While all nature photography is beautiful, sunset photography holds a special place in many a photography lover’s heart. But while the dramatic shadows and unreal colors are certainly eye-catching, many people are disappointed when the photo on their phone doesn’t quite match the gorgeous reality. 

To take stunning pictures every time, use a few sunset photography tactics every professional nature photographer knows.

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How to Take Sunset Photos

sunset over lake
Source: Unsplash
Landscape sunset photo by Byron Johnson.

The trick to capturing a great sunset photo isn’t a big secret—just a few simple tweaks can make a huge difference.

Aim for Sunset Golden Hour

Don’t just arrive right at sunset: Aim to come an hour or so beforehand for “golden hour.” Not only can you get some incredible photos during this time in the waning glow of the sun, you can scout your location for when the real light show begins. The Photographer’s Ephemeris app can help you plan what time sunset will happen based on the time of year and location, and it can even help you determine what direction the sun will be in relation to any landmarks you’ll be shooting.

And remember, just because the sun’s gone down, doesn’t mean all is lost—you can stick around for some stunning night photography, too! 

Choose the Right Sunset Photography Camera Settings

Unfortunately, there’s no magic bullet when it comes to camera settings for sunset photography (or any photography). Instead, you have to consider the settings you need based on the goals of your photograph and then tweak each one until the balance is right for the perfect exposure.

Travel photographer Sean Dalton recommends a three-step process for finding the right camera settings for your situation. First, figure out what shutter speed you need based on whether there’s movement that you want to capture or freeze.

camera settings flow chart
Use this flowchart to set your shutter speed first.

Then, set your aperture based on the depth of field you’re looking for. A shallow depth of field will mean some of your picture is in focus, while some is blurred—a deep depth of field will mean the entire picture is in focus. Often for landscape photos, people prefer a deep depth of field, but feel free to get creative based on your vision and style.

camera settings flow cahrt
Use this flowchart to determine the right aperture for your setting.

Finally, you can set the ISO, which affects how sensitive your camera will be to light. Ideally, you want your ISO as close to 100 as possible to prevent your photo from having a grainy effect, but you may need to bump it up as the sun sinks lower.

camera settings flow cahrt
Use this flowchart to pick the right ISO setting.

Then, you can use your light meter to be sure they’re all in balance for a good exposure. Because of how dramatic the differences in light can be at sunset, most photographers recommend bracketing your photos at this time—getting a few shots under-exposed, a few perfectly exposed, and a few over-exposed—so you have more options when you get to the editing stage.

If you’re shooting on a phone, you can download photo apps that let you manually adjust these settings, or you can shoot in manual mode and simply tweak the exposure.

Use These Sunset Photography Tips

While a lot of advice for sunrise photography also applies at sunset, here are a few special tips for sunset photography:

  • Upgrade your equipment: While you can capture great sunset photos with just your phone or standard camera, a few equipment upgrades can really help take your shots to the next level. A tripod and shutter release can help you capture crisper photos in the low light, and a polarizer or graduated neutral density filter can help balance out the light and dark areas of your photos.
  • Get creative with composition: Instead of just shooting the sky, think about creating more depth in your sunset picture by playing with foreground elements, shooting from different angles, or taking advantage of the dramatic silhouettes you can create with the stunning sky behind them.
  • Don’t forget about editing: You may not capture the vibrancy of colors you want in your raw shots, but that’s what editing is for! Don’t be afraid to bump up the contrast or saturation to really show off how stunning the sky was in real life.

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Best Sunset Photography Settings

What is the best setting for sunset photography? Really, it’s anywhere outdoors where you see a beautiful sunset, but here are some popular locations for jaw-dropping photos. 

Landscape Sunset Photography

sunset over train tracks
Landscape sunset photo by Skillshare student Colin Swift.

Beach Sunset Photography

sunset over beach resort
Source: Unsplash
Beach sunset photo by Recal Media.

Mountain Sunset Photography

sunset with dog
Mountain sunset photo by Skillshare student Ben Pellet.

Ocean Sunset Photography

sunset over ocean
Ocean sunset photo by Skillshare student Glen Lopez.

Sunset Photography Portraits

sun behind girl
Sunset portrait by Skillshare teacher Brandon Woelfel.

While landscapes are an obvious choice for sunset photos, portraits can be just as incredible to take at this time of day thanks to the golden light that makes everyone look gorgeous and the eye-catching backgrounds. Play around with having your model face the sun for a golden glow, or have the sun coming from behind for a silhouetted look.

Start Taking Professional Sunset Photographs Today

The best way to take standout sunset photos is to get creative and experiment! Play with composition, try different techniques (sunset time lapse photography, anyone?), and play around with your settings and tools until you get the shot you’re dreaming of.

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Written by:

Erin Greenawald