The Key to Good Sunsets

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When you are browsing through some of the photography communities online you see quite a lot of photographs of sunsets with their photographers wondering why their photographs are not getting the same amount of reaction as others. Most of the time, it doesn’t have anything to do with big trade secrets but actually quite a few simple things you can do to make your sunset photographs better.

We all started from the beginning where we just took a photo right at the sun that was setting down over the water and that is the typical error in sunset photography. It is knowledge of the composition and how the camera works that can help you to get a better photograph.


The first thing is really the composition. If you just set up your camera and take a photo then you will likely only get a photo once in many thousand times. The first thing you want to do is to look at your scene, find out if you have any interesting objects that you could possibly include. The main focus of a sunset scene is not the sun itself, most of the times you don’t even want the sun to be visible but maybe already set or behind clouds. What you want is the colours in the sky and the colours in your surroundings. Good foreground elements, for example, are rocks, grass turfs, piers, smaller bridges and alike as they will often lead the eyes into the scene which is always a good thing.

If your sunset scene includes water in it, you might want to do either of these two ways depending on how rough the wind and the water is. You either want to freeze the water (if the wind is strong and creates some more dramatic waves), but if you only have smaller waves or more ripple like, then you probably want to slow down your shutter speed and make the water silky like.

Turn your head the other way

When you are shooting sunsets, don’t forget to turn your head the other way as well, away from the sun itself because it can produce wonderful light behind you that you might fail to notice unless you don’t actually look around you. Even if you have a beautiful condition remember that you might get two if you look again at another place.

Look at the white balance!

This is probably one of the most vital steps. Most sunsets come out very yellowish and tend to be too warm (this may not be the case if you are using filters however). Make sure you adjust your white balance accordingly to give it a good colour cast because the yellowish is normally not the desired one.


Ideally you always need a tripod to support your camera since you are going to be working with longer shutter speeds that is probably not hand-holdable. Another good thing to have if you want to level out the exposure of the scene and have all in a good light and not get your foreground silhouetted (also works when bringing out drama in the sky) is a graduated neutral density filter (GND). If you want to make the water appear more silky, you might want to consider a neutral density filter (ND) available in many different grades of darkness, allowing you to slow down the shutter speed of the camera.

When it comes to lenses, you’d usually want a quite wide angle lens (about 18mm digital) or even an ultra wide angle lens (10-20mm range) to get the most of your scene and settings.

Summing it up

So now you have quite a few things to think about the next time you are shooting sunsets; the most vital tip being to hide the sun itself either in the clouds or when it also descended below the horizon as it then will not create a big yellow and ugly blob in the middle of your photograph! Also use your equipment wisely and remember that all other photograph rules, such as the rule of thirds works great in this field as well. Also, nobody likes a horizon that is crooked, they should be straight!