How to Shoot Landscapes at Sunset

How to Shoot Landscapes at Sunset

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.

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Elliot Hook

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.

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