Sunsets were one of my first loves when it came to photography, evenings wandering off into the New Forest (we’re originally from down south) culminating in stunning sunsets. That being said, it took me a while to figure out how to get the best out of the beautiful evening light. When I started I had a whole bunch of questions! So here is my guide full of sunset photography tips! First, we’ve got a few questions to answer- What causes beautiful sunsets? What’s the best time for outdoor photography? What is ‘golden hour’? What’s the best time for sunset photos and how long before sunset should I start photographing?
I’m going to start this one by saying I’m by no means a meteorologist! Let’s first look at why the sky is blue in the daytime. Light from the sun (or anywhere) is made up of all the colours of the rainbow, as it enters the Earth’s atmosphere, the short-wavelength blue light is, more than any other colour, scattered in all directions so the sky appears blue in daylight. At sunset, however, the sun is lower in the sky, so the light has further to travel which causes the blue light to be blocked and scattered away allowing the longer wavelengths of oranges and red to show in the sky.
Whilst it’s not the clouds themselves which cause the stunning sunset, it’s high- to mid-level clouds which are the canvas for these oranges and reds. Lower clouds, like big rainclouds, are not very helpful for reflecting the light and puffy clouds on the horizon tend to not allow light to pass through them.
Clean air is another factor in producing a beautiful sunset as clean air does a great job of scattering the blue light. Whilst big rain clouds aren’t good for reflecting the light, the time after a big storm can often be one of the best times for a dramatic sunset as the air is that much cleaner allowing more vivid colours to pass through.
There isn’t really a correct answer to this, it will depend on what you’re looking to photograph, what the weather is like, the seasons and all sorts of other factors.
However, if it’s a sunny day, the time around sunrise or sunset know as the golden hour, is that best time for photography. After all, photography is all about light, and during these times, the sun is low on the horizon and as was mentioned earlier the blue colours are being scattered more by the atmosphere leaving beautiful warm light. This warm light can make for incredible sunsets, but it’s also a fantastic time for photographing other things such as people or animals because of those stunning warm colours.
Alternatively, if it’s a cloudy or overcast day you might actually be better off in the afternoon as it will get darker sooner and during the daytime, you won’t have to worry about harsh shadows on people’s faces caused by a high sun. You won’t get the best warm colours, so you may want to consider shooting a more vibrant colourful scene such as in a forest, shooting up close (macro) or even shooting a waterfall/ river (there’s a whole other blog in how to shoot them!)
Golden hour is the time either side of sunset (or sunrise) where the sun is low in the sky, producing a beautiful warm (or golden) light. This warm light can be stunning for portraits, animal photos and of course sunsets.
The first step, check when sunset is tonight! You can find this on most weather forecasts or just Google the words ‘when is sunset’ and Google will work it’s magic. It’s best to be on the lookout in the afternoon for high or mid level clouds, or if there is a big storm passing through in the afternoon, these are good signs that you could be on for a dramatic sunset.
If you’re going for it, head out to your planned location about an hour before sunset. This will give you plenty of time to get out to your location, and scout about for the best angle.
My biggest tip to do with time however would actually be after sunset. Don’t leave as soon the moment the sun drops below the horizon. Stick around, often you’ll find the sky lights up 10-20 minutes after the sun actually disappears.
5 tips to taking stunning sunset pictures
This, for me, is the most important of my sunset photography tips – don’t just rely on the camera to get the correct exposure. It will do an okay job but often with overexpose your image which will then be too bright and won’t show to stunning colours.
Slightly underexposing sunset images will ensure the colours are rich and defined. The entire scene will be more dramatic. To underexpose, set your camera to manual mode and select a faster shutter speed. Underexposing can also have another benefit – it can produce some striking silhouettes.
If you’re using an iPhone, here’s a handy little guide explaining how to adjust the exposure of your image.
- Find a foreground
Even with the most dazzling sunset, with amazing colours it’s always worth thinking about the foreground. The foreground is what takes a photo from being a beautiful sunset to a stunning image. So look around, find an interesting pier, lake or even a person. Just find something interesting to put in the foreground. This way, when you exposure correctly for the sky, the object will become a striking silhouette.
If you’re photographing a portrait, you may find that by positioning them between you and the sunset, if you get the exposure just right the sun will light up their hair, which can really add some character to your portrait.
- Consider your composition
The next step is the composition. One of the most important rules or guidelines in photography is the ‘Rule of Thirds’ – quite simply a photograph looks better when you split the image into thirds. It’s also one of the most important sunset photography tips. So when photographing a sunset, putting the horizon on the bottom third – to highlight a spectacular sunset – or the top third – to highlight a particularly interesting foreground.
- Look around
As amazing as watching, and photographing, a stunning sunset can be sometimes you have to turn around and look away from the sunset. Often you will find the colours just as dramatic looking the other way. It can also be a fantastic time to take portraits – it’s often called the golden hour by photographers because the warm orange glow at sunset can make beautiful family portraits.
- Keep shooting
This one is often easy to miss. When you go out to photograph the sunset it can be tempting to head home once the sun drops below the horizon.
Don’t make this mistake.
Often about 20 minutes after the sunset the sky seems to light up again. It can be all to easy to give up and head home before this but just sit back and enjoy. Often the colour of the sky can appear even more stunning as the light begins to fade. And then if you’re feeling adventurous you could even try your hand at a bit of astro-photography – but that’s a whole other blog!