How To Take Great Sunset Photos
Sunset photos are everywhere – on Facebook, Instagram and on postcards – and everyone seems to love them. Indeed, my experience shows that sunset photos get more likes on Instagram than any other type of photography.
This happens for a very good reason – there is no better time to take breathtaking photos than during sunset. However, there are a few essential sunset photography tricks that you should follow in order to get the most out of your photos.
Since this is a shooting and not editing tutorial, all the photos you see on this page are 100% untouched, coming straight from the iPhone 4S. Editing sunset photos will be covered on a separate tutorial next week.
Step 1: Pick The Perfect Day
Half of your sunset photography success is already determined even before you take our your smartphone, and this is especially true if you’re shooting in a large, open space like the beach. I’m talking about the weather here, which is perhaps the trickiest component of sunset photography.
Of course, you can’t pick an overcast day because then there will be no sunset at all. However, you also don’t want to pick a perfectly clear day because sunsets are always more beautiful when there are clouds in the sky. As you look through the photos in this post, you’ll notice that almost all of them have clouds.
Of course, this often leads to a complicated situation, especially if you don’t live close to the shooting location. If the sky is partially cloudy, you don’t really know how the evening is going to develop – and whether the sun will disappear in the clouds altogether. You’ve got to be ready for a disappointment if you’re trying to capture the perfect sunset photo.
To improve my chances, I prefer to go to the shooting location – the beach in my case – about an hour before the actual sunset. That way I can usually see the sun for at least a few moments.
Finally, when there are clouds, no two sunsets will ever look the same, because clouds provide an infinite variation creating a unique character for the particular evening. And it’s good to know that no one will ever be able to take the same photo as you did.
Step 2: Pick The Perfect Location
To take great sunset photos, you should pick a location where you can actually see the sunset. My favorite sunset location is the beach and I am very lucky to be living next to one. However, you can also take amazing sunset photos on lake shores, in large open fields, from high buildings and in the desert.
If you’re shooting next to a body of water, it’s best if the sun actually sets over water so that the view is unobscured. If that’s not possible, you may choose to take sunrise photos following the same principles.
Another factor to consider is the availability of good subjects.
Empty photos rarely look good, so make sure that the area you’re shooting in has plenty of interesting subjects to choose from. You should never be taking a photo of the sunset itself. The sunset alone can’t be your subject. You should always be taking a photo of your subject, who just happens to be in the sunset.
To demonstrate my point, the photo above was taken during an incredibly beautiful sunset by a lake. But there are no interesting subjects in this photo, so it’s plain and boring. The sunset alone can’t be your subject.
Step 3: Pick The Perfect Subject
Once you’re at the shooting location, constantly be on the lookout for interesting subjects. My favorite subjects are people, which is why I like to shoot on a busy beach. But you can also find interesting non-human subjects like the old-school hot tub above or the little beach house below.
Step 4: Find The Perfect Angle
Most of my sunset photos are shot against the setting sun so that they turn into silhouettes. Since silhouettes are nearly black, you will get a lot more contrast if they are surrounded by bright sky as opposed to dark ground.
This photo was taken from the wrong angle as there is no contrast between the legs of the kids and their surroundings. I was still able to correct this mistake with editing, but the photo would have been much better if I was lying low and the subjects were positioned against the bright sky as seen in the next photo.
Notice how in this photo – and in several others – the sun is hidden directly behind my main subject. This little trick helps me avoid lens flare and blown out areas that are otherwise inevitable if the sun is shining into the lens.
You can get even more creative if your subject is surrounded by water or other wet surfaces. Since these surfaces reflect light, you can also take a silhouette against the light that’s reflected from the wet surface.
If you want to get really creative – and if you aren’t afraid of dropping your iPhone – you can take a really interesting shot by placing the iPhone just a few inches above water. That way even the smallest waves will add a unique character to the photo by altering the shape of everything that’s reflected in the water.
There are endless creative possibilities when shooting in the sunset, so make sure you experiment with different angles to find out something that really makes your photos stand out.
Step 5: Capture The Perfect Moment
Once you’ve picked the perfect day, the perfect place, the perfect subject and the perfect angle, it’s time to capture the perfect moment. I have two tips to make sure you capture that truly unique moment that only lasts for a split-second.
First, I strongly recommend that you look for the right moment with your own eyes, not through the display of your smartphone. Sure, you need to look at your phone to set everything up, but when you’re just waiting for your subject to assume the perfect pose, it’s best to trust your own eyes.
When you’re taking candid shots of people you don’t know – like all the shots on this page – the perfect moment will only last for a split second. You’ll miss that moment if you’re looking at the world through your smartphone.
Finally, feel free to take multiple nearly identical shots, especially if your subjects are moving. You’ll always have a chance to delete your photos later, but you may only have one chance to capture that magical moment you’ve been waiting for.
If you’d like to learn about editing sunset photos, I’ve created a free iPhone photo editing video course in which I also cover editing sunset photos.
This tutorial is written by Emil Pakarklis. Emil is a passionate iPhoneographer and the founder of iPhone Photography School, a website dedicated to helping people take and edit better photos with the iPhone.