mode may slow you down as the light is constantly changing during a sunset. You may have to spend a lot of time unnecessarily puttering around with your settings.
A good suggestion is to put your camera in Shutter Priority Mode and setting your ISO to 100 (and raise It as the light diminishes). From here experiment with your aperture to see what happens. Start with a smaller aperture, like f8 or f11, and move wider as the light fades, like f4. The camera will determine the shutter speed according to the changing light conditions.
Using Exposure Compensation can also be a good trick for sunset photography. If you decide to shoot directly into the sun your camera senses the brightness of the sun and may want to darken the photo to compensate. Try setting the value to +1 EV or so and it may help with possible underexposed shots.
9. Auto White Balance Mode
Get your camera out of Auto-White Balance. This is a great feature to use in normal conditions, but not during sunset photography. The sensor will have a difficult time analyzing the light and trying different modes can help you to achieve better colors. Sometimes “shade” works well to get beautiful golden tones. Try different White Balance modes and see what happens.
Another great trick when photographing sunsets is to shoot in Bracketing Mode. Shoot 3 different exposures of the same scene and then you have the option to stack them or blend them during your editing process. You may want to use a tripod when shooting bracketed because any slight movement during the 3 exposure shots may result in blurry images.
11. Shoot RAW
It’s recommended to shoot sunsets in RAW because of the non-destructive way you can adjust your white balance during editing. Shooting RAW will also give you the opportunity to recover some lost highlights and shadows that may occur during sunset photography.
There will most probably be some type of editing to do on your sunset photos post shooting. Using an easy and automatic photo editor like Photolemur will certainly help you to achieve the correct edits in a few simple clicks and in only a few minutes.
Get Out There and Shoot
Shooting sunsets isn’t a definitive science and there is no magic recipe to apply in a general way. Sunsets are unique and light changes quickly over a short period of time. Photography is about light and understanding it will make you a better photographer.
Get out there and experiment. Experimenting and practicing will make you more comfortable with the settings on your camera. Keep in mind some of these tips and tricks we mentioned and apply them when shooting sunsets, you’ll see your photography skills rise to the next level, no doubt.
Don’t be intimidated by sunset photography. We know it can get frustrating at times, but don’t be afraid to try and try again. You will eventually get familiar with some settings that work best in certain conditions and you will notice that your sunset photos don’t look so crappy anymore.
The saying “practice makes perfect” is absolutely applicable when it comes to photography.
Have fun shooting those amazing sunsets and showing off your new skills to friends and family.