Tips for Great HDR Sunsets

Tips for Great HDR Sunsets

HDR is a bit of a buzz word in photography in the last while and there is much debate about it, whether it’s good or bad, appropriate or not, or even real photography or not.  Even right here on Digital Photography School, you can find articles for, and against, doing HDR.   I’m not going to get into any of that today, I’m just going to speak to those of you that do enjoy doing it and would like some tips for doing HDR sunsets, which is one of the toughest subjects to handle with this technique.   So if you are anti HDR, just carry on, or perhaps this may sway you a little to want to try it.

HDR or High Dynamic Range, why it’s great for sunsets

When we talk about a scene having a High Dynamic Range, it simply means that there is wide range of contrast from the darkest area, to the brightest area.  Sunsets exemplify that because we are usually shooting into the sun, a bright light source, and the landscape is often so dark it’s in a silhouette.  By shooting correctly and processing well you can achieve a result that has detail in both those areas.

Tips for shooting the right images

There are a few things you need to get right in camera when you’re at the scene so follow these tips.

  • Make sure to bracket your images far enough on both ends of the exposure scale , but dark enough and bright enough.  What I mean by that is your darkest image should have a gap on the histogram to the right side (meaning there are no white areas, and no blinkies on your camera display) and your brightest image should have a gap on the histgram’s left edge (there are no black areas)

Your darkest image’s histogram should look something like this with a gap on the right side.

Your brightest image’s histogram should look something like this with a gap on the left side.

  • shoot raw files, they will give you the most amount of data to work with
  • bracket your images 2 stops apart, because assuming you followed the tip above and have shot raw files, they carry plenty of data at least 2 stops either direction so shooting 1 stop apart will cause you to shoot more images than you need and just end up bogging down your computer in processing, OR you won’t shoot enough range
  • shoot at low ISO, ideally 100.  HDR processing introduces a lot of noise into your image so start with a lower ISO to minimize that problem.
  • use a tripod as your shutter speeds will likely be fairly slow, and it also allows you to get all your bracketed shots perfectly aligned for a sharper final image.  For the image above my settings  are:  ISO 400 (I did that because the light was fading fast and I wanted to shoot a bit faster), f8 at 1/1000, 1/250, 1/60, and 1/15th of a second
  • use a remote trigger (cable release) to fire the camera, so you aren’t touching it during the exposures to reduce camera shake and a blurry image
  • change only the shutter speed, NEVER the aperture.  If you change the aperture in your bracketed images you are changing the focus from one to the next and your resulting blended HDR image will likely have some odd focus issues or halos.

This is what your bracketed set should look like.  Good coverage on both the dark and light ends of the light scale.  Notice the darkest image has lots of nice colour in the sky, whereas the brightest one has a ton of detail in the foreground area but none in the sky.  This is normal, and exactly what you want.

Tips for processing the bracketed images

I use Photomatix as my HDR tone mapping software of touch.  I find it gives me the flexibility to be able to produce both natural looking and surreal results.  Whatever software you use for your tone mapping, try some of these tips for better sunset results:

  • if there are moving clouds in the scene or trees blowing, use the software’s deghosting feature to remove of minimize those.  It will make the final result look much sharper.
  • when adjusting the tones in your software of choice keep your saturation settings low, don’t overdo it. In Photomatix I always (let me repeat that word), ALWAYS, keep my saturation under 50!  When I pull it back into Lightroom afterwards and punch my blacks and contrast up the saturation increases with it, so it’s really easy to take it too far.
  • watch the sky for halos (white areas glowing around the edges of things) especially if the sky cloud free against something dark like a tree or building.  Halos are generally an affect that is thought of as poorly done HDR and why many people do not like the technique.  Sure you can create a surreal look but I do think you can take it too far.  Just as an example, here’s what “too far” looks like in my opinion. Do NOT make something that looks like this. Notice the extreme noise and graininess in the sky? This is caused by pushing too far.

Over done, do not do this!

This is straight out of Photomatix. Notice how flat and drab looking it is?

Often when shooting a landscape in HDR you’ll find that one area looks good if you push it a little further, but the other half doesn’t.  Such is the case here.  I find that I can push the land and foreground area a bit further to get more detail out, but then the sky looks bad or has halos.  So you can mask back in one image of the sky if necessary, or blend the two together using Photoshop and pick which areas are best from each version.  See below for an example. Version #1 processed for a nicely blended sky.

Version #1 processed for the sky

Version #2 in the middle is our over processed one from above but the foreground land looks pretty good.

Final blended version

The final version above is #1 and 2 above blended together using layers and masks in Photoshop. Notice how it takes the best of both images and combines them.

HDR sunset with a person?

Let’s look at another example.  Some people say you can’t do HDR when you have a person in the shot.  Can you?   Take a look at the images below and you tell me if it works or not.

There has been no image blending on this final version, just tone mapped and tweaked in Lightroom. I do confess though that this is not  sunset, it is in fact a sunrise.  But you get the idea, it’s the same because the sun is on the horizon in both cases.

How to handle a sky with lots of fluffy clouds

Another common problem when doing HDR for landscapes is when there are lots of big white fluffy clouds, they often tend to come out looking rather dark and foreboding.  This is another good time to use the masking technique.  In the images below I’ve processed the HDR how I like it for the foreground, nice and crisp.  But my clouds have gone too dark.  If I choose to pull back on the surreal look I lose that nice detail in the grass and pyramids.  So I’ve taken the best of both and combined them once again.

Processed for the grass, sky is overdone

Version #1 above, processed for detail in the grass, but notice how dark the clouds are.  They were not storm clouds but they sure look like it now.   I want to get those soft fluffy ones back so I took one of the original single images from my bracketed series and combined it with this one to get the following final image which I think is much softer looking.

Processed twice and blended – final version.

Final blended version above.  See the difference?  It’s subtle but I think it makes a huge difference to the final appearance and feel of the image.

Summary and action plan

So where to go from here is to get out and try this for yourself.  If you have some bracketed series that you’ve already shot you can go back and try processing them with these tips and see if it makes a difference.   Or better yet, get out there and go shoot tonight’s sunset or tomorrow’s sunrise if you’re a morning person.

One other unrelated tip I’ll leave you to get better sunsets in general is to find an interesting subject in front of your sunset.  Notice in these cases I have a great scene or something with a great foreground or shape (pyramids) to add some interest to the scene.  A plain old sunset on a flat horizon is really not that interesting no matter how great the colours are.  So find a suitable scene during the daytime and come back at dusk and work your magic on it.

If you want some other HDR tips you can read 10 Tips on how to do HDR photos without a tripod, for those times when you don’t have one with you, or you aren’t allowed to use it.

Have you got other little secrets or tips for creating HDR sunsets?   I’d love it if you shared with in the comments below and as always if you have a question please ask as I read and answer ALL the comments.

Read more from our Post Production category

Darlene Hildebrandt is an educator who teaches aspiring amateurs and hobbyists how to improve their skills through articles on her site Digital Photo Mentor, online photography classes, and travel tours to exotic places like Peru (Aug 31st - Sept 13th, 2019), Thailand, and India (Oct 28th - Nov 11th, 2019). To help you at whatever level you're at she has two email mini-courses. Sign up for her free beginner OR portrait photography email mini-course here. Or get both, no charge!

Some Older Comments

  • Darlene Hildebrandt May 22, 2013 12:18 pm

    @mary just keep the processing lighter or more to the photo realistic side. I'd personally dump the odd photos and just keep the -3, -1, +1 and +3 ones. You also may need to process twice, once for the inside, and once for the outside, then mask them together like I did the sky.

    Here's another tip on doing a more natural blending method.

    Hope that helps

  • Mary Nell Moore May 17, 2013 10:15 am

    I shoot home interiors with a Nikon D300s for my real estate listings. I shoot aperture priority and I can only bracket 1 stop so usually end up shooting 5 - 7 shots in order not to blow out the windows. Any advice for me? I haven't read anything about shooting HDR for home interiors. Thanks for your comments.

  • Calvin Guyer April 30, 2013 10:28 pm

    Great tips. I have been using masking to "correct" the result of Photomatix. I have not tried masking with two versions of a processed bracket. I will have to give that a try. Thanks for sharing.

  • Darlene Hildebrandt March 22, 2013 03:42 pm

    Hi ajmal - if you use my method of using the histogram and shooting in manual none of that matters and you may end up shooting more than 3 images total. Make your darkest image so dark you have no clipped highlights, nothing touching the right side of the graph. Keep going two stops lighter until you have another image with no clipped blacks, and nothing touching the left side of the image.

    Hope that helps. You want to focus on the house or subject in the foreground not the sky.

  • Ajmal March 21, 2013 08:35 pm


    Thanks for the great tutorial. I have one question, say I want to take an HDR image of a sky at sunset and there is also a house in the foreground. So, I plan on taking three pictures, one correctly exposed and the other two each two stops over and under exposed (-2, MTR, +2). The question is - when I am taking the correctly exposed picture, should I correctly expose for the house (foreground) or the background (sky/sunset)? Although I'll be using matrix metering, I am still confused regarding what spot I need to focus on (and hence the camera will meter for that and give me my middle image).


  • Darlene February 7, 2013 07:27 am

    @Clare - learning by yourself isn't necessarily a bad thing, it's just one option. You will likely spend a lot more time experimenting to learn and you may develop your own style because of that. I think there is value in both learning from the experts and just winging it sometimes.

  • Darlene February 5, 2013 03:48 pm

    @dennis - well put, thanks!

  • Clare February 5, 2013 07:35 am

    Great article. I have made some big mistakes when processing and have developed my skills by teaching myself. This is a great article and a good idea to layer 2 blended images in Photoshop - I may try that!!

  • Dennis February 3, 2013 08:43 am

    Nice, intro article to High Dynamic Range.
    In the first paragraph, you edged on the question of HDR being "good or bad". As an alumni of RIT from the College of Imaging Sciences, and having done my share of shooting and image manipulation in PhotoShop, I believe I can state, for me, HDR tend to reflect what the eye/brain sees versus what a single exposure offers.

    It's been long recognized that the contrast range of the human eye well exceeds that of silver and digital imaging processes (Google Human eye contrast range). Even if you group human vision into high and low scene luminance, when the cones or rods of our eyes best respond, the contrast ranges still exceed the photographic processes.

    When properly 'assembled', I believe that the HDR image provides the viewer with a much closer representation of the scene that the eye/brain sees in a single moment. Unlike single images that are processed and manipulated in, say, PhotoShop to compensate for extreme or diminished areas of an image, HDR lets us see a more realistic show of the variances of luminance in shadows, mid-range and highlight areas.

    Of course, all of this is dependent on the photographer and the manipulation that's done to product the final image.

  • Andreas Moser December 22, 2012 09:05 pm

    I have put together some advice for readers who also wish to take beautiful sunset photos:

  • Darlene December 18, 2012 05:15 am

    @neal no star tracking won't work as an HDR it's not the same affect you're looking for. For that, try a program called StarTrax

    @Terry nice work on the sunsets. For extra bonus tips for sunsets, try and get something in the foreground for more interest. Just a flat horizon and the sunset itself don't often make for an interesting enough subject matter. The one with the trees in the front of the frame in your set is a good example, I think that works better than without them. Also, try and play with your composition a little bit and placement of the horizon line. Try and put it anywhere but in the middle of the frame, it will give your photo more direction and tell the viewer where you want them to look

  • Terry December 16, 2012 12:00 am

    Great tutorial. Good tip to have the camera in AP mode to shoot for the HDR. I am going to try that this evening out in the everglades.
    Here are a few of my HDR on flickr and my other photos.

  • Neal Dantes December 15, 2012 03:22 pm

    I have CS5 and Photoshop 9, I am going to try this method. I like shooting sunsets also in addition, I do star tracking. I do not know if this would work with no color (star tracking).

  • Darlene December 15, 2012 04:14 am

    @dennis, I always shoot 2 stops apart (Canon does that in AEB, but you still can shoot in manual and adjust it that way yourself).

    @Kris, not really sure that uses the principals of HDR to get more detail out of both the sky and foreground. The trees and land are pretty black in your image and the sky is vibrant but a bit dark as well. Is that a bracketed and tone mapped HDR shot?

    @Shawn, I usually shoot manually bracketed shots and use the histogram as described to show me how many I need to shoot. If I did shoot 5 I probably just deleted one of them as I didn't need it. If you go too far to one direction it can actually make your result less desirable (muddy the whites, etc). So I look at my images, if I have a gap at both ends of the scale with 4, then that's all I pull into Photomatix. If I need all 5 I use them. It's all about having just enough data, and not overdoing it. Does that help?

    @dan it is all 4 blended in Photomatix using tone mapping, then taking that image and blending it with one of the single images to bring the clouds back from being too dark.

    @Tony, I'm all about the exposure! LOL. Glad you found it helpful.

    @arturomm no it SHOULD come out that way, post processing is just as important as what you do in the tone mapping step. Bringing back the contrast and blacks in LR is how I do it. Does that help?

  • ArturoMM December 15, 2012 03:38 am

    For me is a great article, I tought Photomatix was a fraud because I always got that "flat and drab looking".

    Thank you Darlene.

  • Tony Prower December 15, 2012 12:25 am

    Fantastic and thorough review of the HDR process. I like the part about checking the histogram.

  • Dan December 13, 2012 09:49 pm

    sorry if this is a stupid question. But has the final picture been created my mixing 2 of those 4 pictures? or all 4?
    great photos, keep it up

  • Shawn December 13, 2012 04:47 pm

    Thanks for the tutorial, well done. I must ask how/why you ended up with four raw images to process. When bracketing I always have a properly metered/exposed image and an equal number of over and under exposed images, always leaving me with an odd number of images (3, 5, 7, etc.) Did you do this intentionally?

  • Kris December 13, 2012 01:51 pm
    Here is one of mine.

  • Dennis Ederer December 13, 2012 01:02 pm

    Thank you Darlene. Wonderful training material. I'm new to HDR. Final images getting better thanks to Photomatix. I use Nikon D300S. Can bracket maximum only 1 F stop apart. Must take 5 shots each time (0FS, -1FS, -2FS, +1FS, +2FS). What F stop adjustments do you use to shoot your 4 raw shots? Thank you again for sharing your expertise. I'm so excited about learning more about HDR.

  • Darlene December 11, 2012 04:15 am

    @mma - glad you like it!

  • mma173 December 10, 2012 10:07 pm

    I tried all popular HDR programs but didn't like any. I use Photoshop to manually create HDR photos.

    I shoot several raw pictures in Aperture Mode to retain the DOF while paying attention to the in-camera histogram to make sure that there is no clipping. Each picture is 1ev apart from the other.

    In the post-processing,
    I open the pictures in ACR and adjust them as required.
    Open them in Photoshop.
    Use 'Load Pictures into Stack' (under File->Scripts) to align the pictures and stack them as layers.
    Use the luminosity mask to blend the layers. The mask can be created by Ctrl + Clicking the picture thumbnail in the channels list (Google it).
    Finally, enhance the details and colors using filters such as Topaz Adjust.

    This was briefly my way which I'm posting to benefit others.

    Yesterday, I tried Oloneo and found it to be great. I think I am going to start using it. Thanks for the suggetion and for the excellent article too.

  • Kenny Sampson December 10, 2012 12:23 am

    @darlene I'm sorry I did not see it last night and I have posted a few to the assignments that hadn't shown up in the past. I was also on my cell phone so that may have been it. Again I apologize.

  • Darlene December 9, 2012 04:35 pm

    satesh - great image!!

  • Darlene December 9, 2012 04:33 pm

    @alexis do you think my finished ones here look like that? My question for you would be, if you dislike HDR so much, why would you bother to read an article on it and take the time to comment on it? If you don't like it, that's totally fair. But why not just move on.

    @chrisc I'll consider it but in all honesty I'd like to see people go take their own images. It's not about comparing what I did to what you can do. It's about taking the tips, applying them, and creating something of your own. If you process my images then it's just trying to replicate my work. Does that make sense?

    @kenny I'm not sure why you say that. Your comment is here. What did you want to say?

  • Kenny December 9, 2012 12:48 pm

    I guess my photos aren't good enough. It seems my comments to every article get deleted.

  • ChrisC December 9, 2012 05:16 am

    @Darlene: You could always provide the bracketed shots as smaller jpgs with exposure information if you were concerned about releasing raw files. You almost do that in this article but not quite at a size where anyone can try their hand at processing.

  • Satesh R December 9, 2012 12:24 am

    My first shot was a single hdr in photomatix.
    This is a 3 shot exposure

  • Alexis December 9, 2012 12:19 am

    HDR Really? They always come out looking like black velvet Kincaid paintings.

  • Emerson R. Zamprogno December 8, 2012 10:35 pm

    Here's mine:

  • Kenny Sampson December 8, 2012 12:42 pm

    Cape Hatteras Lighthouse at Sunset. Taken on Thanksgiving vacation.

  • Scottc December 8, 2012 09:02 am

    These are nice photos! I'm not usually a fan of HDR, but it looks to be worth a try on sunsets.

  • Darlene Hildebrandt December 8, 2012 05:28 am

    @albin if you like realist look you might try a software called Oloneo (is for PC only). It gives a pretty realistic looking result. It's only $59 for some special on right now. - I've never used it because I'm on a Mac, but my friend swears by it.

    @Steve, yes very nice sky. I wouldn't mind seeing a bit more detail in the foreground buildings too.

    @chrisc - I'm not sure that's a great idea. I shoot raw files on a Canon 5D MkIII and some of these are 5 bracketed shots. It would be a really large download and most photographers don't really relish the idea of giving away their raw files out to the internet. I'm confident regular readers here would not abuse that privilege but there are website trolls that might look for this type of thing just to grab them, so I'd be more than a bit leery of doing that with my images.

  • ChrisC December 8, 2012 05:08 am

    Nice article, but I really wish when writing things like this, the authors would include their bracketed originals so people can actually try their hand at processing the images themselves.

    For example, I'd love to go through my normal HDR process (and toolchain) and then compare my results to yours so see places where I can personally improve or try something new.

  • Marc Henry December 8, 2012 04:31 am

    HDR need not be those garish, surrealistic, way out images that we have seen posted all over. Like saturation, sharpening and any other tool it can be over used and become a cliche'.
    Properly used most viewers are not even aware that HDR software has been used. I started using Photomatix for interiors, then found that it can be used for some many other applications IF APPLIED JUDICIOUSLY.
    Thanks for the article, I can always learn something.

  • Steve December 8, 2012 04:31 am

    Good article.
    I let the sky speak for itself in this one

  • Albin December 8, 2012 04:22 am

    Thanks for the alternative scenarios, esp the brilliant idea of a second blend to fix the clouds. I'm in the highlight/shadow recovery camp rather than the surrealist, and only use the technique rarely so not willing to buy software for it. For "realist" HDR I've had good success with the free program Picturenaut. I believe it can be done in Elements but haven't tried.

  • John Davenport December 8, 2012 04:17 am

    Nicely done tutorial on HDR - It's something I've sort of drifted away from these days with how much you really can get out of a single RAW file in LR these days, but yes this is still important to know, and it certainly makes a difference when done properly.

  • Darlene December 8, 2012 04:07 am

    @satesh - I'm a bit confused by your example. It is a sunset but it doesn't look like HDR processing to me as there is no detail in the man or the foreground. How did you process this?

    @Chris - ooops! I'll see if I can edit that. Thanks for catching it.

    @Carl thanks glad you liked it.

  • Carl Larson December 8, 2012 03:10 am

    Very good tutorial. Particularly the suggestion to blend differently processed Photomatix outputs. Took me a while to figure that out myself.

  • Chris December 8, 2012 02:54 am

    Great info. However, there is a typo: "In Photomatix I always (let me repeat that word), ALWAYS, keep my saturday under 50!"

  • Satesh R December 8, 2012 02:45 am

    This is my result...