Photographing sunsets

There’s more to photographing sunsets than just capturing the colour. Philip Dunn reveals how you can inject more visual appeal, drama and romance into your sunset pictures.

photographing sunsets Bali fisherman
Even a poor Balinese fisherman gathering supper for his family will stop to appreciate the beauty of a sunset over the sea. Don’t be afraid to point your camera straight into the light in these situations. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Photograph by Philip Dunn


Composition and good camera craft

Sunsets have always attracted photographers and artists, and so they should. But there’s more to capturing a photograph that demands attention than just pointing a camera at a colourful sky. It is unlikely that you will need to improve on the colour of a really good sunset, either with filters or in Photoshop. However, if you want to capture the romance and spectacle of a majestic moment, you simply must resort to sound composition and good camera craft.

photographing sunsets - Taj Mahal
Having photographed the Taj Mahal during the day I was determined to return at sunset. I had worked out roughly where the sun would go down and found my way to a spot beside the river where I could position the setting sun behind the building. The atmosphere was absolutely still and a slight haze has diffused the sunlight and put subtle detail in the shadows. Centre-weighted metering mode was used and although the light reading was taken mostly from the sky, part of the building was included. This has helped retain detail in the shadows without over exposing the sky. Photograph by Philip Dunn


Strangely, it is rarely the glory of the sky alone that rivets the viewer or stirs the imagination in a successful sunset picture. It is more likely to be the inclusion of a foreground. This might be the people, landscape or other objects that the sunset is actually lighting or silhouetting.

It will be the entire scene that will tell of the romance or drama, not just the sky. In an exotic location, a picture of the setting sun can convey the thrill of travel like few other subjects.

Silhouettes in sunsets
For all I know, this couple might have been planning a divorce, but photographed against a setting sun the message is a romantic one. All detail in the figures and the bridge has been removed by exposing for the brightness of the sky – this has created strong silhouettes. The hard, angular structure of the bridge has added to the composition. Photograph by Philip Dunn

Most common mistake when photographing sunsets

The most common mistake leading to boring sunset pictures is to get so dazzled by the splendour of the scene in front of you. So much so that you cease to look at it objectively. You must see it the way the camera will record it.

The camera does not sense the atmosphere – it simply records what you point it at.

In fact photographing sunsets themselves is really very easy. It’s getting a good composition of all the elements, including the foreground that‘s the tricky part.


Firstly, it’s best to arrive at the correct exposure for the sky. Then lock this exposure. Do this either by using Manual Exposure Mode (M), or by locking your Aperture Value (AV) setting.

With the correct exposure for the sky now set and locked, you can move your framing around to include or exclude the silhouetted subjects between you and that beautiful sky. Don’t change the exposure, no matter what your camera’s meter reading tells you. Remember when you are photographing sunsets, you are really just photographing a colourful backdrop (the sky) with shapes in front of it.

A good example of this is my picture of the Bali fisherman with his nets in the sea.

Foreground shapes

When photographing sunsets, remember it is how you position yourself and arrange those foreground shapes and silhouettes that can make or break the picture. It’s all about good composition.

You will generally create a yawn if you include nothing but sky – no matter how dramatic or colourful it is. Neither will you create any feeling of the place in which the picture was taken. A dramatic sunset in Scotland can look very similar to another taken in Bali.

So look for interesting buildings, objects, trees and people doing things and try to include them in the foreground of your sunset pictures. Often these subjects can be researched and found well before the sun actually sets – we all know it’s going to go down in the west – so a bit of pre-planning can pay dividends.

Photographing sunsets with reflections

photographing sunsets over reflective water
There is no detail in the silhouettes of the rocks – just outline shape, that’s fine. The eye moves over them and across the bay to the island and the sky, taking in detail as it goes. The picture has much more to say about the subject and is far more rewarding to look at. Notice how that colour has been reflected right into the foregound. Photograph by Philip Dunn


Try photographing sunsets across an expanse of water, down a rain-soaked street or a snow-covered field. The rich colours will be reflected right into the foreground of the picture. The eye will then be led into the picture along these reflections. Photographing Sunsets over reflective surfaces like this can almost double the colour of the sky.

.. and finally, how NOT to do it

how not to photograph a sunset
Yawwwwn… okay, nice colours. But where is the real visual impact? There’s no foreground interest or illusion of depth. The only thing that can be said about this is that it is correctly exposed and the lighthouse has been placed on one of the vertical lines of our Rule of Thirds. Just bin it. Photograph by Philip Dunn


The picture above serves purely as a record. Without foreground interest, there is no illusion of depth and little visual merit.

Learn more about photography on a one-to-one photography course with Philip Dunn


This Post Has One Comment

  1. David Salgo

    Hi Phillip. Hello from Sri Lanka. I love catching up with your articles and reminding myself of sometimes forgotten techniques! Just enjoyed the recent ones on Iso settings, pictures of old folk and sunsets. Always like a refresher course – digital gives so much but also can take away elements – ah, for that smelly old darkroom! Best regards. David

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