If you are sitting in your lounge room watching TV and you glance out of the window and see the clouds lighting up in shades of pink, red and orange – then stay seated, because you’ve missed it. To ensure you capture a decent photograph of a sunset you need to be out and on location at least 30 minutes before the sun sinks below the horizon.
Pick your location before-hand and try and decide where you’re going to put your tripod. This may mean you arrive an hour before sundown so that you can find some likely locations with all the visual elements you’ll need.
So if you’ve decided you’d like to try and snag some good sunset shots in a particular week – set the time aside, be ready, have your camera equipment ready to go, make sure the mosquito spray in on-hand and make sure you’re on location in plenty of time.
Do not place too much stock by the forecast as even on days when the sky shouldn’t, by rights, be lit up – you’ll often find the opposite. Commit to going out on specific days and go no matter how unpromising it looks (caveats below).
While there are methods you can use to predict a colourful sunset, none of them are foolproof and your best option is to simply get out as often as you can and let the law of averages work in your favour. Or as I like to say, you’re not going to catch a fish if you don’t go fishing. Obviously a completely clouded over sky is not going to produce any colour and you can stay at home. Similarly a completely cloud-less sky might not have enough visual interest to make a compelling sunset photograph. However if I’ve decided I’m heading out I go whatever the conditions and sometimes Lady Luck smiles on me. One thing you learn pretty early is that you pay for the good sunsets with all the awful ones!
On the technical side there are obviously some tools we can use to work out if there’s a chance of some colour in the sky. The most useful of these is a satellite image which shows you cloud cover. In order for there to be colour the sun needs to be able to back-light the clouds as it descends towards the horizon. If there are clouds all the way down to the horizon then the light cannot shine through and the clouds will not get back-lit. You may still get a cool shot of the sun shining through the cloud, but the colour palette is likely to be fairly simple – usually just one shade. What you need is a gap about 90km from your location, so check the satellite image and if the cloud looks clear that far out then you could be on to a winner.
I use the online weather website Windy.com prior to heading out to photograph the sunset. The desktop version is particularly good because it shows current and predicted levels of low, medium and high levels of cloud. From a photography perspective, low level cloud is usually bad, medium level cloud is usually ok and high level cloud is usually excellent. If you have just low cloud, then the sunset isn’t likely to be great, but if you have a mixture of medium and high level or just one or the other then the odds are better.
In terms of working out precisely where the sun is going to set, you can’t go past suncalc.net. Simply navigate to the location you’d like to photograph and you can see the direction of the sun at any time of the day.
The biggest issue with photographing landscapes at either end of the day is the reduced amount of light. Cameras these days cope well in low light environments and it’s entirely possible to photograph sunsets handheld, but if you want a crisp image it’s always best to use a tripod.
Having your camera on a tripod means you can keep the ISO at its lowest to ensure the highest quality image. It also means that you can set your exposures for any length you fancy. Really long exposures work particularly well as you get cloud movement and beautiful saturated colours.
If your camera is on one of the afore-mentioned tripods then you don’t have to worry too much about things like ISO – just set it to 50 or 100 or whatever your camera’s lowest number is. I photograph primarily in aperture priority mode, meaning that I choose the aperture (usually f/8 or f/11) and let the camera work out the exposure time based on it.
If I’m aiming for a more creative sunset shot, using foreground detail such as dune grass or a tree branch then I’ll often use a wide open aperture such as f/2. I can then set the focus on either the foreground or the background and get a dreamy soft-focus image that blows out the detail and accentuates the colour.
Sometimes of course, nature will place an interesting feature in front of your camera lens and you need to quickly change settings to capture it. For this reason I use the custom settings on my camera to have two main landscape setups – one with a low ISO for longer exposure shots and one with an automatic ISO for shorter exposures to capture things like pelicans that suddenly appear in the scene. I can quickly and easily flick between these two modes knowing that everything will be setup for me.
About 95% of the shots I take are bracketed. That means I take three shots, instead of one – one under-exposed (to ensure the highlights are correctly exposed), one over-exposed (to ensure the shadows are correctly exposed) and one normally exposed. Quite often I will simply use the single (middle) correctly exposed shot, but I like to have the option of using tone-mapping to capture the full range of light in a scene.
The light is often at its most extreme at the end of the day and while most recent DSLR cameras have a wide exposure range, they usually can’t capture all of the light in a single shot. With a bracketed shot you can combine them using a number of techniques or plugins to get the most out of the scene. I find the built-in Lightroom HDR does a very good job combining multiple exposures and often it is all I will use. Occasionally it fails to work (with heavy banding at the edge of objects) and I will use digital blending techniques instead.
However the point is that storage space is not an issue and you have nothing to loose by shooting bracketed.
Remember that you do not have to stand in one single place for the duration of a sunset. The temptation is to fire off exposure after exposure of the same view, particularly when the camera is on a tripod. Move around, move the tripod’s location, tilt the camera up or down, try putting the camera really low down, try placing it behind interesting foreground objects – increase your chances of getting a keeper by adding some variety to proceedings.
I often use three lenses using a single sunset shoot. I shoot with an extremely wide 10mm lens, I shoot with a 50mm prime and I shoot with a 70-250mm zoom. If you’re not getting interesting results with a particular lens then switch it out. I’ve found that some of my best shots have happened when I zoomed right into a scene and focused on one single element of it. Details that would otherwise have been lost in a large frame can take centre stage if you pull them right into the sensor. And of course, if you have a drone then get it up in the air and photograph that sunset view from an entirely new angle.
It’s very easy to get lost in a sunset and spend your whole time looking in a westerly direction. However you really need to get into the habit of looking over your shoulder occasionally. Quite often the light behind you will be better than the light to the front or something cool like a rainbow will have appeared.
Typically speaking the best colour hits about 10 minutes after sunset. That seems to be when the angle of the sun and the clouds works to produce the most vibrant colour palette. However it’s always worth sticking around for a while longer to see what happens. I’ve taken awesome shots as much as 45 minutes after sunset.
The biggest key to photographing good sunsets is simply to get out as often as you can. Get into the habit of going out. Go out when it’s cloudy, go out when it’s not, go out whether you’re in the mood or not. Go out often enough and you will get great shots.