Sunset photography can be challenging.
The high contrast, fast-changing light and warm saturated tones experienced at sunset can make it difficult to decide on which settings to use.
In this article, we’ll discuss the best camera settings to use at sunset to make sure you get the best photos possible.
1. Shooting Mode: Shutter or Aperture Priority
There’s a common misconception that good photographers only shoot in manual mode. But this is not the case.
Good photographers use the best tool available to create the best images they can. Whether that means shooting in manual, priority, or auto mode.
And there are times when shooting in priority modes makes the most sense. One of which, in my opinion, is sunset photography.
The quality of ambient light will change rapidly as the sun sets. This is particularly true if you have a good amount of clouds in the sky.
In such cases, choosing all three components of exposure (Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO) can slow you down and put you at risk of missing your shot.
In aperture or shutter priority, you’re only responsible for two of the camera settings. The camera sets the last component for you.
Although being relieved from selecting one setting may sound inconsequential, it can have a significant impact on your efficiency.
This is especially true in landscape photography where you’ll rarely need to raise your ISO if you’re using a tripod.
As far as which camera mode you should use, this will primarily depend on what you’re photographing and the effect you’re trying to achieve.
If you want most of your frame in sharp focus, as is often the case with landscape photography, use aperture priority.
In aperture mode, you’ll choose your ISO and aperture setting while the camera sets the shutter speed for you.
Shooting in aperture priority allows you to have full control of your depth of field, and thus the overall sharpness of your image.
If you’re photographing a moving subject, as in the case with people and wildlife, use shutter priority.
In Shutter priority, you’ll have full control of your shutter and ISO while the camera sets the aperture for you.
This will enable you to take tack sharp images using fast shutter speeds.
Don’t be afraid to stray from manual mode to get the best settings for your photo.
Experiment shooting with priority modes and learn to utilize your camera to the best of its capabilities.
2. Choose a Narrow Aperture (Large F-stop)
Most sunset photographs are of scenic locations, which makes using a narrow aperture or a high F-stop often ideal.
A high F-stop will give you a wide depth of field which keeps most of the details in your frame in sharp focus.
A small F-stop, on the other hand, decreases your depth of field.
This setting keeps only a small area of your image in sharp focus while leaving the rest of your scene out of focus and blurry.
Unless your goal is to create a blurry background, your sunset picture will unlikely benefit from using a low f-stop.
High f-stops also allow you to create the sun star effect you’ll typically see in sunset pictures.
For this, I’d usually start at f/16 and make adjustments from there.
The depth of field determines how much of your image will be in focus.
In particular, it is the area between the nearest and farthest part of the image that appears in sharp detail.
Keep in mind that using a high f-number will diminish the amount of light that enters your lens.
As a result, you may need to use slower shutter speed, higher ISO, or both.
3. Pay Attention to Your Shutter Speed
For still subjects, such as landscapes and architecture, using slower speeds won’t usually be a problem if you mount your camera on a tripod.
Tripod is a great way to keep your camera stable, whether you are using slow or fast shutter speeds.
A sturdy tripod is essential. Cheap tripods lack stability and durability, so invest accordingly.
I recommend the Manfrotto Befree Carbon Fiber Tripod.
This is a quality tripod made by a trusted brand that won’t break the bank. It is easy to use and lightweight so you can easily move around and adjust your composition.
However, if you’re shooting handheld, you may need to raise your ISO to keep your shutter speed from getting too low and producing camera shake.
To maximize sharpness try not to use a shutter speed less than your focal length.
For example, if my focal length is 100mm, I will not shoot with a shutter speed less than a 1/100.
If your photographing moving subjects, such as people or wildlife, you’ll need to use faster shutter speeds.
To capture walking people at a relatively close distance use a shutter speed between 1/125 or 1/250.
If you are shooting fast-moving wildlife, on the other hand, you will need to use a shutter speed between 1/400 and 1/800.
4. Keep Your ISO As Low As Possible
Raising your ISO will allow you to make your images brighter by amplifying the data recorded in your sensor.
However, using a high ISO will also increase the presence of noise in your image, so you’ll want to use the lowest value possible.
Only raise your ISO if you are unable to increase your exposure using your shutter speed or aperture settings without compromising image quality.
That is, raise your ISO if you can’t use slower shutter speeds without it resulting in camera shake.
Or if you can’t use a lower f-stop without compromising the overall sharpness of your image.
Don’t be afraid to raise your ISO if the image gets too dark. An image with a little noise is always better than a blurry or underexposed one.
5. Metering: Matrix or Spot Metering
Matrix metering, also known as evaluative metering considers the entire frame when adjusting the camera’s settings for proper exposure.
In most cases, matrix metering will produce the best exposure results when shooting wide scenes. This is typically the case for sunset photos.
Using matrix metering is simple, compose your scene and take a photo.
Once you capture your first photo, evaluate the exposure to determine if you need to adjust your exposure compensation.
We will discuss exposure compensation more in a later section.
If you want to create a silhouette, you can use matrix metering as well.
To do so, place your focus on the brightest part of the landscape, then press the shutter down halfway.
This will adjust your exposure levels for the brightest part of the scene.
Next, recompose your frame so that you have the composition you want. Then, press the shutter button down completely to capture the image.
When shooting sunsets, you can also use spot metering.
Spot metering calculates your exposure settings based on a single point of your frame set by your focus point.
When using spot metering, set the “spot” on the subject or focal point to ensure that it is properly exposed.
You can also set the “spot” on an area that you want to treat as proper exposure.
If you do this, this spot will be the baseline for proper exposure, and the settings required to expose it correctly will be used across the entire image.
Spot metering is also great for capturing silhouettes and easier than using matrix metering.
Simply place the “spot” on or near the brightest point and press the shutter halfway down.
After you set your “spot” move your focus to your focal point and capture the photo.
6. Exposure Compensation
In evaluative metering, your camera measures exposure by averaging the exposure of your entire scene.
Although this works well in evenly lit scenes, it’s not always as effective in high contrast scenes such as sunsets.
In high contrast scenes, giving all the elements in the scene equal weight when calculating exposure can result in an overexposed or underexposed image.
To know if your image is underexposed or overexposed, study your exposure using the histogram.
The key is to make sure that the histogram is in line with the elements and lighting in your scene.
The image above shows some sample histograms.
If your histogram is shifted to the left, that means your image consists primarily of shadows.
On the other hand, if your histogram is shifted to the right, your image consists primarily of highlights.
Finally, if your histogram is bell-shaped or centralized at the midpoint your image consists mostly of mid-tones.
If the elements in your scene and your histogram do not match, adjust your exposure compensation until they do.
Exposure compensation allows you to adjust the exposure of your scene without changing any of your exposure settings.
If your image is overexposed, decrease your exposure compensation to a negative value.
On the other hand, if your image is underexposed, increase your exposure compensation to a positive value.
If you are interested in learning more about exposure compensation, read this article.
7. Shoot Bracketed Exposures
Sunsets typically produce scenes with high contrast or high dynamic range.
Dynamic range is the ratio of the lightest and darkest elements in a picture.
During sunset, this gap tends to increase, causing the contrast of your scene to exceed your camera’s range.
This makes it difficult for your camera to adequately capture the details in your scene with a single image.
In most cases, if your scene has a high dynamic range, you’ll either need to expose for your highlights or your shadows.
This means that one of the tonal ranges will be incorrectly exposed.
To solve this issue, you can use exposure bracketing. Exposure bracketing allows you to take multiple photos at different exposure levels.
There are two common ways to bracket your images with a DSLR: manual and automatic bracketing.
To manually bracket, you can use either manual, shutter, or aperture priority mode.
Begin by taking three or more matching images with different exposures.
Expose one image for the highlights, one for the shadows and another one in between.
I recommend using a tripod when doing this. This will allow you to blend the two images seamlessly in post-processing (I’ll come back to this later).
Automatic Exposure Bracketing (AEB)
Another way to use bracketed exposures is to use the Automatic Exposure Bracketing (AEB) in your camera.
Most modern cameras will allow you to adjust how many underexposed and overexposed images you’ll take.
For example, if you want to create three bracketed images, set your setting to a three-shot AEB.
This setting will give you one underexposed, one overexposed, and one properly exposed image.
If you want to take five bracketed images, set your setting to a five-shot AEB.
This will provide you with two underexposed, two overexposed, and one properly exposed image.
When shooting a five-shot AEB, this is how your settings will change.
If you are in aperture priority and your camera is set to 1/30th of a second and f/5.6 your camera will capture two overexposed images at 1/15th and 1/8th, two underexposed images at 1/60th and 1/125th, and one properly exposed image at 1/30th of a second.
Most cameras will allow you to take up to seven bracket images. But, most of the time, 3 is enough.
You can also adjust the number of stops you want for exposure.
For example, say you bracket for two stops of exposure, and you set your camera to a three-shot AEB.
In this setting, your camera will take one image that is two stops overexposed, one image that is two stops underexposed, a final image that is properly exposed.
Whether you decide to use manual or automatic bracketing, you will need to combine the bracketed images using editing software. There are two ways you can do this.
The first option is to blend your images using HDR software automatically.
The second is by doing it manually. Blending manually allows you to select the elements you want from each photo and combine them into one picture.
When combining bracketed images, I often opt for manual rather than automatic blending as it enables me to have more control over the results.
Either way, bracketing your images and blending them together is an excellent way to create an image with great detail in high contrast scenes.
One of the most popular tools to blend your images is Photoshop and Lightroom.
They are extremely powerful and easy to learn. With countless online resources, you won’t have an issue learning how to blend your images.
If you want a more automated process, you can use Luminar.
Luminar is much simpler software to use than Photoshop since it incorporates AI to help you blend your images.
It also offers an HDR plugin for photoshop so you can create HDR photos using their powerful AI software.
Auto HDR mode
Today camera manufacturers have made the HDR process even easier with auto HDR mode.
Most new DSLRs and point and shoot cameras come with an auto HDR mode. The HDR mode captures your scene at multiple exposures and combines them in your camera.
The final result is an image that was taken at various exposures and blended together with the press of the shutter.
The auto HDR mode is a great time-saving option to the traditional way of using AEB and then combining the images using post-processing software.
There are a few disadvantages to using HDR. The first is that most cameras will not allow you to take HDR photos in the RAW file format, most are captured in JPEG.
Another disadvantage is that typically, the camera only stores the final HDR image and not the multiple images used to create it.
The new auto HDR mode is an excellent alternative if you are looking to save time or a beginner who is not comfortable using the manual HDR process.
8. Expose for Highlights
If you’re unable to bracket your images or prefer not to, exposing for your highlights is a good alternative.
When you’re shooting high contrast scenes, it is best to expose for the highlights even if it leaves the rest of the photo dark or underexposed.
This is fine since modern cameras are so powerful and you could almost always recover the rest of the digital information with editing software.
Exposing for the highlights will allow you to preserve as much detail in your image as possible.
When exposing for highlights, remember that it’s ok to leave some elements overexposed. This is expected, especially around your light source.
Plus, slightly underexposing your sunset pictures tends to give the colors a richer, more defined look.
If you’re lucky enough to be shooting a beautifully colored sky, exposing for highlights can make your picture look more visually striking.
9. Adjust Your White Balance
The temperature of your light source affects the colors on your photograph.
Light sources with warm tints will give your pictures a red-orange color. In contrast, light sources with cool tints will give your images a bluish color.
Make sure you have set your white balance for beautiful sunset photographs. Otherwise, the color shift will be too warm.
The white balance setting you use will depend on the extent you want to keep the orange tint characteristic of sunset photos.
Avoid using your cameras auto white balance settings. In auto, your camera will correct fort the warmness of sunset by making the image cooler.
Using auto white balance will eliminate the appealing warm glow that occurs during sunset.
If you don’t want this effect, then the auto mode is the best way to remove it.
If you are shooting sunset and want to enhance the warm glow during you can use one of two presets: daylight or cloudy.
Using the daylight settings will slightly enhance the warm colors preset in your image.
If the daylight preset isn’t enough, try using the cloudy preset. This preset will enhance the warm colors significantly more than the daylight preset.
If the lighting and color in your scene are saturated, use the daylight preset for an extra kick to the color of your image.
On the other hand, if the colors of the sunset didn’t turn out as vibrant as expected using the cloudy preset can help you turn that around.
10. Shoot in RAW
Unless you don’t intend to edit your pictures, I recommend shooting with a RAW format.
Compared to JPEGs, RAW files have a higher bit-depth which means they give your images a wider range of tonal values.
This is important, especially for high dynamic range scenes. The wider tonal range, the more accurate brightness can be.
A raw file also has a larger color gamut. This will give you more flexibility in case you want to adjust your white balance in post-processing.
Whereas an 8-bit, JPEG image only translates into 16 Million possible colors, a 16-bit, RAW images can have a total of 281 Trillion possible colors.
The additional bits of RAW images enables them to produce photos with accurate brightness and colors.
As a result, using a RAW format will give you smoother color transitions and less banding artifacts than JPEGs.
RAW images also have greater editing capabilities.
That is, with RAW files, you’ll have greater control over essential features such as the highlights, shadows, contrast, and white balance of your image.
That said, if you don’t plan on editing your images, then perhaps JPEG is the best route for you.
In contrast to JPEGs, RAW images appear unfinished or dull if left unedited. As the name suggests, RAW files are the “raw” and untouched data gathered by the camera.
Consequently, you’ll need to make certain adjustments to RAW images before they are ready for presentation.
Resource: RAW vs. JPEG: The Full Story
11. Bonus Tip: Stay Late
Don’t pack your gear and leave the scene too quickly. If you can wait till dark before leaving.
Sometimes, the best light will unfold just after the sun disappears into the horizon.
I can’t remember how many times I ended up missing a great photo opportunity because I went back to my car too early. If only I had stayed for several more minutes!
Unless you absolutely have to, I also recommend not to put your camera inside your camera bag until you’ve reached your car.
This will minimize the risk of missing out on unexpected and short-lived opportunities.
Don’t stumble near the finish line. Practice patience, and you won’t be disappointed.