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The Complete Guide To Sunset Photography

Want to take gorgeous sunset pictures? We’ve got the lowdown on the best cameras, lenses, filters, shooting techniques, and camera settings for sunset photos.

Want to learn how to take sunset pictures? Sunset photos are a classic type of photography that every landscape photographer should have in their repertoire. They make for universally appealing images (great news if you’re trying to sell your landscape photography and they’re absolute gold on Instagram. Even better, they make a stunning addition to your online photography portfolio, helping you land more fans—and clients.

Taking great pictures of the sunset doesn’t necessarily require a ton of specialized gear, though it might take a little finesse—including careful manipulation of your camera settings—to make your sunset photo match the blazingly beautiful scene you see before you.

If you’re a neophyte sunset photographer, that might sound daunting, but never fear: with our handy guide on how to photograph sunsets, you’ll be taking absolutely beautiful sunset images in no time. Let’s get started!

Sunset Photography 101

Regardless of how high your skill level is—or how fancy your gear is—there are a few basic sunset photography tips that anyone can benefit from.

Safety first: be careful when photographing the sun! Looking directly at the sun—even through a rangefinder—for a prolonged period of time can cause retinal damage, and, in extreme cases, can also damage the sensor on your camera. A safer way to go is to use the LCD monitor on your camera to compose your shot—but don’t use it any longer than you need to.

Before your date with that big flaming ball in the sky, it’s worth cruising through the online portfolios of your fave travel photographers and landscape photographers for a little inspiration. How are they capturing their amazing sunset photos?

Check the weather report before you head out; you’ll need a clear view of the sun. But, if there are a few clouds, don’t despair: clouds can add some atmosphere and drama to sunset photos by catching different colours in the light or creating silhouettes in the sky.

Check beforehand to see when sundown will happen that day, so you can take some time to set up your shot in advance. Often, mobile weather apps will also the scheduled sunset time for the day, while more specialized landscape photography apps can calculate the precise angle of sunset, shadow lengths, and other in-depth info. Be sure that your lens and sensor are clean! The dramatic lighting conditions will throw annoying speckles of dust and dirt into even more obvious focus.

When in doubt, remember landscape photographer Deborah Sandidge’s top tip for sunset photographers: the sun doesn’t necessarily need to be the focus of your picture. The best sunset pictures showcase the effects of the sunset on nearby objects, or on the surrounding landscape, using that saturated lighting to its full potential.

Finally, before you head out, brush up on your outdoor photography basics with our roundup of 10 essential landscape photography tips.

What are the Best Cameras For Sunset Photography?

Those looking to invest in a new camera body or system might be wondering about the best camera for sunsets. The good news: Pretty much any digital camera that offers manual control over camera settings will be able to do a pretty good job of capturing sunset photos!

There are, however, some features that make certain models the best cameras for landscape photography. When it comes to sunset pictures, the biggest thing you’ll want to keep in mind is dynamic range, which refers to the amount of detail a camera can capture within both light and dark areas of a single frame. A wide dynamic range will keep you from getting a blown-out image with good detail in darker areas (or, conversely, a dark, underexposed image with good detail in lighter areas).

Some camera models praised for their great dynamic range include the Canon EOS R, Sony A7 and Nikon D850. For more models, check out this list of the best still cameras for landscape photography.

The Best Camera Settings For Sunsets

When it comes to sunset photography, settings and technique are far more important than owning specialized gear (good news for beginners and budget-oriented shooters alike). Camera settings for sunsets (including DSLR settings for sunsets) generally involve maximizing depth of field and accounting for the bright light of the sun shining into the camera over other concerns like shutter speed.

Use your camera’s aperture priority mode, particularly if you’re just getting started taking sunset photos. (Aperture priority is usually found by turning your camera’s settings dial to “A” or “Av”). In basic terms, aperture priority lets you set the aperture, and the camera will automatically change the shutter speed for you. You can (of course) also use your camera’s manual setting.

Aperture

Set the aperture number high (between f/11 and f/16) to get the largest possible depth of field and keep as much of the scene in focus as possible. Shooting at a high f-stop can also create a cool starburst effect in your sunset photo.

ISO

Keep your ISO as low as possible in order to avoid graininess. Keep in mind, though, that you might have to crank the ISO higher as the sun goes down and the scene becomes dimmer in order to keep your f-stop number high.

White Balance

The auto white balance setting generally works fine, though you may want to experiment with the daylight, cloudy, or even shade settings to bring out different tones in the image—you can get more yellow, purple, pinkish, or red sunset pictures this way.

RAW vs. JPEG

The amount of detail in sunset photos makes this a prime opportunity for shooting RAW.

Focus

Some cameras have a hard time focusing in extreme lighting conditions; if you find that’s the case, you may want to try switching to manual focus.

Exposure

You may want to dial down the exposure on your sunset photo so that the scene isn’t completely blown out by the intense sunlight. This technique can also be used to create dramatic silhouetted images—check our our guide to silhouette photography for a more specific how-to.

What are the Best Lenses For Sunsets?

You don’t necessarily need a specialized lens to take a great sunset picture—many landscape photographers have gotten great results with just a kit lens—but each type of lens will bring something new to your sunset photography.

Wide-angle lenses—a necessary addition to any landscape photographer’s lens arsenal—are generally the most popular with sunset photographers, since they capture the widest amount of the surrounding area in your sunset photo. They’ll also shrink the sun relative to the rest of the frame, which means your shot will be less affected by a narrow dynamic range.

A telephoto lens will do the opposite, making the sun look larger, while isolating a smaller portion of the landscape, which can be used to great effect if you’d like to hone in on one specific part of the scene. (Keep in mind that the telephoto lens acts as a magnifying glass, which makes it even more important to avoid looking directly into the sun while shooting!)

Though some find the fixed focal length of prime lenses limiting for landscape photography, they can also make for incredibly sharp images. If you try experimenting with a silhouette or portrait photography while shooting sunsets, a prime lens will turn that sunset background into beautifully diffused bokeh.

For a more in-depth look at lens options, here’s our round-up of the essential landscape photography lenses.

What are the Best Filters For Sunsets?

If you frequently shoot the sunset, filters can be an important addition to your gear. A graduated neutral density filter, which goes from dark to light in an ombre pattern, can help boost the dynamic range in a sunset shot, darkening the brilliantly-lit sky while letting the camera take in enough light to make sure the rest of the landscape is properly exposed.

Polarizing filters—generally used to deepen colour and cut down on reflections—are hugely popular among landscape photographers, but some experts suggest taking them off before you shoot a sunset, arguing that they don’t necessarily boost the colour in a sunset photo and could cause lens flares in your image.

What are the Best Tripods For Sunsets?

When it comes to shooting the sunset, tripods—already one of the essential accessories for landscape photographers—are absolutely invaluable.

When taking pictures of the sunset, your focus will likely be on capturing the details in a scene over versus fast-moving action, making this a perfect time to opt for the stability of a tripod over the flexibility of handheld shooting (which generally comes with a big side of camera shake). Additionally, a tripod will allow you to play with long exposures, which are particularly great for giving water a fluid, ethereal look in sunset beach photos.

Shopping for landscape photography tripods generally involves striking a balance between lightness (which keeps your gear easy to carry) and heaviness (which will keep your gear from blowing away in a sudden gust of wind).

Since beaches and sunset photography go hand-in-hand, you may also want to look for something that can handle a little water and sand. Carbon-fibre tripods, unlike metal tripods, are resistant to corrosion; photographers have also come up with some clever DIY hacks, like sliding PVC pipe from the hardware store over their tripod legs to protect them from sand and water damage.

Along with a tripod, you may also want to invest in a remote shutter release for your camera for that extra little bit of hands-free stability.

Tripods are essential for shooting sunset landscapes, but remember: veteran landscape photographers caution against letting your tripod “grow legs.” Once you’ve got a few shots you’re happy with at one tripod position, try to move it around a little between shots and test out different angles and vantage points. Feel free to experiment!

Shooting Beach Sunset Pictures And Ocean Sunset Pictures

Beaches, oceans, and seasides are some of the best places to capture gorgeous sunset photos—the interplay between bright light, reflecting water, and shadowy sand dunes and rocks make for some stunning artistic possibilities.

Showing up early is always a good call when shooting sunsets, but here it’s especially key—arriving 45 minutes before sundown will let you take full advantage of the golden hour and capture those rich, sunny tones bouncing off the waves. Sunset can also create long shadows that pop up in the sand and waves, adding extra impact to a sunset picture.

When you’re shooting sunset pictures at the beach, you may have to contend with having more people in your shot—which, depending on your outlook, can either be an interesting feature or a nuisance. If you’d rather capture your beach scene free of swimmers and sunbathers, consider hunting for a more secluded section of the beach, or try to visit in the off-season.

In terms of gear, wide-angle lenses—particularly those between 28 and 35 mm—are especially useful when taking sunset beach photos, since they’ll let you get more of that glorious oceanside landscape into the frame.

You’ve Got Your Sunset Photos—Now What?

Now that you’ve learned how to photograph sunsets, it’s time to upload those amazing sunset pictures to your online photography portfolio. Don’t have one yet? Use a website builder to create one in a snap.

Go for an online portfolio that offers striking themes that will help you show off those vibrant sunset images. If you’re looking to sell prints of your sunset photos, a built-in online store is also a must for your portfolio. Instagram integration will show folks browsing the portfolio your latest sunset pictures, and a built-in blog is always a great idea to help visitors to your site get a feel for your personality and learn about the story behind each shot.

Don’t know where to start? Check out our guide on how to build the perfect landscape photography portfolio for tips on narrowing down your shots, developing a brand, writing a bio, and more.

Ready to build a photography portfolio website that captures clients’ attention? From image-focused themes to a built-in proofing tool, we’ve got photographers covered. Start your free trial with Format today!

Now get out there and chase that light!

Lead image by Tudor Stanescu, a Toronto based urban and landscape photographer.

Want some more tips on advancing your photography?
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