The Secrets to Better Sunset Photography

Sunsets are one of the most commonly photographed scenes on the planet. This is evident in nearly every photo contest I judge and on various photo sharing sites on the web. This doesn't mean that you shouldn't shoot them however. Instead, consider it a personal challenge to make your sunset shots really stand out. I've prepared a series of tips to help you get started.

When we include clouds, the sky becomes much more interesting. The color from the setting sun is absorbed into their shapes, adding a new level of impact for the viewer. Part of the challenge here is the unpredictable nature of the weather. Some evenings will feature a cloudless sky, while others will be completely overcast. The weather forecast is helpful, but the real trick to increasing your chance for success is to get outdoors often. Conditions near bodies of water like the ocean can be completely different from areas more inland.

About a half hour before the sun sets, I start the search for the foreground element that will anchor my composition. This can be a field of flowers, a boulder, tree, or even a man made object. The idea is to add visual interest all the way through the frame. As you explore various options, be sure to try different perspectives including the view from the ground. By having this location worked out in advance, you'll be ready to capture the peak moment of brilliance as the sun quickly descends.

Let your imagination guide your composition. Those crashing waves for example, could they possibly converge with the sun? Once you pre-visualize a scene, give yourself a chance to capture it. This involves slowing down and waiting patiently for the magic to unfold before your lens. Taking photos this way is a more deliberate, but the results are well worth the extra effort.  

One of the most common issues with sunset is the huge contrast difference between the foreground and the sky. The solution is not a new camera or expensive software. Actually, a simple tool known as the graduated neutral density filter is all you need.

A small aperture of f22 will provide enough depth of field to keep the entire vista in sharp focus. This setting will also work to emphasize the sun's beams as it converges with the horizon. Since it won't let much light into the lens, a longer shutter speed and/or higher ISO is typically necessary for a proper exposure. This formula often creates the need for some type of camera support but will result in consistently sharp sunset photos.

After photographing countless sunsets, I've come to realize that each one has its own unique characteristics. While different in appearance, the feeling behind them remains the same. For me, it symbolizes the patterns and rhythm of life. Every New Year's Eve, no matter where I am in the world, I try to photograph the last sunset of the year. It's a fitting way to close one chapter and begin the next.