How to Plan a Successful Sunset Portrait Session

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In this article you will get some solid tips for planning and executing a sunset portrait session. Learn how to take the images that you and your subjects will love.

Planning sunset portrait session 01

Plan ahead for a successful sunset portrait

Many photographers feel overwhelmed when they start photographing portraits, professionally or for fun.

Where should I shoot? How should I pose people? What lens should I use? What settings should I be using? When should I move them to/from a great spot? What should I say to get great emotion?

A plan will give you confidence and help alleviate some of the immediate pressure of decision making. It’s not restrictive because often the best shots are unplanned, but rather something to give you confidence and a direction to fall back on when you aren’t feeling inspired.

Here is our rough plan for all of our sunset shoots, whether it be an engagement, part of a wedding, family portrait, maternity, or outdoor newborn session. Our sunset portrait sessions are always planned approximately one hour before sunset.

This plan’s purpose is twofold – it not only helps you have more confidence and direction, but will also help you make the most of your location and sunset lighting.

Planning sunset portrait session 04

STEP ONE: ARRIVE EARLY TO SCOUT

Plan to arrive at least 20-30 minutes early to scout a new location. You never know what amazing little lane or spot may be just around the corner, so it’s worth taking some extra time to explore. It’s also nice to arrive before your client so that you can make them feel welcome upon their arrival.

STEP TWO: ASSESS THE LOCATION

Start to assess the location by asking the following questions:

Where are some nice shady spots to begin? Shady spots are perfect to start off with while the sun is still bright and harsh.

What is the highest point at the location? If you are at a hilly location, this is where you will be able to capture the final moments of sunset and make the most of the golden light.

Where is the most impressive spot for sunset? This is where you want to end up – so it should be last on your route.

With these questions answered, you can very roughly map out a planned route. This means you’ll always have a direction to head and will be able to lead the clients confidently around the location.

Planning sunset portrait session 07

STEP THREE: SHOOT FOR THE BEST LIGHT

To make the absolute best of the sunset lighting, you can follow the same sort of pattern every shoot (in this order):

  1. Shade shots
  2. Filtered Light shots
  3. Silhouette shots
  4. Sunset shots
  5. Dusk shots

Let’s put your plan into practice, assuming sunset is 6 pm:

4:40 pm – Arrive, scout the area and assess the location.

5:00 pm – Your client arrives and is briefed about the fun time they are going to have!

5:10 pm – SHADE SHOOTING

Get straight into shooting in the nice shady spot you already found. We love to knock out some more formal shots like these here, as usually these are photos clients love, but don’t want big on the walls. Save the more impressive lighting for landscape shots.

Planning sunset portrait session 02

Planning sunset portrait session 03

5:25 pm – FILTERED LIGHT SHOOTING

You can then move on to any shots where you want the sun in the photo, but you can filter the light through the trees. (Read our past article on four different ways to filter sun flare in this article: How to Control Sun Flare in Your Photos). Photos such as these:

Planning sunset portrait session 05

Planning sunset portrait session 06

5:40 pm – SILHOUETTE SHOOTING

Roughly 10-20 minutes before sunset is usually the best time to try a silhouette. As silhouettes require you to shoot at a very low angle, you won’t be able to match up the height of the sun with the clients’ feet if you wait any longer. You can read our article on capturing silhouettes here.

Planning sunset portrait session 08

Planning sunset portrait session 09

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5:50 pm – SUNSET SHOOTING

At this point, the light will be golden – so you want to be at your final spot. Do all you can to make this most of the beautiful soft light – you can even position your clients out in the open if you know how to control sunflare. We try to take a variety of photos at this time – a landscape, waist-up, and close-ups. That way, we can create wall art sets that all have the same sunset colouring.

Planning sunset portrait session 11

Planning sunset portrait session 12

Planning sunset portrait session 13

6:00 pm – DUSK SHOOTING

The sun has set, but you still have a glorious window of 15 minutes where you can capture the gorgeous colours of dusk. Because the sun is no longer emitting harsh light, you can now use the whole other side of the location! Areas that were previously too lit by the sun can now be shot in the soft light of dusk.

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Planning sunset portrait session 15

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6:10 pm – DONE!

This plan is designed to give you some structure if you are lacking confidence and direction for your sunset portrait photo sessions. It will help you get the most from the sunlight, and effectively manage your time during the shoot. Of course, being photographers, we’re all for creativity, so breaking the rules is great once you have more confidence.

Please share your sunset portrait images in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Alana Orth is the founder of Sunlit Studios, a natural light photography studio based in Brisbane, Queensland. With a studio team supporting her, she now concentrates on her passion for teaching fellow photographers. Sunlit Studios offer One-on-One Photography Tutorials where we can teach you in-person about our famous Sunny Silhouettes and practice a silhouette together. Our online Lighting E-guide, “The Logic of Light”, also helps you plan your entire sunset shoot.

  • Von Will

    Great tips thanks. Timing for this shot was the setting Saskatchewan sun. I used fill flash with second curtain syc. https://www.flickr.com/photos/phyguy/ https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/ac1027db351f68d88c60657d0fd5421352b75b4a7b4437cde1688c45426ebe62.jpg

  • pete guaron

    You’re spot on, Alana, in your section titled “6:00 pm – DUSK SHOOTING”. I went to a wedding on the beach, about 18 months ago, and the best photos by far were taken during the period after the sun set. There was a magic to the light, and it was perfect for wedding photography that evening.

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