How To Photograph Sunsets

By Andrew Hudson

With a photo selection entitled “Palms and Piers.”

Mask the Sun

To reduce the overpowering effect of the sun, I waited till it was low in the sky (and thus dimmer) and I masked it behind Oceanside Pier. Without the bright sun, the film was free to record the lovely colors of the sky and high clouds. The pier is the subject and the palm trees frame the shot.

Avoid the Sun

Here the sun is setting to the left of the picture. Avoiding the bright sun has allowed the image to be more even and keep the delicate colors. The strong foreground (outline of palm trees in La Jolla) makes the image. Again the horizon is low in the frame.

Shoot After Sunset

This shot of Santa Monica Pier was taken 30 minutes after sunset, when the high whispy clouds had turned red. An FL-D adds some purple to the sky. The foreground has nice outlines — palm trees and a carousel — and the horizon is low in the shot, emphasizing the sky.

Avoid The Sun

The biggest problem with sunsets is the sun. It’s just too bright. Unlike human eyes, cameras cannot handle high contrasts, particularly highlights such as a bright sun. So including the sun in a photograph will usually give you a picture of a big white splodge. Your picture will be overexposed with little color or detail.

There’s no easy way around this, so the trick is to either wait until the sun is on the horizon (when It’s dimmer), or photograph the sunset without the sun. Look for clouds to obscure the sun or photograph a part of the sky away from the sun.

Shoot The Sunset After Sunset

The sky often has the most color after the sun has set (the “afterglow”). Pick a day when there’s a sprinkling of very high, whispy clouds as they’ll turn a bright golden color about 15-30 minutes after sunset.

Find A Foreground

Pictures of just the sky can be boring so find a simple foreground to add depth and interest. Your foreground will be silhouetted, so find a subject that has an interesting outline set against the sky or reflecting water. In these examples I used piers and palm trees.

Anything below the sky (or reflecting water) will not be visible in the photograph (it’ll just be black) so crop it out. Position the horizon low in your frame so that you capture just the colorful sky and any reflecting water.To photograph people, get within ten feet of them and use a flash ("fill-flash”) to add light on their faces.


I take some shots with no filter and some with an FL-D (magenta), to add some purple to the sky. I’ve tried other filters but they just tend to mess up the delicate colors.

Watch for Clouds

Clouds add magic to a sunset. The way the light beams through, or reflects off these changing formations is wonderful. Generally you want a scattering of clouds above you, but no clouds (clear weather) on and past the horizon (allowing the sun to shine through). Low clouds are tricky as they often obscure the sun and, even when they Don’t, their colors come and go quickly. High whispy clouds are my favorite. They light up later, for a longer period of time, and over a larger portion of the sky.

Low Clouds

Low clouds look powerful and foreboding. They light up about 10 minutes after sunset, as long as It’s clear over the horizon. A high viewpoint above Oceanside Pier allowed me to get some reflection off the ocean, hence the higher horizon than the other shots.

High Clouds

High clouds are graceful and delicate. Because they are higher they light up later, about 30 minutes after sunset. This shot of Ocean Beach pier is helped by the people who add human interest and scale to the shot.

See also How To Photograph Dusk Shots.

Copyright 1999–2007 Andrew Hudson for PhotoSecrets / Photo Tour Books, Inc. You may reproduce this article for personal, educational, non-commercial and non-Internet use, such as in a local photo club newsletter or school project. No Internet publishing is permitted. For commercial use, please email me for permission.

Add Your Comment



Email (optional):

Submit your comment: