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9 Tips for Magical Sunset Portrait Photography

Tips for sunset portait photography

Have you ever looked at a stunning sunset portrait and wished you could capture a similar image? If so, you’re not alone.

As it turns out, creating amazing portraits at sunset isn’t as hard as you might think – but figuring out the right approach on your own can be tough. Sunset portrait photography requires a delicate balance of various factors, including the right gear, careful preparation, perfect timing, and a few powerful creative techniques.

Fortunately, I love photographing sunset portraits, and in this article, I aim to simplify the process for you. You’ll learn how to choose the best lenses for this type of photography, master the art of silhouettes, and even discover how to produce beautiful flare and bokeh.

So if you’re ready to level up your sunset portrait photography skills, then let’s get started!

1. Make sure to plan ahead

Sunset portrait photography

In photography, preparation is often essential – and nowhere is this more evident than when capturing portrait photos in the fleeting, magical light of sunset.

You see, sunsets are ephemeral. They happen quickly, and if you’re caught off guard, you might miss producing a stunning set of images.

And let’s face it: Sunset portrait sessions can be a bit challenging, especially if you’re a beginner. There’s a lot to think about, from lighting and exposure to positioning your subject. It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin!

That’s why the minute you pencil in a sunset session, you should start crafting a game plan. Ask yourself about the types of shots you want to capture. Silhouettes? Full-body shots? Headshots? Romantic couples’ portraits? Break down your shoot time into chunks and map out what you want to achieve during each segment.

Sunset portrait photography

But your planning shouldn’t stop at the types of shots. Think about the location, too. Where do you want to move during the shoot? How long do you plan to stay in each spot?

Even if you’re not sure about the exact portrait location details, having an idea of how many spots you want to cover and when to move will help immensely. With a well-thought-out plan in hand, you’ll feel more confident and better equipped to handle the pressures of a photoshoot.

Keep in mind, a plan isn’t a rigid timeline that you need to adhere to obsessively. The best shots can often be spontaneous and unplanned. Think of your plan as a safety net. It isn’t always useful, but when you’re feeling rushed, overwhelmed, or simply uninspired, your plan will be there to guide you.

2. Scout the location in advance

Sunset portrait photography

Not all portrait photographers scout their photoshoot locations ahead of time – but in my experience, scouting can make a huge difference. Arrive at least 20-30 minutes early and spend some time walking around. Who knows: An enchanting alley or picturesque spot could be hiding just around the corner!

While scouting, be on the lookout for some nice, shaded areas. These spots can be a great starting point for your shoot while the sun is still high and harsh. Conversely, finding the highest point might give you the perfect vantage point for capturing the stunning final moments of sunset.

It’s not just about finding the perfect spots, but also about identifying clean backgrounds that will make your subject pop. These could be a beautiful stone wall, a vibrant field, or a serene forest backdrop.

Once your scout is over and you’re ready to meet your client, sketch out a rough route. Having a clear direction will allow you to lead your clients confidently and save precious time.

3. Establish rapport with your subject

Sunset portrait photography

Let’s talk about something so basic yet so important that it can make or break your photoshoot – keeping your subject feeling comfortable. No, it’s not a tip specific to sunset portrait photography, but it’s an essential skill for any portrait photographer and can certainly improve your sunset shots!

Why, you ask? Well, when your subject is at ease, it shows in the photos. So as soon as your subject arrives, do everything you can to make them feel comfortable. Ask about their day, share a fun anecdote, and make small talk.

Engaging your subject is not just limited to pre-shoot chats. Keep the conversation going during the shoot. Ask about their interests, talk about their favorite music, or discuss the latest movies. The more you connect with your subject, the more relaxed they will feel, which will result in more natural and authentic photos.

If you’re not the chatty type, don’t worry! Just prepare a few questions beforehand that you can ask during the shoot. Remember, the aim is to make your subject comfortable and ensure they enjoy the photoshoot as much as you do!

4. Use wide apertures to create mesmerizing bokeh

Sunset portrait photography

There’s something special about the soft background blur, often referred to as bokeh, in a portrait photo. It can draw your viewer’s attention to the subject and add a sense of depth to your images. You achieve this effect by using a wide aperture, like f/2.8 or even wider – for example, f/1.8 or f/1.4.

Sunset portrait photography can really benefit from this technique. As the setting sun filters through leaves and branches, it can create a shimmering bokeh that truly adds magic to your photos.

But keep in mind that the wider the aperture, the shallower the depth of field. It might be a bit tricky to nail the focus on your subject’s eyes, which is crucial in portrait photography. So using features like Eye AF (if your camera offers it) can be a big help.

Longer lenses like 50mm or 85mm are perfect for this technique. And if you place your subject so that the sun is filtering through trees in the background, the effect is just amazing. The golden hour provides a brilliant opportunity to make the most of this effect, turning ordinary shots into extraordinary portraits.

5. Move as the light changes

Sunset portrait photography

One thing you can’t avoid during a sunset portrait session is the rapid change of light. In a matter of hours, the sun traverses from high in the sky to its final dip below the horizon. This swift motion significantly alters the quality of light.

Being a portrait photographer, your job is to exploit this changing light to its maximum potential. I generally usually follow a specific sequence during sunset portraits: shade shots, then filtered light shots, then silhouette shots, sunset shots, and finally dusk shots. This is my method, but yours can differ depending on your style and session objectives.

At the start of your session, the light is often harsh, casting unflattering shadows and creating high-contrast sections of the frame. Here, shaded areas are your best friends. As time progresses and the sun begins to sink, try to position your subject in an area where the light gently filters through the trees.

As the sun descends further, this is your opportunity to capture the golden-hour magic. Detailed sunset shots lit from the side or front, as well as enchanting backlit silhouettes, can take the viewer’s breath away.

Finally, as the sun disappears, ask your client to hang around for a few more moments. Those final images bathed in the mystical blue hour light will be worth it, trust me.

6. Shoot from a variety of angles

Sunset portrait photography

Sunset portraits might conjure up images of striking silhouettes or faces illuminated by the warm, golden light. Sure, these images are beautiful, but wouldn’t you like to give your clients something more, something unique?

So mix things up a bit. Of course, you should capture the standard full-body shots, headshots, and the like, but don’t be afraid to experiment a little. Ask your subjects to lie down on the grass while you shoot from directly above. Or have them perch on a rock for an awe-inspiring shot as they tower above the lens.

Sunset portrait photography

You can also experiment with having your subject turn away from the camera and gaze off into the distance. This pose can work wonderfully for couples portraits, especially if they’re holding hands. The main idea here is to think creatively and venture out of your comfort zone. Remember, the wilder your suggestions, the more memorable the photoshoot!

7. Lean into the lens flare

Sunset portrait photography

Lens flare is often regarded as a nuisance, a detractor from the main subject. But in the context of sunset portrait photography, lens flare can add an extra layer of beauty to your shots. The golden flare caused by the setting sun, when carefully incorporated, can make your images breathtaking.

The simplest way to create a flare is to position your subjects so that the unobstructed sun is behind them and aim your lens at your subject. But while you will often generate a flare effect this way, it’ll generally be overwhelming and distracting. Therefore, it’s crucial to manage flare tactfully.

To achieve this, ensure that the sun is partially blocked by some element in the frame; for instance, you might have the sun peek out from behind your subject’s head or shoulder. Alternatively, you could reframe so that a tree or a building blocks the sun. This approach can lead to some beautiful bokeh effects!

Note that working with lens flare can be unpredictable, even for experienced portrait shooters. So be prepared to experiment on the spot! Remember to take a few test shots and review them on your camera to ensure you’re getting the results you envisioned.

8. Go wide for maximum impact

Sunset portrait photography

Typically, photographers favor certain focal lengths for portrait photography. You’ve probably heard of the common 50mm or 85mm lenses that offer a pleasing perspective and flattering proportions. But when shooting portraits at sunset, going wider can offer dramatic results.

Working with a 35mm or even a 24mm lens can help incorporate more of the stunning sunset backdrop into your frame. Your subject then becomes a part of this larger canvas. With careful composition, your portraits can take on a new level of sophistication, adding an environmental touch to your work.

If you’ve got a second camera, you could keep a wide lens mounted on it to switch back and forth. Alternatively, using a zoom lens like a 24-70mm f/2.8 provides convenience without compromising on image quality.

Remember, the key to successful environmental portraiture lies in simplicity. The less clutter in your frame, the more impactful your image will be. So try positioning your subject against an open sky or under a tree for an elegant composition.

9. Capture some classic silhouette shots

Sunset portrait photography

There’s something innately captivating about silhouette portraits. They are timeless, classic, and imbued with a certain mystique that few other photographic techniques can match. Sunset, with its soft, warm glow, presents the perfect opportunity to capture stunning silhouette portraits.

Wait until the sun is low in the sky, almost on the horizon. Position your subject in such a way that they are backlit by the sun. This positioning is key to achieving that dark, shadowy figure against a bright, glowing backdrop.

Sunset portrait photography

There are a few tricks to getting this right. You don’t want the sun itself to be in the frame. Instead, try to block it with the subject’s body or another object in the scene, like a tree. The goal is to have the sun just outside the frame or hidden behind the subject or another object. This technique creates the soft glow that gives silhouette portraits their unique allure.

It’s also important to set your camera to expose for the sky and not your subject. This will result in your subject appearing completely dark, enhancing the silhouette effect. You’ll want to ensure that the camera’s focus is on your subject to keep them sharp against the softer background.

One thing to watch out for is potential intersections with your subject. Branches, buildings, or other people in the frame can create odd shapes and detract from the overall effect. Keep your silhouette clear and free of these distractions to achieve the most impressive results.

Sunset portrait photography

Sunset portrait photography: final words

You’ve journeyed through the realm of sunset portrait photography and gained insights into everything from lens selection to the art of silhouette portraits and the magic of sunset bokeh. If you’re not feeling ready to get out the door and start shooting, then I haven’t done my job!

Sure, crafting the perfect sunset portrait may seem elusive, but with all the tips, techniques, and secrets you’ve unlocked in this article, you’re well-equipped to get outstanding results!

So it’s time to take action. Get your camera, head out to your favorite sunset spot, and start applying what you’ve learned. Remember, the perfect sunset photo is a blend of patience, practice, and a dash of your personal artistic flair. Here’s to stunning sunset portraits that capture the essence of the golden hour. Happy shooting!

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Alana Orth
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.

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