Photo of the week: how to photograph a sunset

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Long ago, before cloud storage was invented, I asked a couple of long-term travellers how they stored all the photos they took. “We send them home,” they said. “But last week we got a letter saying, ‘Stop sending us pictures of sunsets and waterfalls!” ” I laughed, but it was true: after selfies, sunsets and waterfalls are probably the two most common subjects for travellers. But at least where sunsets are concerned, it’s not that easy to get the perfect shot. So in this post, I’m going to provide a few tips on how to photograph a sunset and have it come out right.

Get the exposure right

The first step in learning how to photograph a sunset is to get the right exposure. A lot of people use their cameras in Auto or Program mode, and sometimes that works. But the odds are that the colours in your photo aren’t going to look as good as the colours you see in real life. That’s because the camera is trying to make everything look a standard brightness, and that’s not what you want.

In my experience, sunsets look better if the photo is a bit underexposed, as in the shot above. Try putting your camera in Aperture or Shutter-priority mode and adjusting the exposure until the colours look strong and deep. Failing that, use the camera’s plus/minus control to make it underexpose the shot a little — you can always adjust it later if you overdo it. Or, you can dig into the menu and use the “sunset” mode, which deepens all the colours and makes the whole scene look more dramatic. Is that cheating? That’s up to you.

Don’t put the sun in the middle

It’s one of the first rules of photography: don’t put your subject in the middle of the frame. I still see people doing it, however. But unless you have a field of sun rays streaming down around the sun, it just doesn’t work. The best idea is to use the good old rule of thirds: position the sun about a third of the way from one edge of the shot, as I’ve done here. This gives you a more dynamic photo, drawing the viewer’s eye across the shot.

Put something else in the frame

You often see photos of just the sunset, and that’s an approach that can work just fine. But it needs to be a pretty dramatic sunset for that, so to my mind, it’s usually better to put something else in the shot. A tree, a mountain, a lighthouse, a seashore — almost anything will do. Here I’ve used a building and some palm trees, which give the shot perspective and contrast. It also adds context to the photo, allowing the viewer to imagine him or herself on the spot, looking on.

As with the sun, it’s best to put the extra content on one side of the frame. And if it just looks like silhouettes, don’t worry: that usually works fine. The only thing to look out for is ugly things like a stop sign, or things bright enough to compete with the sunset itself. As well, see if you can avoid getting power lines and other visual claptrap in the shot — a clean foreground looks much better.

 

There you have it: how to photograph a sunset, in three easy steps. Most of all, however, the trick is to shoot a lot of shots, experimenting with the exposure, the composition and your scene modes, if you like. And you don’t have to be on the beach: sometimes you can get a nice sunset shot while you’re having a sunset drink.

A sunset drink in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Photo by Paul Marshman

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

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