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Sunset Photography Tips - How to photograph the perfect sunset

Every digital SLR photographer at some time, wants to capture the perfect sunset. However, as many find out, depending on your digital camera settings and from what part of the sky you take the exposure from, results can greatly vary.

1. Before you even start thinking about where you take the exposure from, firstly you need to do your homework. For instance, know where the sun is going set. With this knowledge in mind, arrive early and have a good look around for the best position. Think about how you're going to frame your shot. Is there a tree you can position within the composition to act as a silhouette to help give the photo more interest? You don't want to clutter the picture, so look for a tree that has clearly defined lines.

2. After you have your composition thought out, the next thing to think about is the exposure. If you're not sure what I mean by exposure we have a beginners article on Exposure Compensation Tips. When it comes to sunsets, there is no correct exposure. It really depends on the type of shot you want to achieve. Two people can photograph the same sunset at the exact same time and end up with completely different, yet effective results.

The main advice I can give to those after exposure tips, is to take the exposure from the colored part of the sky on either side of the sun. Some photographers like to underexpose it by one or two stops so the overall image ends up with a darker look to it. Experimentation is the key here. What part of the sky you take the exposure from, and whether you underexpose the shot or not, will result in different colors seen within the sky.

example of a good sunset photograph


Digital SLR Camera: Nikon D40
DSLR Lens: AF-S DX Zoom Nikor 18-55mm F/3.5- 5.6 G ED II (kit lens)
Exposure: 0.002 sec (1/640)
Aperture: f/11
Focal Length: 35mm
ISO Speed: 200
Exposure Program: manual

Why this image worked

For starters the composition of this sunset was well thought out. The photographer has arrived early and had a good look around for the best position. He knew where the sun was going to set and waited for a night where the tide was in so he could get the reflection over the water. Notice he's also framed the scene nicely with the tree on the left.

The exposure for this sunset was taken on the sky to the right of the sun, then he's underexposed it by two stops. The photographer suggests taking three separate shots to begin with. One exposed evenly, then another one stop under and a third 2 stops underexposed. Then look back at them on your LCD screen and see which gives the nicer effect. In most cases, he keeps the sunset that is 2 stops underexposed.

Other tips for sunset photography

  • Use a tripod and remote release. The darker it gets, the slower the shutter speed, making it impossible to hand hold your digital SLR camera without shake.

  • Like any landscape, you will want much of the scenery to be in sharp focus. Therefore set your camera's aperture to around f/8 - f/11. Each will effect the resulting color, so be sure to check your camera's LCD screen after taking the first shot.

  • As it gets darker, you might find your lens swims a lot if you have the automatic focus (AF) turned on. If this happens, it's best to turn off automatic focus and do it manually, by looking through the viewfinder and turning the focal ring on the lens until everything looks sharp.

  • Shoot the images in both jpg and RAW. Then you can open the RAW image later on in an editor like Photoshop and change the white balance to see which gives the best results. Personally I've found cloudy or shade white balance settings gives a warmer golden tone to the sunset.

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