How to Take Better Sunset Photos

By Jonathan Timar
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I have recently joined a group on Facebook dedicated to the use of a particular camera.

I follow a few other photography groups on Facebook and the contrast between those and this new one is very clear. All of the other groups are focused on genres, or technique. This new one is about taking photos with a particular camera, and it attracts a completely different crowd.

I would describe them as “camera users” versus “photographers”. They are people honestly want to take better photos, but they mistakenly thought a better camera is what would get them there.

To be blunt, most of what gets posted there is pretty bad.

Sometimes it’s bad because the picture taker didn’t know how to use their camera, so it’s poorly focused, or the aperture was inappropriate for the shot.

More often though it because it’s clear they just don’t know how to see. They are making a common mistake of thinking that because something was striking to their own eyes, that it will be striking in a photo.

The reality is that our brains are automatically filtering everything we see. So when we see a beautiful sunset, we can easy not see all the ugly distractions around it.

But the same thing doesn’t happen when we view a photograph. That’s why we need to think about the composition before we take the photo.

Above are a couple of examples of bad sunset photos. The first one is actually technically okay, it’s just boring. The second one is pretty much terrible all over and suffers from a whole variety of issues that are beyond the scope of this article.

And below we have some examples of better sunset photos. They could be more accurately described as “photos taken at sunset”. More on that in a moment. I leave it up to you to decide if you think they are good or not, but they are definitely better.

So what makes a better sunset photo? Here are a few key tips that come to mind in no particular order:

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    Don’t take pictures of sunsets

    A photo of just the sunset will usually not be particularly interesting, even if the sunset itself is outstanding. If I hadn’t included the foreground in this photo for instance, it wouldn’t be nearly as good. On the other hand, if your foreground is littered with random junk, you won’t end up with a good photo either.

    Sunset Over Prince Ruper - A Bit Later
    Sunset Over Prince Rupert – A Bit Later

    Try to find something else in the scene to focus on. Rather than take a picture of the sunset, take a picture of something interesting and include the sunset in it. That “something else” doesn’t necessarily have to be the focal point, it just has to exist as something to add context. It could be foreground detail, small details in the background, or just an overall scene that happens to be at sunset.

    Always try to envision the finished product.

    Wait for the right time

    In general, the right time is just as the sun dips below the horizon. Any earlier than this and you’ll have a dull photo like both of the examples above. Any later and you might miss it. You should definitely stick around to see if it gets even better, just don’t miss that first opportunity as often that’s all you’ll get.

    The right timing is also dependent on the weather. Rarely will you get a good sunset on a clear day or a fully overcast day. You really wanted to be paying attention when the sky is full of fluffy  clouds in the afternoon, odds are far higher that it will bloom in the evening. Angry clouds are also a sign you might get something interesting.

    Don’t think you’ll do it all without editing

    If there’s one misconception most picture takers have, it’s that everything should look great right out of the camera. They have an idea in their minds that editing photos is cheating. This is simply not how it works with a “real” camera.

    Yes, I know your smartphone takes nice shots without you doing anything. That’s because it’s programmed to automatically adjust the contrast and saturation of your images to make them pop right away. Even then, most people slap a filter on it before sharing.

    And, believe it or not a similar thing used to happen with film. A computer at the drug store lab would automatically enhance all of your photos before printing them.

    A “real” camera, especially in RAW mode, but even to some extent in JPEG mode, is designed create a more natural result by default. You will need to give it some love in an image editor to bring it to its full potential.

    This is particularly true for sunset shots as our brains really do a lot of enhancement on the fly. If we want the photo to match the memory, we have to do a little work. And if you want to make it a bit better than the memory, there’s no harm in that. It’s art, after all.

    Do you have any other tips for sunset photos? Questions? Just want to rant at me? Then go ahead and leave a comment below. And please give this post a share if you found it useful.