Sunset photography: how to balance exposures and get accurate colours

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Sunset photography is a favourite subject any time of the year. The rich colours, dramatic lighting and strong shapes they offer can produce stunning shots with little need for much effort or clever planning from you.

However, you might find that your camera often captures pale imitations of the sunsets you see with your naked eye. Somehow, the intensity of the colours may have been lost, or the composition might not work.

So, here’s our guide to getting the most from a spectacular sunset, by composing your shots properly and adjusting the camera settings to make the most of the colours (download our free photography cheat sheet explaining the color temperature scale).

Sunset Photography: everything you need to know

For most of us, the temptation to shoot a sunset when we first see it is overwhelming. But while there’s something to be said for getting a shot in the bag quickly, in case the conditions change, it can be worth spending a little longer over it to make sure you get everything right.

Your focal length setting and choice of viewpoint will make a big difference to the picture. A quickly grabbed wide-angle shot might capture the broadest area of sky but won’t necessarily give you the best composition.

A longer focal length and a more carefully chosen viewpoint can produce a much more effective result. The sun will be bigger in the frame and you’ll have more control over the shapes and silhouettes appearing in your sunset photography.

The key with camera settings is to make sure you capture the sunset’s colours as they are, not how the camera ‘thinks’ they should be. You might also need to adjust the exposure settings to suit the conditions, too, because in extreme lighting situations the camera might not interpret the scene in the way you expect (for more on how to cope with such problems, see our guide to the 99 common photography problems – and how to solve them).

Before we begin…
We mention White Balance and Picture Controls in our walkthrough, but you need to think about ISO settings too. Don’t use Auto ISO if you’re using a tripod, because you won’t need higher ISOs and the quality will suffer.

If you’re shooting handheld, though, Auto ISO can be a good safeguard, because light levels (and shutter speeds) can change much more quickly than you might expect.

SEE MORE: 10 exposure problems every photographer faces (and how to avoid them)

How to set up your camera for sunset photography

Sunset Photography Tips: make a first attempt

01 First attempts
Conditions change rapidly, so it’s good to get a few shots done quickly first. Here, we’ve used our zoom lens at its widest focal length, and got right up close to this old wooden lighthouse. This has resulted in a dramatic perspective, from tilting the camera upwards, but the sun is quite small in the background.

SEE MORE: Golden hour photography – tips for making magical landscapes at dawn and dusk

Sunset Photography Tips: change focal length

02 Change focal length
We’ve got a better shot by moving further away and using a longer focal length. The lighthouse is the same size and is much straighter because we haven’t had to tilt the camera. There’s a smaller area of sky in the background now, so the sun is larger and we’ve filled the frame with that rich, orange glow.

SEE MORE: How to expose for landscapes: every question answered

Sunset Photography Tips: play with white balance

03 Play with White Balance
If you leave White Balance set to Auto, your camera might attempt to correct what it sees as a colour cast, producing weak or distorted tones. To capture the hues as they really are, use the Direct Sunlight White Balance preset.

Making the colours in your landscapes warmer can be a simple matter of changing the white balance on your camera from Daylight to Cloudy or Shade.

But under certain shooting conditions you’ll find that this global setting doesn’t suit the whole scene, and when you’re shooting at sunset or sunrise it may not be possible to capture a shot that looks suitably warm in all areas.

The most common situation is when the bulk of the sky, away from the areas where the sunset or sunrise colours are most intense, is clear. This blue sky acts like a giant reflector, filling in the shadows with a cool blue light, and as the sun is low in the sky, more of the foreground is likely to be in shadow.

In these conditions, if you set the white balance to Daylight or Cloudy to suit the sunset or sunrise the shadow areas will look very blue; but use a setting such as Shade to warm up the shadows and the sky can become too warm and orange.

The best way to get around this is to shoot in Raw, set the white balance to suit the sunset or sunrise colours, and then adjust the shadows at the editing stage.

SEE MORE: White balance explained – how your camera corrects the colour of different kinds of lighting

Sunset Photography Tips: use Picture Controls or Picture Styles

04 Use Picture Controls / Picture Styles
Take a look at your camera’s Picture Styles. The Standard setting reproduces colours accurately, but switching to Vivid will boost saturation and give extra intensity. Better still, shoot raw files rather than JPEGs. This will give you more scope for changing the White Balance and colour saturation later on.

Sunset Photography Tips: hide the sun

05 Hide the sun
Exposure can be a problem with sunsets, so make sure you check your images on the LCD as soon as you’ve taken them. If the sun is still quite high in the sky it might be too intense in the shot, so try hiding it behind another object, such as this lighthouse. You still get those rich sunset colours, but without the glare.

SEE MORE: How to track the sun for perfect landscape photos

Sunset Photography Tips: shoot the sun

06 Shoot the sun
If you want to include the sun in the frame, you’ll have to wait until it’s much nearer the horizon, when it will be less intense. You’ll still need to keep a close eye on the exposure. In extreme conditions like this, your evaluative metering system might not react how you expect, so be prepared to adjust the exposure.

SEE MORE: See the light like a pro – everything you were afraid to ask about natural light

Sunset Photography Tips: Metering Modes

07 Metering modes
Try using centre-weighted metering. This is less sophisticated than matrix metering, and more easily influenced by very bright areas, but that’s exactly what we want for sunset photography. It’s the colour in the sky that’s important, and objects in the foreground should just be silhouettes. Try spot metering to take a reading from an area of sky.

SEE MORE: When to use spot metering

Sunset Photography Tips: sunset calculators

08 Sunset calculators
The main secret with sunsets, of course, is to be in the right place at the right time. If you have a smartphone you can use a ‘sunset calculator’, which will tell you what time the sun will go down, and at what angle, for any date and location. LightTrac – £2.99 ($4.99) for iOS and £3.01 ($4.99) for Android – is a good option. You’ll still need to arrive well in advance, though, to give yourself time to prepare.

PAGE 1: How to set up your camera for sunset photography
PAGE 2: How to balance your exposures with an ND grad filter

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