Earlier in the week I was asked by a loyal Cole’s Classroom subscriber if I had any guidance on the best “camera settings” for sunset photos.  While I did give some guidance and suggestions, the key to taking great sunset photos is more involved that you might think.  So today I am going to share with you my quick tips on how to take amazing sunset photos!

Understanding the Dilemma with Sunset Photos

Before you can master sunset photos, you first must understand why people struggle with sunset photos sometimes.  The problem is simply, at sunset, you have a very large dynamic range (dark shadow areas and bright light areas) of tones in the same scene and unfortunately, digital cameras don’t have the same level of dynamic range as our own human eyes do.  Because of this, we often find it hard to replicate what we really saw, during a gorgeous sunset.  So we must make a choice…

The Big Choice

The big choice for us photographers is simply – what are we trying to photograph?  Are you merely taking a landscape photo of the gorgeous sunset or are you taking portraits of your clients at sunset?  Once you have your answer to that question you can answer your next question which is how do you want to expose the image.  With such a wild range of tonality in the same scene it becomes increasingly harder to get a photo with both the shadow and highlight areas of the scene in “proper” exposure, but this is where you come along as the professional artist 😉

Quite simply – your options become:

  1. Expose for the sky (thus underexposing the shadows)
  2. Expose for the shadow areas (thus overexposing the highlights)
  3. Expose for both by using fill flash
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Camera Settings for Success

In doesn’t really matter “how” you expose the images in terms of what mode you use (auto, aperture, shutter, manual etc…) here are the two big things you want to make sure you remember before setting out for a sunset photo sesh…

  1. Shoot in RAW – shooting in RAW is a must do for great sunset photos since you will need all the extra dynamic range and color tonality that shooting in the RAW format will give you.  Also – you will more easily be able to adjust your white balance while editing in Lightroom, another camera setting that can get a little haywire on you during sunset. For more insight on the benefit of shooting RAW, click here and here.
  2. Lowest ISO Possible – Shooting at your cameras base ISO (100 or 200 normally) will also help give you extra dynamic range but also will help preserve those awesome sunset colors that your eyes will see.

Once you have those two camera settings covered, you are 1/2 of the way there.  After that, here is what I do depending on how I choose to expose…

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Exposing for the Sky – I typically would expose for the sky if I am trying to create a silhouette portrait OR a simple landscape with no subject.  When I am not shooting with flash, I am using aperture priority mode so that the camera can choose the proper shutter speed relative to where I point the camera.  I usually use matrix metering mode which takes a light reading of the overall scene and with my D800 (the metering is awesome) I usually get an image that is mostly exposed for the sky.  If you want deeper colors in the sky, simply use your exposure compensation to “underexpose” (negative exposure comp) the sky a bit and you are all set.

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Exposing for the Shadow Areas – Most of the time, when I am shooting at sunset, I am on some sort of portrait session in which I want to expose for my subjects faces (so they aren’t all shadows).  I use the same settings as described above, the same aperture mode and the only difference is I add positive exposure compensation (which lowers the shutter speed to allow more light to hit the sensor) and thus brightens the overall scene so I can see my subjects faces.  Luckily, when shooting in RAW and at the base ISO quite often while editing you can retain much of the highlight detail in the sky which is why RAW and low ISO is so important.

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Expose for Both by Using Fill Flash – Fill flash might sound odd or interesting but its really quite an appropriate name.  Fill flash simply refers to “filling in” the shadows with flash.  That’s it.  When you don’t want to have to choose to expose either one area of the scene or another you can simply use flash to get both a proper foreground and background exposure.  If you are using your flash on camera, simply point your speedlight flash right at your subjects.  I am a fan of keeping things simple so just use your flash on TTL (not manual) mode and then if you need more flash you can use the + button to add more flash power.  If you are like me, and prefer the look of off camera flash and are triggering the off camera flash using radio triggers, you usually have a 1/200th maximum flash sync speed, which means you can’t shoot at a shutter speed faster than 1/200th of a second.  Assuming you are already at your base ISO, you will have to adjust your aperture (higher f/stop) to let in less light to get to a shutter speed that doesn’t exceed 1/200th of a second.

As you can see, dealing with photos at sunset is not as easy as point and shoot.  I hope that these quick tips give you the info you need to go from taking mere sunset snapshots to works of art!  If you are still mastering the fundamentals of photography make sure to checkout my 20 page quick start reference guide – The Fast Track to Creating Stunning Imagery, it’s pretty awesome and it’s 100% free so you have nothing to lose!  Get it right here. Do you have any questions or comments? Let me know down below and I’ll be sure to get back to you.


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