Sunset photography is fun, rewarding, and often breathtakingly beautiful – but creating stunning sunset shots can be tough, especially for beginners. The bright skies and dark foregrounds lead to exposure problems, while the limited lighting can encourage blur due to camera shake.
That’s where this article comes in handy! Below, I share 15 easy-to-follow tips that’ll instantly improve your sunset images, including:
- How to capture beautiful tones consistently
- How to create balanced, pro-level compositions
- The best type of weather for sunset photos
- A simple trick to make your shots stand out
- Much more!
So if you’re ready to become a sunset photography master, then let’s dive right in.
1. For the best shots, plan ahead
While you can sometimes capture beautiful sunset shots without any forethought, the best shots usually come from real planning.
So scope out places that might be good for sunsets the day or two before your shoot. Look for interesting locations – locations where you can photograph the sun all the way down to the horizon line, and where there will be opportunities for shots that include foreground elements and silhouettes.
The sunset window is often rather short, which is why you want to think about these elements before the sunset begins. Otherwise, you might miss the best shots.
Find out when the sun will set, then arrive at least half an hour beforehand. While you can capture incredible shots of the sun sinking below the horizon, you’ll often encounter plenty of magic in the lead-up to the sunset.
And keep an eye on the weather. There are a variety of different types of sunsets that produce a range of different types of lights and patterns in the sky. Don’t just head out on clear days, because while these can produce some wonderful colors, it’s usually the days with (partial) clouds when the real action happens.
(Also, dust and smoke in the air can produce amazing results, too.)
Consider the equipment you might need. Take a tripod, lenses with a range of focal lengths, and extra batteries. That way, when the sky turns beautiful, you’ll be ready!
2. Use the right camera
Technically speaking, you can capture amazing sunset images using any type of camera, from the cheapest smartphone model to the most expensive medium-format mirrorless unit. But certain cameras do offer advantages, so if you’re serious about sunset (or sunrise) photography, it may make sense to purchase a new model.
For instance, full-frame cameras – especially the latest full-frame mirrorless cameras – offer breathtaking dynamic range. This allows you to capture dark shadows and bright highlights in a single frame, which comes in handy if you prefer to photograph the sunset in a single shot (as opposed to using a bracketing or HDR approach). These full-frame cameras also offer impressive low-light performance, and while this isn’t a huge deal if you plan to shoot in decent light and use a tripod, it can make a big difference if you choose to shoot handheld or at night.
It’s also a good idea to grab a camera with a decent number of megapixels. Most modern mirrorless cameras offer at least 20 MP, but it pays to purchase a 30 MP, 40 MP, or even 60 MP model, especially if you want to create large prints from your photos.
The specific camera you buy will depend on your interests, your budget, and your brand of choice, but a few great options are the Sony a7R IV, the Canon EOS R5, and the Nikon Z7 II. (Note that the best sunset photography cameras overlap almost perfectly with the best landscape photography cameras, so you can always check out our landscape camera recommendations!)
3. Shoot at a variety of focal lengths
Most sunsets are photographed with wide-angle lenses, and these focal lengths can make for beautiful images. A lens in the 10-30mm range will give you sweeping shots of your sunset scene.
However, if you want the sun itself to be a main feature of the shot, you’ll need to zoom on in. The sun is just half a degree across, so when you shoot with a wide-angle lens, the sun will be tiny in the frame. If you want to highlight the sun, you’ll need to zoom in with a 200mm lens or longer. (This, in turn, will increase your need for a tripod, which I discuss below.)
Also, be hyper-aware of eye-safety concerns because looking at the sun is always dangerous. And it’s even more dangerous when you look at it through a telephoto lens. So if you do include the sun in your composition, never look through your camera’s optical viewfinder. Instead, use Live View to check your composition and exposure on the rear LCD.
(If you use a mirrorless camera, this won’t be an issue. You can safely look at the sun through an electronic viewfinder.)
4. Use the rule of thirds to improve your sunset photography compositions
The rule of thirds states that you should position key elements of your scene a third of the way into the frame. So instead of putting the horizon in the center of the landscape composition, put it toward the top or the bottom, like this:
Do you see how the horizon is a third of the way up from the bottom? That’s what the rule of thirds suggests.
And it’s not just about horizons. You can also use the rule of thirds to position the sun, foreground elements, background elements, you name it.
Of course, the rule of thirds isn’t a requirement. And you can break the rule of thirds for stunning results in certain situations. But in general, the rule of thirds is a great starting point – so unless you have a good reason to do otherwise, I highly recommend you follow it!
5. Experiment with different exposures (to achieve a magical result)
When doing sunset photography, you should always shoot with a semi-automatic or Manual mode. Don’t let your camera dictate your settings for you (in other words: get off Auto mode immediately!). So before starting a sunset shoot, switch your camera over to Aperture Priority mode, Shutter Priority mode, or Manual mode.
And don’t just take one shot using one exposure. Instead, take a variety of shots at different exposures.
While you can try a “standard” exposure based on your camera’s recommendation, don’t be afraid to underexpose by raising your shutter speed or narrowing your aperture. And don’t be afraid to overexpose by doing the opposite.
The great thing about sunsets is that there is no one “right” exposure. You can get stunning results with underexposure and overexposure; the key is to experiment.
(Personally, I tend to start with a relatively quick shutter speed, then slowly work down to slower shutter speeds for brighter, more luminous shots.)
6. Bracket often
In the previous tip, I talked about experimenting with different exposures. But if you want to take a more formal exposure approach, I’d recommend using a bracketing technique.
Here’s how it works:
First, take a photo using your camera’s suggested settings.
Then adjust the settings (either manually or via exposure compensation) to slightly underexpose the photo. Take a shot. And then adjust the settings to slightly overexpose the photo. In other words, if your camera says to shoot at f/8, you would take your first shot at f/8, as recommended. But your second shot would be at f/5.6, and your third shot would be at f/11. That way, you’d end up with a “standard” shot, a darker shot, and a brighter shot, all of which will give you different colors and effects.
It’s a good way to guide your experimentation, and it’s also a good way to create “insurance” photos – so that, if you overexpose the standard shot on accident, you still have a darker file on your memory card. Make sense?
7. Auto Exposure Lock is your friend
Bracketing can be a lot of fun, but it also takes time – and if you only have time for a shot or two, it’s not the most precise way to create a well-exposed image. That’s where Auto Exposure Lock (AEL) comes in handy.
Using AEL is simple. First, you point your camera at the area of the scene you want perfectly exposed, such as a beautiful foreground feature. Then lock the exposure. Finally, reframe the picture (while maintaining the exposure lock).
Basically, it lets you determine the exposure without interference from the ultra-bright sunset, which can wreak havoc on a camera’s meter.
Also note that you can use Auto Exposure Lock to create beautiful silhouettes; just point your camera at the brightest part of the sky, lock the exposure, and then reframe with a foreground subject. The result will look like this:
8. Experiment with different angles
Once you’ve got started with sunset photography, you may be tempted to constantly shoot from the same chest- or eye-level vantage point. After all, if it isn’t broken, there’s no reason to fix it, right?
On the one hand, this standard vantage point will get you great shots. And there’s nothing wrong with applying a certain compositional tactic across many photoshoots.
But eventually, you may want to capture images that stand out from the pack – and a great way to do this is by varying your angle.
Instead of always placing your camera on your fully extended tripod and pointing it at the horizon, try to mix it up. For instance, you can:
- Get down low to emphasize the foreground
- Find a high vantage point to produce unique overhead shots
- Shoot from an oblique angle for a more energized composition
- Shoot through a foreground subject to give a feeling of peeking out at the sunset
Of course, don’t give up the more conventional approach completely, but do try these other perspectives and see what you think!
9. Shoot in RAW whenever possible
Many photographers, especially when they’re starting out, are inclined to capture JPEG images, which are small, highly shareable, and require no special editing.
But while JPEGs are convenient, they come at a cost: When your camera creates a JPEG, it compresses the image data, which ultimately results in less information in the file. RAW files, on the other hand, contain all the image data from the moment of capture, which offers several major advantages, including:
- RAW files have more color information, so it’s easier to push colors in different directions without introducing unpleasant banding effects
- RAW files have more tonal information, so you can recover detail in the shadows and the highlights that is completely lost in JPEG files
In sunset photography, when you’re often working with lots of gorgeous colors and a huge dynamic range, the ability to make these tweaks and recover lost information is invaluable. And while RAW files don’t look as stunning as JPEGs right off the bat, you only need a little bit of editing knowledge to make them look incredible!
Note that you will need some form of RAW processing software to make your files shareable, but there are plenty of amazing programs out there, including paid options like Lightroom Classic and Photoshop, as well as free programs like RawTherapee.
10. For the best colors, get off Auto White Balance
Your white balance setting adjusts the temperature of the colors in your scene. So depending on the white balance, you’ll end up with a cooler (bluer) photo or a warmer (redder) photo.
When the white balance is set to Auto, your camera will automatically deal with the color temperature. And while this can sometimes work, it often gives subpar results – where you lose the warm golden tones of your sunset.
Therefore, instead of using Auto White Balance, switch your camera to the Cloudy or Shade presets, which will warm things up a little. Alternatively, if you’re shooting a sunset and you do want a cooler, moody shot, you can experiment with other white balance settings, such as Incandescent.
One more thing:
If you shoot in RAW, it’s true that you can always tweak the white balance during post-processing. However, this is often pretty inconvenient; after all, how much time do you want to spend adjusting the white balance in front of your computer? That’s why it’s worth getting the white balance right in-camera.
11. Always bring a tripod for the sharpest results
If you’re shooting at longer shutter speeds, such as 1/60s and beyond, then a tripod makes a huge difference. It’ll keep your camera stable – so that your files remain tack sharp.
When you’re out doing sunset photography, you don’t need to start the shoot with a tripod, because the minutes leading up to a sunset bring plenty of light.
But as the sun sinks on the horizon, a tripod will become more and more necessary. (And by the time the sun is gone, a tripod will be absolutely essential.)
Note that you might want to use a tripod for your whole photoshoot, especially if you plan to capture long exposures that feature moving water, like this one:
What if you don’t have a tripod or you forget to bring one? In such cases, I recommend you stabilize your camera against an object. You can put it on the hood of a car, or you can just set it on the ground; whatever allows you to minimize movement as much as possible.
12. Use a remote release or a two-second timer
If you’re using a tripod to capture your sunset images, then you’ve already removed one major source of blur: shake due to handholding.
However, it’s also important to address another source of blur: the vibrations created when you press the shutter button. You may not realize it, but every time you press that shutter button, you’re creating a slight amount of vibration – and if your shutter speed is slow enough, that vibration will blur the image.
Fortunately, there are two easy methods to avoid this problem:
- Use a remote release, which allows you to trigger the shutter without actually touching the shutter button
- Use your camera’s two-second self-timer, which gives the camera vibrations a few seconds to die down before the shutter actually fires
A remote release tends to be a bit more convenient, plus it helps with timing if you’re photographing waves – but a two-second self-timer is built right into your camera, so it’s the easier and cheaper route.
13. Don’t be afraid to focus manually
We all love autofocus – but sometimes, when shooting in extreme lighting conditions, autofocus just won’t get the job done. Your lens will hunt all around, and the shot will end up out of focus.
That’s where manual focus comes in handy.
Now, not all lenses support manual focus. Some only allow for autofocusing, in which case you’re out of luck.
But many lenses do let you focus manually (and you can generally activate manual focus by pushing the AF/MF switch on the lens barrel to MF).
So when your lens starts to hunt, don’t fret; just swap over to manual focus and keep shooting!
14. Shoot more than just the sunset
Here’s one of the many wonderful things about sunsets:
They don’t just create wonderful colors in the sky; they also cast a beautiful golden light that is great for other types of photography!
So as the sunset progresses, keep an eye on other photographic opportunities around you. For instance, you can capture portrait, landscape, or macro shots. In the light of the setting sun, it’ll all turn out amazing!
15. Keep shooting (even after the sun is gone)
A sunset constantly changes over time – which means that every additional minute is an opportunity for a different shot.
So don’t take a few shots and call it an evening. Instead, stick around and photograph the sun as it goes down. You can continue to capture the same composition, or you can test out different compositions; the key is to keep your camera out and your finger on the shutter button.
Also make sure to capture different exposures (bracket!) and consider working with different focal lengths, as I’ve discussed above.
Don’t pack up once the sun is gone. The period after the sun has disappeared – called the blue hour – can be great for photography, too, thanks to its beautiful colors and ethereal light. So if you still have the energy, keep finding compositions until the colors have vanished completely from the horizon.
Sunset photography tips: conclusion
Now that you know these tips, you’re well on your way to capturing some stunning sunset photography of your own.
So the next time the sun starts to get low in the sky…
…grab your camera and head outside!
Amazing images await.
Now over to you:
Which of these sunset photography tips is your favorite? Are you going to use any of them the next time you photograph a sunset? Share your thoughts (and sunset photos) in the comments below!