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Tips for Sunset Photography

by Alli Harper (follow)
Blog (395)      Tutorials (61)     
Who can resist photographing a beautiful sunset?

Whether you are on holidays or happen to be at home and in the right place at the right time. There are many, many sunset photos out there, so what you can do to make yours special?

sunset photography tips how to alli harper
Shallow rock pools create ideal opportunities for reflections. ©Alli Harper Photographer

Preparation helps
Check what time the sun is due to set in your location and don’t forget about sunrise too. Alas, it’s not really possible to predict when those truly stunning sunsets will occur but some cloud cover is ideal, with a bit of humidity and not too much wind.

Rain can also be a good thing, creating good clouds, although not ideal while you are shooting! Look at the weather forecast in advance and have something warm on hand if the temperature drops.

Make sure that you don’t get carried away in a remote location and suddenly find yourself in the pitch dark, a long way from your starting point! Bring a torch or, if you use your phone, make sure it’s fully charged. Also look after yourself by not staring into the bright sun and watch out for lens flare, unless it’s a particular look that you are aiming for. Make sure that your lens is clean, nothing shows up dust spots like photographs of the sky.

sunset photography tips how to alli harper
Look for silhouettes. ©Alli Harper Photographer

Composition is important
Look for something interesting in the foreground, are there any reflections that you can take advantage of? Silhouettes are also particularly effective.

Beware of things that you might not be aware of until you have downloaded your image, such as powerlines or unwanted foreground details that you have failed to notice.

Where you can, plan your location while it is still light so that you will have the right foreground elements to give the image depth and interest. The time just before and after sunset can be magical, when the sky turns a deep beautiful blue, known as “blue hour”. There’s still a lot of potential 30 to 60 minutes after the sun sets.

sunset photography tips how to alli harper
Sometimes monotone sunset photography can look pleasing too. ©Alli Harper Photographer

Probably one of the most common mistakes that people make with sunset images is not exposing correctly for the brightest part of the image.

If your sun is overexposed it will just print out the same colour as your paper (white). Blown out highlights just create a big white patch with no visible detail.

One approach is to deliberately underexpose your image or to bracket. Bracketing means shooting slightly under, as well as over, what the camera is telling you is the correct exposure i.e. if the camera is telling you the correct exposure is 1/60 seconds, shoot at 1/50 and 1/80.

That way your have more images to choose from, under exposed is probably going to be better although you don’t want to lose a lot of foreground detail unless you are purposefully going for a black silhouette.

You also have the option of combining bracketed images in postproduction, using applications like Lightroom or Photoshop.

sunset photography tips how to alli harper
Dawn colours can be just as spectacular but find a foreground if you can. ©Alli Harper Photographer

When you are processing your images, by all means increase the vibrancy a little bit but do not be heavy handed with your saturation. Let nature speak for itself, and avoid creating a lurid image that looks overworked and fake.

If you have a tripod, use it and remember to see if you will get a better shot by getting down low. A tripod will give you much more flexibility to be able to take photographs at a slow shutter speed as the daylight disappears. Similarly, using neutral density filters enables you to use a slow shutter speed to blur clouds and water giving a lovely dream like look. A graduated neutral density filter will darken the sky without you having to under expose and lose detail in the foreground.

Shot by Andrew Furlan

Whilst it’s never imperative to follow rules, try and remember the classic guidelines of composition. Keep your horizon straight, ideally putting it at the third or two thirds mark and not bang smack in the middle. Remember to think about where you are placing your foreground objects or people for the most pleasing effect.

sunset photography tips how to alli harper
This wild sky was after an afternoon of rain ©Alli Harper Photographer

Camera Settings
Whilst auto white balance is usually a foolproof setting, with sunset photography, it won’t necessarily give you the best result. Try changing your setting to “shade” or “cloudy” for a better result.

Use an aperture of f8 or f11 to give you a good depth of field and don’t forget to focus approximately one third into your image rather than at the furthest point. If there are lights in your frame, for example you are photographing buildings at sundown, see if you can get a star burst effect by using the smallest aperture possible, say f22 and shooting as wide as you can, say 50 mm or less.

Have a look at photographers who inspire you. What makes one sunset photo really appeal to you and stand out from the crowd?

Most often the choice of foreground and general composition is what really makes it an outstanding image. Don’t be afraid to try urban and landscape settings and to experiment with both a wide angle and a long lens if you have them.

Above all get out there and have a go and have fun!

Alli Harper is the photography instructor for the Teenage Photography classes in Melbourne .

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