How to Photograph Sunsets

Photography is nothing more than the art of capturing light. No matter what the subject, the ability to see the light and compensate for that light using your camera’s settings is the secret to obtaining perfect exposures and capturing great images. This is important in all photography, but it becomes even more crucial with photographing sunsets and sunrises, when light is the subject itself.

One of the problems to overcome is the difference in the range of light the human eye can see and the camera can capture. As you know, light and exposure in cameras is measured in f-stops. The human eye can see and differentiate between 24 f-stops, where as cameras, digital cameras in particular can only see about 10 f-stops of light. And many sunsets have a range much greater than that, from the brightness of the sun itself, to an object in the foreground in shadow. You are just not going to be able to capture all of that and keep it in a range that will show up in the image.

The problem to solve and the question to answer is what part of the scene do you want to be well exposed. If you meter for the sun, the foreground may go completely black. If you try to get some detail in the foreground, the sun will go completely white and washed out. The trick is to determine what you want the subject to be and compromise on the exposure.

The first thing to do is to plan ahead. You need to scout out an area that will give you a sunset that has something in the foreground to give the image some focus or interest, unless you choose the sky and clouds to be the subject. Even so, you want to get to your location about a half hour before sunset so you can begin planning the shot. Once the sun starts to set, the window of opportunity will close very quickly.

If there is a subject in the foreground, such as a palm tree, a rock, or a boat, start thinking about your composition before the sun starts to set. In this way, you won’t be fumbling for composition and trying to meter exposure at the same time. Also think about the lens you are going to use and the focal length you need to capture your image.

Now, the sun is actually starting to set and you are ready to lock in your exposure. You aren’t going to have a lot of time, so you should bracket your shot as much as possible. This will give you the largest variety of exposures to ensure you capture the image you had in mind. A good starting place is to meter just a few degrees away from the sun. Never meter directly at the sun as this will throw everything else in the image dark. Meter a few degrees to the side, and you will get the rich colors of the sky and maintain some detail in the clouds and foreground.

From there, start metering further and further from the sun at various intervals. This will create more and more detail in the clouds while throwing the sun brighter in the exposure. Keep checking your screen. At some point you will begin sacrificing the colors of the sunset to capture detail in the foreground. The key here is balance and understanding the image you are trying to capture.

And remember, the sun goes down every day. Practice, practice, practice. It won’t take long before you master the sunset or sunrise image and add this to your repertoire of travel photography.