How to Photograph Dramatic Clouds at Sunset

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The difference between a nice sunset and a dramatic sunset is all about the clouds.

Of course, the difference between a dramatic sunset and no sunset is all about the clouds too!

A clear sky at sunset might turn a shade of pale blue or pink, which is beautiful and calming, but with just the right amount of clouds the sky becomes alive with fire and drama as the day’s last rays reflect off the clouds making them red, orange, purple and pink.

Desolation Sound Marine Park, British Columbia, by Anne McKinnell

Not all clouds are created equal though. They come in many shapes, sizes, densities, and altitudes, and they all refract or absorb the light in different ways that can drastically change the quality of your photographs.

Types of Clouds

Clouds that hang low in the sky and form a band on the horizon or appear like a thick blanket covering the sky will block the sun’s high-flying rays and make the sunset pretty anti-climactic, if you can see it at all.

Sometimes large and lumpy clouds that are brighter on the top and dark on the bottom can create a lot of contrast, making for a very moody atmosphere. Rain, snow, and hail clouds fall under this category, as the weight of the excess moisture weighs them down.

Storm Cloud by Anne McKinnell

The most radiant displays of colour emerge when the clouds are very high in the sky. They are usually smaller, whiter, and thinner than the low-lying clouds, and they are able to catch the sunlight from beneath, allowing us to view those fiery colours from the ground.

These are more likely to occur when the weather is hot and dry, which is why desert landscapes are famous for their magnificent sunsets. When you want to create a dazzling sunset photo, these are the clouds you want to look out for.

Mesquite Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California, by Anne McKinnell

Predicting the Weather

Sunsets don’t last very long, so it takes a little planning and a lot of luck to have nature set up the perfect sky for you. You never know when the ideal conditions are going to present themselves, but if you tune your senses to the weather and its patterns, you will start to get an idea of when you can expect to see the right amount of clouds in a sunset sky.

Watch the sky over the course of the day to see what kinds of clouds are forming and how fast they’re drifting overhead. Check your local weather forecast to find out when the sun will go down, and try to judge if they’ll be sticking around based on the time of day and the speed of their movement. Keep informed about any storms coming in that will bring low-hanging clouds along with them.

If you have a great view from your back yard, all you have to do is keep your camera at hand so you can dart out when you see a great sky. On the other hand, if your aim is to travel to a more distant location to get your shot, you’ll have to be a little more precise in your calculations to avoid hauling all your gear up a mountain only to have the clouds dissipate. Your best bet is to choose a location that will be beautiful with or without clouds – that way, if nature doesn’t cooperate, you haven’t wasted the trip.

Rio Grande, Big Bend National Park, Texas, by Anne McKinnell

The Perfect Exposure

The most effective way of bringing out the natural saturation of coloured light is to underexpose very slightly – between a half-stop and a full stop. This darkens the rest of the image, making the colour pop in comparison. Use your exposure compensation to adjust this.

To make sure you get the best possible exposure, bracket your shots. This means taking several images at different exposures, so you can analyze them on your computer at home in order to determine which is the most successful. This can be done manually using your exposure compensation setting – take one image using the camera’s default settings, then take one that is underexposed by half a stop and one that is overexposed by half a stop. Some cameras will have an automatic bracketing option that you can utilize to change these settings for you.

Another option is to create a high-dynamic range (HDR) image by combining multiple exposures as I did in this photo of a Joshua Tree. I made one exposure for the sky, another for the mid-tones, and another for the shadows and combined them in post-processing.

Joshua Tree National Park, California, by Anne McKinnell

If you want to soften the appearance of moving clouds, use a long shutter speed to blur them slightly. If they are drifting slowly you’ll need a longer exposure to achieve this than if they’re gliding swiftly across the sky.

Foreground

When you’re going after sunset-specific shots, there’s a good chance that your foreground is going to be silhouetted against the sky. When this happens, it’s easy to forget about the foreground all together. This is a mistake. Remember that every part of your frame is important. The darkened foreground is simply negative space, and should be composed just like the rest of the image. Look for interesting shapes or objects to place in the frame to create a focal point that enhances the picture. If you want your foreground to be more visible, use fill flash (flash with the brightness turned down) to lighten the subject slightly without overexposing.

Fort Stockton, Texas, by Anne McKinnell

Post-Processing

When you bring your photos into an image editing program, you might have the urge to crank up the saturation and make the colours really bold. Resist the urge to go overboard on this feature; a 5% increase is all right, but much more than that can cause your image to take on a cartoonish look that could make it appear inauthentic. If your software allows you to, change the “vibrance” instead. This option is similar to saturation, but it focuses its effects on the pixels with lower colour intensity, preventing over saturation. Be ginger with your adjustments, and when in doubt dial them back a little bit to ensure the alterations are subtle and the final image looks natural.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Anne McKinnell is a photographer, writer and nomad. She lives in an RV and travels around North America photographing beautiful places and writing about travel, photography, and how changing your life is not as scary as it seems. You can read about her adventures on her blog and be sure to check out her free photography eBooks.

  • RockinRita

    I love capturing sunrises and sunsets! Thank you for the new insights. Here are two of my favs…

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/ritahogan/9819532475/

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/ritahogan/9672003247/

  • Photography by James

    Great advice, as always, Anne. This image of the fenland around Ely in the East of Engand was taken on one of the best evenings, sunset-wise, of this summer.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/jamesgreenallphoto/9471954665/

  • Steve
  • Clouds are both a blessing and a curse… They need to be there to provide the color, but they can also blot out the sun entirely giving you nothing but a dull gray sunset. They also have a habit of dumping moisture if you really catch it at the wrong time. I waited around all day in the rain to finally have the clouds break about a half hour before sunset and let the warm light rain down instead of water. http://www.flickr.com/photos/jdlais/10047220465/in/set-72157634598632856

    The following day was perfectly clear and the sunrise was much less spectacular. I’m also struggling with the saturation in this photo a bit. I actually have had to desaturate areas to avoid posterization. I’m not convinced I’ve gotten rid of it all yet. http://www.flickr.com/photos/jdlais/10061366916/

  • El_Fez

    Also – use filters! I find that a Cokin Sunset 2 filter really makes a Meh sunset really stand out. This one would have been bland if not for my Cokin:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/tonyjcase/10048044814/

  • marius2die4

    It is good to be there with a minim half hour before sunset and stay a little bit after the sunset. A gradual ND filter will improve the picture.

    Some of my photos:

    http://marius-fotografie.blogspot.com

  • Chelsea Solognier

    San Diego 10-9-13

  • Chelsea Solognier

    Taken with iPhone4s

  • Jeremy Ferguson

    Again, typical!! I take pictures of sunrise and sunset a couple of weeks ago and then the article appears. Still the pics seemed to come out OK.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/jerry_pics/sets/72157636063012256/

    Jerry.

  • Guest

    I love the colors of sunsets…

  • Great tutorial in photography. It will help a lot to improve my own photos.

  • Beautiful images and brilliant lessons on how to improve our sunset photography! There are few things more wonderful to document. I am so inspired to get out my camera and practice!

  • Raghavendra
  • abymanyu

    Clouds! and sunsets. and the sky – things that fascinate me.
    Please let me know if you like some of those I have clicked in the last couple of weeks. All from my balcony…
    Thanks!
    George

  • Sharon Sawyer

    Anne, thank you for an excellent article on photographing clouds. October Monthly Theme at BP. Happy Canadian Thanksgiving!!! Sharon

  • Rob Knowles

    I love clouds at both sunset and sunrise, they determine if I make the effort to shoot or not.

  • Rob K
  • jacinthwm

    There is some essential software that helps in photographing sunsets in that it will tell you precisely when sunset will occur for any point on earth. It is called the Photographer’s Ephemeris and it is free for windows and Mac and very cheap for IPad and android . http://photoephemeris.com/

  • Linda Cherry Sims

    I love clouds, too. (Taken at sunrise.) Used my iPhone.

  • Emmy

    Yes! And use filters!!! I used some a great one on my lens and it resulted in some amazing shots – much better than without. And only post-processing was cropping.

  • Thank you for this advise capturing dramatic images of sunsets has been a goal of mine. Like any goal you begin with research.

  • Kalikota Prasad

    This is my first sunset photo session – and I think I have got some decent clicks.

    Your comments will make me learn more and more.

    Suggestions please !!

  • Dan Girard Photography

    here is one of my favorite sunrises. This is an HDR of the Jefferson Monument along the tidal basin during the peak cherry blossoms.

  • Bok Manalo

    Hi El_fez, could you please tell me waht kind of filter i`m going to buy to make a picture like this. Thank you in advance.

  • Tomáš Moudrý

    “Of course, the difference between a dramatic sunset and no sunset is all about the sunset!” :-))

  • Elizabeth Seaver

    I love the clouds and sunsets they are awesome they can give you so many pretty pics..

  • Buck

    So Oregon

  • Buck

    So Oregon 2014

  • El_Fez

    It was shot with a Cokin Sunset 2:

    http://www.adorama.com/CKA198.html

  • Buck

    shot won’t stay for some reason.

  • Albert Akl

    When you say that you take multiple exposures, one for the sky, one for mid-tones, one for the shadows, where exactly do you focus? what focus settings do you use on the camera?… thanks!

  • Hi Albert, I usually use spot focus and focus about 1/3 of the way into the frame for a wide open landscape shot. If there is a specific main subject in the frame, I focus on that. I hope that helps!

  • Guest

    I took this slightly over exposed and brought the exposure down in Lightroom post processing.

  • Beautiful!

  • Guest

  • Forgot to sign in, love the quality info you have listed!

  • Sunset in Cambodia.Digital blending from 5 bracketted exposures.
    https://flic.kr/p/p48zDz

  • Andy Smith

    Hyperfocal Distance my friend 🙂

  • elhacedordeluces

    emperor’s death…

  • Michael D Skelton

    One of the best tips in this article was, ” Be ginger with your adjustments, and when in doubt dial them back a little bit to ensure the alterations are subtle and the final image looks natural.” Too many people get too excited with the ability to add saturation. I think it is usually best to resist the temptation. Doing HDR’s will sometimes increase the saturation so you might even want to dial back on the saturation slider

  • Azwad Anjum Dipto

    I love sunsets! Specially when they are breathtaking, like asthma.
    Couldn’t resist sharing some of my sunset shots. Cheers!

  • skipc43

    Sunsets are one of my passions. I love shooting them because they can change minute by minute. Not only is the light constantly changing, but the clouds are as well. You can get so many beautiful shots in one session. This shot was taken at the Montour PPL Preserve just outside Washingtonville, Pa. One of my favorite places to shoot sunsets.

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