How to Use Sunset Light to Light Portraits

How to Use Sunset Light to Light Portraits


Sunset is arguably the most beautiful time of day for portrait light. But you don’t want to simply take your subject outside and start shooting. Take a few moments to identify “how” to use your light and your portraits will be dreamy.

Here are three ways you can use the light by setting your subject in relationship to the setting sun.

1. Front Light:

Place your subject facing the light. Shoot facing your subject with your back to the light. The light will brightly illuminate your subject, bringing out stunning catchlights. Take note: if the light is too bright for your subjects eyes, simply have them close thier eyes until you are ready to snap the shot – and make that moment count.

sunset 1 - Front Light.jpg

2. Side Light:

Turn your subject so that only one shoulder is facing the light. Then turn thier face 3/4 degrees into the light. This side angle will give you soft transfer edges between the highlights and shadows. This lighting will also add depth to your portrait. Shoot facing your subjects lit shoulder.

sunset 2 - Side Light.jpg

3. Back Light:

For a most unique and artistic shot, place your subject with thier back to the setting sun. On Manual mode, overexpose the portrait so your subject is evenly lit. Remember this will cause your background to be overexposed and your highlights will be blown out.

sunset 3 - Back Light.jpg

Experiment with the angle at which you place your subject to the sun and you will be more than pleased with the creative results.

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Christina N Dickson is a visionary artist and philanthropist in Portland Oregon. Her work includes wedding photography and leadership with

Some Older Comments

  • Ahmed Ososki May 30, 2013 01:01 pm

    Wow, amazing blog layout! How long have you been blogging for? you made blogging look easy. The overall look of your site is excellent, let alone the content!. Thanks For Your article about How to Use Sunset Light to Light Portraits .

  • KnightPhoto April 5, 2013 01:53 pm

    What a great tip about having the subject close their eyes and then open and make it count...
    Thanks for that!

  • Shaun Robert George March 30, 2013 03:41 am

    Good tips. BTW, the word is spelled "their".

  • paul March 29, 2013 04:41 am

    No 2? You are joking, right? There are some shots for which angled lighting like that is utterly inappropriate. And that's one of them.

  • Stacie Jensen March 27, 2013 08:22 am

    I agree, backlight is my favorite.

  • Mary March 26, 2013 02:37 am

    Backlight is my favorite. Much easier to manage (no harsh shadows) and serves as a great rim light too.

  • Jim Donahue March 25, 2013 09:18 am

    Light is really harsh and unflattering. But if thats what you want go with it.

  • Anne brown March 25, 2013 02:08 am

    Just beautiful

  • Willene April 2, 2011 07:04 am

    Thank you for sharing with us, I conceive this website truly stands out !

  • Partha Sarathi Bose March 28, 2011 06:03 pm

    The images shown at are not quality images and the lessons for shooting portrait using backlight is incomplete as you do not mention what to do with blown out highlight as the final result will be a poor. Instead, you could have provided the use of reflector(s) for backlit subjects.

  • Paul March 26, 2011 09:28 pm

    Nice, I like using available light. Although you have to be careful with the side lighting as it isn't always complimentary to the skin - see photo 2 above?

  • Jean-Pierre March 25, 2011 11:01 pm

    Here's a couple I took using sunset light:

  • frank deland March 25, 2011 01:38 pm

    With full sun coming in from the side, the other side of a face will be shaded. You can use a reflector to bounce light back onto the shaded side. Sometimes the reflector can be natural. I found this out by chance when I took a candid close-up of my wife in full sun with snow on the ground. The snow reflected light back onto her face on what would have been the shady side.

  • frank deland March 25, 2011 01:33 pm

    For bright sun, find a shady spot. Also, underexpose then lighten when editing. Scott, a favorite photo of my son (before digital) was taken from behind him. At about age 2 or 3, he had rolled up his Farmer John Jeans was standing just below knee deep in water, looking down. You do not always need to have their faces showing as your photo shows.

  • Lyndsay London March 25, 2011 12:50 pm

    Love these tips! Backlit photos that catch a little lens flare are my fav!!

  • diane cronin March 25, 2011 03:10 am

    hello darren thank you for the tips you sent me on sunsets they are the ones i lke to take ,i belong to a camera club ,and i haveput in one of my sunset which did well ,the way you do your sound s very good so will try them next we get one .diane

  • Scott Speese March 25, 2011 01:33 am

    And don't be afraid of flare!

  • ScottC March 24, 2011 04:29 am

    A lot of comments refer to Darren but the article is by Christina Dickson.

    I'm lousy at portrait photography, and a bright sun just makes it worse. Great tips, something I REALLY need to work on.

    For now, I'm sticking to candids and hoping for cloud cover.

  • Scott McClure March 22, 2011 07:22 am

    This was a test shot for a group portrait I will be doing for a final Unit at college.
    I did use a speed-light and an umbrella to bring in some more texture in the rocks and the jumper etc.

    I will probs use a CTO Gel to warm it up as you can see in the other photo the light was fairly cold compared to the sun set

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer March 22, 2011 05:14 am

    It seems a lot of photographers do the sun in the background, overexposed type shot now. Personally, I am not that much of a fan of it. The lighting in the example shots all still seems harsh to me.

    This is a natural light shot I made on a Florida beach about 30 minutes before sunset, lit from a 45 degree angle (see shadow)

  • Pam March 22, 2011 02:06 am

    One should mention if you're going to sidelight women you should touch up their skin because side lighting shows every.single.imperfection.

  • Andrei March 22, 2011 01:06 am

    Using just sunlight can be tricky sometimes... A thing that you will have to take in mind is to avoid shooting in the middle of the day when the sun is straight up.

  • DSLR Lenses March 21, 2011 11:58 pm

    Darren - fantastic tips. I particularly like #3 because it will encourage me to shoot into the sun more often. Cheers

  • Jen March 21, 2011 09:27 am

    Great article! I've been working on my use of sunlight in portraits. I just recently blogged about my latest practice:

    It's really my first attempt at backlighting and using reflectors. What do you think?

  • Chris March 21, 2011 07:32 am

    Wow, didn't realise this was here, and you tweet about it just after I get back from taking some shots of my wife and child at sunset...
    My version: Does this come under backlit or side lit?

  • Harsh September 18, 2010 03:20 am

    simple tips but very valuable

  • Arthur August 2, 2010 03:07 pm

    Great tutorial, keep 'em coming. (:

    PS. I find it funny that everyone keeps giving Darren the credit for writing this article, when it was actually written by Christina!

  • Malcolm April 9, 2010 06:46 am

    Wow! I'm sure your subject appreciated the sidelighted portrait. Her complexion was "emphasized" to the worst possible degree. Your advice is basically worthwhile but your examples are less than flattering.

  • evangeline November 21, 2009 08:52 am

    How do you overexpose the portrait?

  • Andrey October 7, 2009 05:17 am

    Thanks for tips. Nice pictures

  • Pralay Banik September 13, 2009 07:30 pm

    thanks.. i really learning a many ...wid u....

  • PHOEBE August 31, 2009 11:56 am

    this is so cool...i love these tips. thanks!!!!

  • sabira August 31, 2009 06:22 am

    love picture no. 3. Thanks for tip.


  • Daniel*1977 August 31, 2009 02:31 am

    Those are my last works done under the sun and with full sun:
    I like this last one the most:

  • djashish August 29, 2009 07:29 pm

    @Christina N Dickson thanx lady.....That shows how important light is in photography,natural or artificial.
    This post has inspired me to write a post on Importance of light while capturing your subject.I'll surely be dedicating that article to digital photography School and to christina .Kudos !!!!

  • Sridhar August 29, 2009 03:50 am


    You rock. Your newsletters are just perfect. Not too much and not too less.
    I wanted to know how do you get the 'lomo' effect with digital pictures. Especially the 1st image in this article.
    I use a D90 with a Nikkor 35mm F1.8 G lens.

  • mark August 28, 2009 09:41 pm

    Don't forget to remove your (or the photographer's) shadow from the shot - shooting during the golden hour can produce fantastic results, but also long shooter shadows that can ruin the picture. Many of our wedding photos had to be scrapped because of shooting angles.

  • Ashley Adams : Postcard Printing August 28, 2009 09:26 pm

    Amazing, simply amazing! I may have come across similar posts before, but it is simply amazing. The way you’ve used the sunset light, it makes these photos dreamlike. I’m sure they’ll make great postcards too.

  • Ben August 28, 2009 09:12 pm

    Nice tips Christina!

  • hfng August 28, 2009 07:56 pm

    Another cross light sun and flash

  • hfng August 28, 2009 07:54 pm

    Cross light sun and flash

  • Christoph August 28, 2009 05:59 pm

    Sunset light has a unique and wonderful color. I had the chance to take this portrait called "curiosity":

  • Sandeep August 28, 2009 03:38 pm

    Thank you Darren, I will try these tips today.

  • sonyapayne August 28, 2009 01:58 pm

    Thanks Christina!
    I love your work,

    God bless,

  • Mei Teng August 28, 2009 12:54 pm

    Great tips. I have never thought of shooting portraits using sunset light. I like the front light illustration the best.

  • lucheng0 August 28, 2009 12:51 pm

    thx for the tips !!

  • arnold August 28, 2009 08:19 am

    I think when you said 3/4 degrees which is 0.75 degrees, did you mean 3/4 of 180 degrees?

  • hfng August 28, 2009 06:53 am

    Love the front and back light effects. Not sure about side lighting though, not very flattering for the lady :)

  • Scott August 28, 2009 06:03 am

    I also like to use a reflector as my key and have the sun act as more of a rim light. But, again the situation varies by what mood you want to set.

  • amir paz August 28, 2009 05:41 am

    sunlight at begining of dusk and a little bit of help from a flash mounted on the hotshoe of the camera...

  • Justin August 28, 2009 04:35 am

    Good write up im gonna try to take all this to memory

  • Nemanja August 28, 2009 04:00 am

    Thanks for this… it’s really good

  • Nemanja August 28, 2009 03:58 am

    Thanks for this... it's really good

  • arifhidayat August 28, 2009 03:55 am

    using flash aren`t you?! Your Outdoor shots is great!

  • arifhidayat August 28, 2009 03:50 am

    Good outdoor shots!...with a flash are you? How about the lens....Tengs

  • Marco August 28, 2009 03:22 am

    Nice tutorial ! this one i did with the head of the boy before the sun. You don't get your highlights blown out. not much any way.

  • Ambarnath Ghosh August 28, 2009 03:11 am

    well explained and i will do some r&d and will come back with my findings and value addition ........


  • Sunil August 28, 2009 02:48 am

    Its a wonderful short tip.I Will experiment with "3. Back Light:".
    By the way what value should I start with to get the effect of 3rd photo?

  • David August 28, 2009 02:20 am

    Thanks for this, I accidently discovered the benefits of sunset / late afternoon light with this portrait. I think it has a sort of 70s feel but there is no doubt of the benefits of evening light, sort of warmer and richer ?

  • Evelyn August 28, 2009 02:19 am

    Hi Darren,

    I always love to take husband bought me this Cannon rebel but im trying to learn how to use it liek a pro and now i will have a baby soon. Hope you can give a tips how to use it and get a good photo. I can figure out how to use those settings yet. Please help ..
    So much appreciate!!! Thanks for your tips...


  • Victor Augusteo August 28, 2009 01:58 am

    nice tutorial Darren!

    I got something to add though:

    use a flash/reflector to fill in the subject's face when shooting with the sunset from behind the target. you will get a very natural looking, while evenly exposed image :)


  • TC August 28, 2009 01:49 am

    Or cheat and make it with a flash with a bit of CTO on it :)

  • Audrey Fisher August 28, 2009 01:43 am

    Great suggestions as always! I love shooting with Back Light for overexposure and for silhouettes.

  • Zubin Patrawala August 28, 2009 01:41 am

    Thanks Darren, I'm really intrigued with the overexposed shots in the background, and have been trying to perfect them. How are you metering for the subject? With spot metering? I always get crazy results with the vast lighting difference between my subject and the bright background.

    Love this effect though.