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There is something remarkable and magical about a sunset. Whether it be the cooling of the day when the sun begins to set or the golden warmth that paints the world around you, the sun’s descent into night is a wondrous time. As a result, we photographers, really do tend to try and push our clients to shoot during this perfect lighting. But sometimes, whether it be by choice or circumstance, photography during those hours doesn’t happen. However, all is not lost, as the tools given to us by Photoshop allow us to recreate the look of the golden hour!
To preface, it is (of course) always better to get the shot right from the camera. However, post-processing and editing software allows us to bring to life a vision that may not otherwise be possible due to one reason or another. This is not a replacement for good photography, this is just an addition to your vision. The key is to not rely on software to fix your bad photographs but to help enhance your good ones.
Keep in mind that these steps are all very basic ways to potentially create the look you are going for. However, for your own personal use, all of these methods will require your individual experimentation and tinkering. Adjust them as you see fit, based on your aesthetic and idea. These methods may also be combined for even more variety.
In my opinion, the best way to fake a sunset or sunrise is to start with the most important, fundamental element of both: the sun!
Open the image you want to create an artificial sunset look for in Photoshop. For this sun, use the gradient tool to create the fiery star. Gradients can be found under the circle icon in the Layers Palette.
Once you’ve clicked the icon in the Layers Palette, go ahead and select “Gradient”.
This popup box should appear in Photoshop. Make sure that the gradient is set to “Style: Radial”. Go ahead and click on the actual gradient drop down menu. Do not click the arrow, click on the gradient itself! The popup dialog box shown below should appear.
From there, go ahead and adjust all of the colors within the gradient. This is where tinkering becomes really important. Remember, the sun is typically very bright yellow in the center and spreads to warm oranges and reds, eventually phasing into white. Feel welcome to copy the settings I’ve used above.
The rest of the Gradient Edit menu can be left as is. Once you’ve tinkered to your satisfaction, go ahead and click “Ok”. Then, using your mouse, click on the circular gradient on your image and move it to your satisfaction. I like to move the gradient to the corner of the photograph. Once you are done, click OK again to apply the settings.
From there, your image is going to need some “Brightness/Contrast” adjustments because otherwise, the photograph will feel flat.
I like to bring the contrast high and the brightness low, to really bring out the beautiful colors and details.
First, duplicate your Background layer (in order to do non-destructive editing).
Second, we are going to play with rendering. Go to Filter from the top menu > Render > Lighting Effects.
In this window, go ahead and adjust your sun flare to whatever brightness you see fit. For the sake of this tutorial, I have used the following settings. Try not to make the flare too bright or you will lose significant detail in your image.
After you have rendered the first effect, it is time to render the lens flare that would occur if you were to photograph the sun at such an angle. Go ahead and find your way back to; Filter > Render > but this time choose Lens Flare.
I personally like the “35mm Prime” setting, but you are welcome to select whichever flare you feel fits the image your image best. Then go ahead and apply the setting.
This is where the steps get a bit trickier. First, create a new blank layer. Then, set your background color to white and foreground to black. Click D on your keyboard to set to those defaults.
Next, go back to the top menu and choose Filter > Render > Fibers.
Here, a bit of experimentation will ensue. The thickness of the fibers that you see will create the rays of your sun. I have set mine to Variance 16 and Strength 18, but the values are truly at your discretion. Once you are done, apply the rendering.
We then head to the top menu once more to Filters > Blur > Radial Blur.
From here, I would recommend the following settings:
Next, click on the layer with the rays and change the blend mode to “Screen.”
Mess around with the opacity until you get it to the level that looks natural to you (you can also mask out parts of the image if you wish). During this time, move your layer around so that the center of the radial rays end up inside of your sun. This may require the layer to be adjusted in size a bit or stretched out. (Tip: For easy access to the Transform tool to adjust your layer size [and other such settings], press CTRL/CMD + T.)
Much like the first sun, you will then typically want to play with the Brightness/Contrast adjustment in order to achieve the correct lighting situation.
Exactly where you found your “Gradient”, in the Layers Palette under the circle icon, you can also find Color Balance. I suggest playing with the Color Balance sliders in order to color the image to fit that of a sunset or sunrise.
Whether you decide to add the sun to your photograph or not, you will need to color your image properly in order to create a believable image. There are many different ways to color a photograph, but here are two of the most common methods. Sometimes, these are used in tandem with one another.
Similar to how you created the first artificial sun, you can use a gradient to color the entire image.
First, we go ahead and select the Gradient option from the Layers Palette.
Just like with the sun, adjust the gradient here. Instead of keeping the gradient radial, however, make the style linear.
In order to add our final touches, we want to merge the gradient with the background image.
When coloring the entire image, I personally like the use the “Curves” to adjust the lighting in the image. It’s a bit faster and offers more control than just Brightness/Contrast that we used earlier.
Go ahead and play with the curves here!
Similar to how you created the second artificial sun, you can use color balance to color the entire image.
First, select the “Color Balance” from the circle icon in the Layers Palette.
Now, we have some fun and play with the sliders on the mid-tone, shadow, and highlights range. Remember, sunsets are warm in tone.
Finally, I like the change the layer blend mode to “Color” to apply the effect.
In conclusion, it is absolutely possible to create an artificial sunrise or sunset look in your photographs. However, do keep this tip in mind before you begin: It is a great idea to study photographs of sunsets and sunrises before creating any artificial ones. Be sure to pay attention to how shadows and highlights are affected by the lighting during those golden periods. Good luck and happy editing.