How to Shoot Landscapes at Sunset

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Sunsets are a huge draw for landscape photographers due to the unique light at the end of the day. Not only is the colour of the light attractive but also its low angle as the sun goes down gives greater texture to the landscape.

Whilst the conditions at sunset have the potential to yield great images, they also provide challenges that need to be overcome to maximise that potential.  Here I want to share some tips and approaches for shooting landscapes at sunset.

Camera Settings

One thing I am often asked is “what settings should I use to photograph a sunset?”.  Photographing at sunset is no different to shooting any other landscape; therefore the following make a good starting point:

Shooting mode: Manual
ISO: 100
Aperture: f/11 (maximising depth of field, without compromising image quality)
Shutter speed: Adjust so that detail is retained in the sky highlights (if too bright, make it faster, if too dark, make it slower)
White balance: Daylight/Sunny (if shooting in JPEG)

However camera settings alone do not guarantee success, there are a few other things to consider.

Sunset with star burst

Shot into the sun as the sun crossed the tree line (ISO 200, f/11, 30s, using 3-stop graduated ND filter, 10-stop ND filter)

Exposure

Often, the draw of a sunset is a brightly coloured sky containing reds, pinks and oranges and the temptation can be to make the sky the focal point of the image, expose for it, and throw everything else into silhouette.  If there is an interesting skyline, this can work compositionally however if not, you will be left with an image that can lose the viewers interest quickly – after the sky, there is nowhere left for the eye to go.

Also, one of the joys of sunset is capturing the golden light illuminating the world in front of you and casting long shadows.  Therefore, capturing both the land and sky correctly exposed can produce images with a much higher impact that will hold the viewers attention for longer.  However, therein lies one of the challenges.

When the sun is low, the sky will appear very bright in comparison to the land.  Due to the limited dynamic range of digital sensors, the difference in brightness between the sky and the land can cause problems for the resulting image – if the difference is too great, you will either lose detail in the highlights (sky) or shadows (land).

There are two ways to overcome this:

  1. Use graduated neutral density filters (as covered in this post) to reign in the bright sky, and ensure that you can record the full range of highlights and shadows in one image
  2. Take multiple images (one exposed for the sky, one exposed for the land as a minimum) and blend the two together using photo editing software.

Both approaches come with complications (the potential for unwanted flare or colour casts from filters, or unwanted movement between exposures for the blending).  My preference is to use graduated neutral density filters, with the aim of getting as much right in-camera in one image, to save having to spend time blending exposures when back at my computer.

Composition

When shooting a setting sun, the temptation is to always include the sun in the frame. If the sun is still reasonably high in the sky, this will be the most challenging image to expose correctly. However if you wait until the sun is just dropping over the horizon, you will find that the exposure is much easier to maintain and, once you can retain the bright highlights, you will find the sun is captured with a ‘sun star’ of flare, adding an extra focal point to your image.

The other option is to turn away from the sun, and capture the low light as it sculpts the landscape. You may not capture the ‘drama’ of the sun itself, but you will still capture the feeling of that time of day, without having the difficulties of exposing for the bright sun.

Sunset, shot away from the sun

Shot with the sun at 90 degrees to my right highlighting the foreground rock detail (ISO 100, f/11, 1.6s, using 3-stop graduated ND filter)

 Don’t pack up when the sun goes down

Too many people pack up and head home when the sun goes down, but it’s only 10 or so minutes after the sun has set that the real colour display in the sky begins.  A small amount of time after the sun drops below the horizon, you often see any clouds in the sky take on a red/pink hue.  As there is no bright light source at this time, shutter speeds soon increase to a few seconds, so a tripod is a must, but you will be able to capture images with incredible saturation in the sky, without any post processing.

Sunset taken after the sun went down

Taken approx. 30 minutes after the first image above, showing the clouds taking on the pink/purple tones (ISO 200, f/11, 4s, using 2-stop graduated ND filter)

Don’t forget sunrise

Everything I’ve written here discusses shooting at sunset, but it all applies to sunrise too.  It is a much more difficult to motivate yourself to go out at sunrise, but it is my favourite time of day to take landscape images as the light is just as magical and, depending on the overnight temperatures, you can often be greeted with early morning mists that can add a whole new dimension to your landscape images.

Sunrise with mist rolling over landscape

Taken just after sunrise with mist rolling in the valley below (ISO 100, f/11, 1/40s, using 3-stop graduated ND filter)

So whilst sunrise or sunset are challenging times of day to shoot effectively, hopefully the above tips will help you go out and capture the full potential of the landscape in front of your lens.

download_it_now_landscapes


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Elliot Hook is a wildlife and landscape photographer based in Hertfordshire, UK. Elliot loves being outdoors with his camera, and is always looking to improve his own photography and share what he has learnt with others. Elliot also can be found at his website, on Twitter, Flickr and 500px.

  • Sunset is always fun and is one of the subjects that I recommend people get in the habit of photographing from time to time. It occurs every day (as long as it’s not completely overcast) and occurs at a predictable time. All you have to do is find a location, set up and wait.

    With a little extra effort you’ll be able to use natures true beauty to get photographs that will at the very least wow your friends.

    Nice post!

  • Nothing quite like some tasty sunset light!

    http://jeffejensen.blogspot.com/2013/07/sun-tunnels-sunset.html

  • Jason Racey

    The sky stays interesting after sunset but I usually find everything else in the frame to be comparatively dull once there is no longer direct lighting.

    I shoot in the Pacific NW region of the US and another problem we have with sunsets here is that the sun rarely makes it to the horizon un obscured because all of our weather comes in off the ocean. That last 15 minutes of drop gets really interesting – are we going to get an amazing glow or a dull nothing?

  • Michael

    I’ve been an avid sunset photographer for many years. I used to shoot slides (still do), and talk abouta narrow dynamic range! It was a couple years of trial and error before I figured it out, but ever since I did I’ve been able to nail exposure. It’s simple. Meter the sky directly overhead and lock in that setting. Recompose and shoot. Check the image and make small adjustments as necessary if the exposure isn’t to your liking. But my experiences with shooting slides, where I didn’t have the luxury of seeing the results instantly, were almost always favorable. Give it a try, see how it works for you.

  • Time of day for landscape photography is more important than people realize.

    http://500px.com/elindaire/sets/landscape

  • Definitely don’t pack up when the sun goes down! That is when I love to shoot 80% of my photos! Some of the best photos I have ever taken were during sunset, after sunset, or during the early night with stars or a full moon.

    Too many photographers are done by 5 pm – instead take this advice and plan your day to make sure you get the most out of your favorite scenes!

    More Photography Tips

  • Here is an example to go along with this article, don’t pack up too early! This photo was taken during sunset…it took some experimenting to get the settings right but it paid off in the end.

    https://twitter.com/lawsonphoto99/status/297342948255883264/photo/1

  • Wonderful tips Elliot.
    Taking Sunset and Sunrise photos is indeed a fulfilling thing to do in photography.For one, Sunrise and Sunset are flushed with the amazing interplay of colors and the setting or bursting sun is one source of delight and amazement.
    I have also written some tips on Sunset/Sunrise photography plus some stunning examples here:

    http://mycreativedaddy.com/how-to-get-amazing-sunrise-and-sunset-photos-plus-16-beautiful-examples/

  • Nice article. I think the biggest factors are: Timing and Composition. The reason I say timing is that you can get surreal effects by timing the sun behind a subject.

    Here is an example: http://www.flickr.com/photos/djkj/6124281878/

    Also, composition is the key as well:

    Here is an example: http://bit.ly/13Sq2Yy

  • Interesting shooting technique and good writing article!

    Some of my pics:
    http://marius-fotografie.blogspot.com

  • Looks like it is time to seriously considering filters!

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • I live in the western edge of a very deep valley of the Andes. The sun doesn’t so mush set as it just turns off. The great sunset colors are to be found to the east. Strange but true.

  • Mohamad Shahrokh Nasab

    Thanks 4 your applied post.for best result in sunset photography we should know where is the niceest mode of sunset happened .you should discover it.everywhere has a nicest place.

  • Mohamed Elamir

    I Like both sunset and sunrise especilly when near sea shore

  • Kalikota Prasad

    This is one of my shots captured from the grills in the balcony.

    Level : Beginner

    What do you people think ?? Your comments will help me in improving my skills.

  • Deborah Maguire

    Used to try to include the sun in all of my sunset pics but have found that it really burns out an area. So now, I’m experimenting with just shooting so that the sun is out of the pic but present in the reflection on objects in the shot (like trees or fog).

  • Mac Donald B

    Level : Beginner

    What do you people think ?? Your comments will help me in improving my skills.

  • Anselmo Hoffmann

    Here is my contribution.

  • Anselmo Hoffmann

    Diamantina, Brazil.

  • Anselmo Hoffmann

    My HDR from Chapada da Diamantina, Brazil.

  • Anselmo Hoffmann

    I personally love that…

  • Anselmo Hoffmann
  • Guest

    I have been addicted to shooting sunrises/sunsets lately. LOVE it!!!!

  • Guest

    I have been addicted to shooting sunrises/sunsets lately. LOVE it!!!

  • Anselmo Hoffmann

    Lines Sunshine are beautifully scattered. Great!

  • Alami Alami

    Very interesting article, Thank you!

  • I glad you mention to stay around 10 mins after the sun passes the horizon as well as neutral density filtration. Nice article.

  • Jay Alvarez

    Thank you so much for your insight, beautiful astonishing photos and well-written.
    much appreciated

Some Older Comments

  • Mohamad Shahrokh Nasab August 2, 2013 10:18 am

    Thanks 4 your applied post.for best result in sunset photography we should know where is the niceest mode of sunset happened .you should discover it.everywhere has a nicest place.

  • Tim Lowe August 2, 2013 04:43 am

    I live in the western edge of a very deep valley of the Andes. The sun doesn't so mush set as it just turns off. The great sunset colors are to be found to the east. Strange but true.

  • mridula July 30, 2013 02:18 pm

    Looks like it is time to seriously considering filters!

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • marius2die4 July 30, 2013 01:33 am

    Interesting shooting technique and good writing article!

    Some of my pics:
    http://marius-fotografie.blogspot.com

  • Kartik July 29, 2013 02:22 pm

    Nice article. I think the biggest factors are: Timing and Composition. The reason I say timing is that you can get surreal effects by timing the sun behind a subject.

    Here is an example: http://www.flickr.com/photos/djkj/6124281878/

    Also, composition is the key as well:

    Here is an example: http://bit.ly/13Sq2Yy

  • Irol Trasmonte July 28, 2013 06:33 am

    Wonderful tips Elliot.
    Taking Sunset and Sunrise photos is indeed a fulfilling thing to do in photography.For one, Sunrise and Sunset are flushed with the amazing interplay of colors and the setting or bursting sun is one source of delight and amazement.
    I have also written some tips on Sunset/Sunrise photography plus some stunning examples here:

    http://mycreativedaddy.com/how-to-get-amazing-sunrise-and-sunset-photos-plus-16-beautiful-examples/

  • Lawson July 27, 2013 02:14 pm

    Here is an example to go along with this article, don't pack up too early! This photo was taken during sunset...it took some experimenting to get the settings right but it paid off in the end.

    https://twitter.com/lawsonphoto99/status/297342948255883264/photo/1

  • Lawson July 27, 2013 02:14 pm

    Definitely don't pack up when the sun goes down! That is when I love to shoot 80% of my photos! Some of the best photos I have ever taken were during sunset, after sunset, or during the early night with stars or a full moon.

    Too many photographers are done by 5 pm - instead take this advice and plan your day to make sure you get the most out of your favorite scenes!

    More Photography Tips

  • Elindaire July 26, 2013 10:36 pm

    Time of day for landscape photography is more important than people realize.

    http://500px.com/elindaire/sets/landscape

  • Steve July 26, 2013 05:47 pm

    Adds beautiful colors to a landscape

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Italy-And-The-Alps/G0000EEa8wwQ_26I/I0000Xgsac86y9B0

  • Michael July 26, 2013 02:28 pm

    I've been an avid sunset photographer for many years. I used to shoot slides (still do), and talk abouta narrow dynamic range! It was a couple years of trial and error before I figured it out, but ever since I did I've been able to nail exposure. It's simple. Meter the sky directly overhead and lock in that setting. Recompose and shoot. Check the image and make small adjustments as necessary if the exposure isn't to your liking. But my experiences with shooting slides, where I didn't have the luxury of seeing the results instantly, were almost always favorable. Give it a try, see how it works for you.

  • Jason Racey July 26, 2013 01:51 pm

    The sky stays interesting after sunset but I usually find everything else in the frame to be comparatively dull once there is no longer direct lighting.

    I shoot in the Pacific NW region of the US and another problem we have with sunsets here is that the sun rarely makes it to the horizon un obscured because all of our weather comes in off the ocean. That last 15 minutes of drop gets really interesting - are we going to get an amazing glow or a dull nothing?

  • Jeff E Jensen July 26, 2013 09:09 am

    Nothing quite like some tasty sunset light!

    http://jeffejensen.blogspot.com/2013/07/sun-tunnels-sunset.html

  • John Davenport July 26, 2013 08:04 am

    Sunset is always fun and is one of the subjects that I recommend people get in the habit of photographing from time to time. It occurs every day (as long as it's not completely overcast) and occurs at a predictable time. All you have to do is find a location, set up and wait.

    With a little extra effort you'll be able to use natures true beauty to get photographs that will at the very least wow your friends.

    Nice post!

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