Capturing Sunsets

The interplay of light, the mingling of colors and quickly changing scenario make sunsets a favorite subject for photographers. Every evening the colors are different. Each sunset is different from another. A nicely captured sunset can be a very satisfying effort.

Sunset at Natadol


Camera settings –

White Balance- Set it to ‘daylight’. Do not use Auto. Auto white balance can dilute the impact of the bright colors of sunset. Sometimes setting the white balance to ‘Shade’ or ‘Shadow’ can further help redden the skies.

Image Settings- Use vivid for capturing those colors at their best. Boosting the saturation further helps. In Nikon, highest saturation in Vivid setting is more colorful than the highest saturation level in any other image settings.

Exposure Compensation– Quite frequently, the skies get washed out when evaluative metering modes are used. Try under exposing by changing the exposure compensation to -1 or -2. Bracket your shots for exposure when in doubt or for creating HDR. (I’ll be writing about this aspect sometime in future in another article.)

Stabilize- Use tripod when possible and stick with low ISO. High ISO noise looks terrible in sunsets.

Standard lens- 50mm lens on 35mm film / sensor gives the best coverage in most sunsets. Anything wider tends to include a lot of characterless sky. Do not give way to that pressing need to use a wideangle for sunset photographs.  On the other hand, too long a lens fails to cover the fine gradations across the frame.


Pink Sunset at Natadol

(Sometimes after a drizzle, the atmospheric dust clears off and the sunset has splashes of cool colors too. Nikon Df camera with a Nikkor 50mm lens.)


What looks good in sunsets?
Apart from the sky and the settings sun, there are a lot of things that can add character to sunset photographs.

Silhouettes look good. Dark outlines of some common shapes against a colorful sunset always catch attention. These add a point of relief for the eyes in an overall colorful photograph.

Foreground Shades. Sunsets with different shades in the foreground look attractive. This is one of the reasons why a lot of sunsets at beaches and mountains look so enchanting.

Clouds. These play around with the sunlight and create those dramatic shades. A cloudless sunset may look good to see but it misses the attraction that clouds add to the scene.

Dust. Believe it or not, the atmospheric dust plays an important role in getting those orange-red shades. Light gets scattered due to the atmospheric dust and results in those warm shades. This is also the reason why sun-rises do not look so warm and colorful.

Colors. Warm colors look natural for sunset photographs but a dash of cool hues here and there can add the much needed impact. Understand the color theory and the impact colors have on our minds. (Using colors effectively)

Motion blurs. Slow shutterspeeds which cause motion blur, contrast well with sharp outlines of clouds and silhouettes. Do not have the whole image blurred. Some parts should be sharp. On sea-beaches, soft blur of sea-waves with a sharply outlined sunset looks attractive. As an added bonus, long exposures help in keeping the ISO low.

Composition rules. When in doubt, try using some of the composition rules from these articles – Composition Rules – Part I, Composition Rules – Part II

Do not focus at infinity. Depending on the aperture used, shift your focus a little to the front. Use hyperfocal distance focusing. More about it – Staying Focused




Some tips to get the best out of sunset photographs –

Golden Hour. The sunset in itself may not be as impressive as the sky after the sunset. Photographers call it the golden hour. Depending on the location (latitude) and season, this golden hour maybe just a few minutes or last even over a couple of hours. Do not rush home after the sun sets but wait for the sky to become completely dark. Great photographs show themselves during this time. Do not leave the spot too early.

ND filters. Graduated ND filters can further darken the sky. These filters can be quite useful when the foreground needs to be brightened (see the last image in this article). Unfortunately the results can be quite bland at times. Be careful when using these filters. Simple ND filters on the other hand can help achieve the required amount of motion blur.

Sunset filters can spoil the sunsets. These are yellow-red filters that turn the overall scene orange-ish. At the first glance, the effect looks good. However when studied in depth, these filters just darken the hues other than the orange sky. A better option for darkening the sky would be to use a blue filter to darken the sky and then correct the blue cast in post-processing.

Click raw and post-process. Even though I sound repetitive, I am forced to again pen it down here. Post-processing the raw files gives the leeway to achieve that desired result which was there in the mind at the time of pressing the shutter release button. After all visualization is the key to good photographs and post-processing helps attain the visualized results. (Learning to Visualize)

Location, Location and Location. It is not just property where this counts. Even for sunset photographs, it is important to set the camera at an ideal location. Find a vantage point which gives the best possible view and you are able to visualize your photograph. Think ahead and plan your location.

Time your presence so that you are there in the correct location at the proper time. One small tip that I read in a book sometime back – extend your arm and count the number of fingers you can fit in between the horizon and the sun. Every finger is about 10-15 minutes of time before the sun touches the horizon. This rough estimate depends on the thickness of the fingers but works well.


Broken house and sunset

(Ruins of a house and sunset. Nikon Df camera with a 25mm lens, f/8, 1/25 sec shutterspeed with a graduated ND filter)


Further Reading:
Photographing Sun
Capturing Sun-rays

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