How to get the perfect Sunset
All you need to know about Natural Light, the Sun, and the Sky.
When you start out as a photographer, it’s easy to underestimate the effect that natural light or sun light has on your pictures. There are so many decisions to make, compositions to test, and settings to try, that sunlight becomes almost an afterthought – except for sunset pictures, of course. But as you’re growing more experienced, you’ll find that natural light really is one of the most important elements of a great picture! Read on to learn why, and how you can use that knowledge to take beautifully lit pictures at all times of the day.
Sun light changes a lot during the day. To make things easier, photographers divide the day into five different phases: Daylight, Golden Hour, Sunset / Sunrise, Blue Hour, and Night. On a typical day, daylight takes up most of the hours around noon. The golden hour begins one or two hours before sunset (this can be a bit shorter or longer, depending on your location). After sunset, while the sky is still bright enough, we have the blue hour (or civil, nautical, and astronomical dawn). The real “night”, in photographer’s terms, only really happens when the sun is far below the horizon, and the sky is completely dark.
Alright! Enough with the dry theory. Let’s look at each phase and see what you can do to take the perfect picture with the available light.
Daylight. Most of the day, when the sun is high on the sky, its light is bright and harsh. On sunny days (or when the sun peeks through clouds), shadows are very sharp. Often, your scene has a lot of contrast, which can bring issues with the dynamic range of your camera.
Things to try during daylight
- Embrace clouds and overcast days. Even if most of us prefer bright, sunny days without a cloud in sight, it‘s actually not a bad time for great pictures! Clouds can add a great amount of constrast and interest to your sky. On overcast days, you have lots of light, and no hard shadows – great for portraits or macros! To get a warmer light and a bit more depth, you can use a gold reflector.
- To make sure that your shot does not have blown-out highlights (pure whites, covering a large area in your photo), try underexposing the photo with your camera by 1/3 to 1 full stop. You can often make the picture brighter while editing, especially if you use a raw format instead of JPEG.
- Noon can be a challenging time for photography, as the bright, colorless Sun from directly above will make your pictures look harsh. For small scenes, you can fill in a bit of the shadows with a flash or a reflector.
- But, it’s often a good idea to embrace this look and go for a high-contrast picture. Just be aware that, if you wait for the golden hour, getting dreamy, warm shots is often easier.
- Get a polar filter! These work by filtering sun light and can lead to a beautiful dark blue sky and better colors. It’s a great effect, and not easily achieved with editing.
The Golden Hour. Towards the evening, the sun sits lower on the sky. Shadows get longer, and often have less contrast. Because the light has to travel through the atmosphere, it often appears warmer (more orange), which can lead to very beautiful, dreamy shots. Contrast is lower and easier to manage.
Tips for the Golden Hour
- The easiest tip is to use the golden hour! It’s an awesome time for landscape shots, portrait or cityscapes. Plan your trips so that you are on location during the golden hour. To find out when the golden hour begins at your location and time of year, you can use light&depth.
- Don’t include the Sun in your shot. If you keep it just out of your frame, or even behind you, you’ll really capture all of the warmth and brightness the golden hour has to offer.
- While it’s easier to be awake for the evening golden hour, mornings can be exceptionally beautiful. If you know a raised spot, you can often photograph the fog rising in the morning, which adds a whole different layer of interesting detail to your pictures.
- Watch the weather. On completely overcast days, the golden hour is often similar to daylight. But, when there are gaps for the Sun to shine through, you’ll have really interesting effects to work with.
Sunset. With beautiful, colorful light, and a lot of contrast, sunset is a really great time to take photos. Shadows are long, and you can often use them in your composition. But, sunsets are also challenging! If the sun is part of your shot, you need to expose correctly to get a good balance between details in the highlights and dark shadows.
Tips for Sunset photographs
- We had this before, but it bears repeating: use the clouds in your composition! Especially at sunset or sunrise, clouds can give your photos colorful highlights. A really special effect happens when the sun shines at a cloud layer from below – it almost looks like the sky is burning! Unfortunately, there’s no easy trick to get the clouds to do what you want. Check the weather forecast to see if the sky will be free of clouds, cloudy, or overcast, and try coming to the same location for multiple days – you’ll be astonished at how different shots can look.
- While your typical sunset photograph will have the Sun in the middle of the frame, it’s often as interesting to show the world at sunset, instead of the sunset itself. You’ll have awesome, warm, almost horizontal light and really long, interesting shadows to work with. You can even include the sun’s reflection to hint at the sunset itself.
- Experiment with reflections in your shot. Lakes, rivers, the sea, or large windows give you a great canvas that’s almost as bright as the sky. This makes it easier to expose for the entire frame, and can create awesome symmetric shots.
- Sunset is short. While you can take really great pictures just before or after, you’ll only have a couple of minutes to photograph the sunset itself. It pays off to scout for a beautiful, versatile spot a few hours earlier. Light&depth can really help you out here, by showing you exactly where and when the sun will set. Try to find a spot that allows you to take different pictures – there’s nothing less interesting to look through than 200 pictures of the same sunset in the same composition.
- While this is important all the time, sunset is a particularly great time to try out different focal lengths / levels of zoom! Get a closeup of the sun with a telelens, or go wide-angle and capture the entire scene.
After Sunset: The Blue Hour. Shortly after sunset, when the last traces of direct, orange sunlight are gone, the sky takes on a light blue color. This is a great time for city scenes! You can really focus on street lights, buildings or reflections, like in this scene in Hamburg.
A lot of “night” pictures are really photographed in the blue hour, especially later, during nautical or astronomical dawn. At this time, the sky is dark enough to bring out stars, but still has a rich deep color to it.
The blue hour is often divided into three phases:
- Civil dawn happens directly after sunset. At civil dawn, the sky is almost as bright as during the day, but it turns bluer. The last sun rays often light up clouds with yellow or orange tones. The light is beautifully soft, and still bright enough photograph without a tripod. The first stars and planets start to be visible in this time. Civil dawn ends when the sun is more than six degrees below the horizon.
- Nautical dawn occurs directly after, while the sun is between six and 12 degrees below the horizon. During nautical dawn, more stars and constellations appear. While you will often need a tripod (depending on your camera), you can take gorgeous photos with the dark blue sky as a background. Nautical dawn is a great time for night photos, because there’s still enough brightness to light up your subjects and the foreground.
- Astronomical dawn is the last phase before true night. The sun is between 12 and 18 degrees below the horizon. Many more stars become visible at this time, but the sky still has a little bit of blue brightness left to it. At sea or on the coast, the horizon between sky and the sea is no longer clearly visible. After the sun is more than 18 degrees below the horizon, astronomical dawn ends, and the night begins. Above around 48 degrees of latitude (so, to the north of Paris or Vancouver), this actually doesn’t happen during summer! In these places, astronomical dawn transitions directly into astronomical dusk, with no night phase in between. (Even higher north, the same is actually true for nautical and civil dawn.)
How you can take the perfect picture in the blue hour
- Know when to take which pictures. If you want to go for photos with a dark blue sky, aim for nautical or astronomical dawn – the sky will be too bright during civil dawn, and too dark after that. On the other hand, civil dawn is great to catch the last rays of the sun, and helps you to balance dark subjects with a bit more light. light&depth can really help you out here and help you plan your shots.
- Bring in artificial light. Photographs of cities, houses, and many other subject that have their own lighting really come to live after sunset. Artificial light is often too dark to really be visible during the day.
- Reflections help you (you’ve heard this before!). Bring water, windows, or polished surfaces into your frame. They pick up artificial light and the color of the sky, and they make for an easier exposure.
- Get a tripod. Especially during nautical and astronomical dawn, the sky becomes darker, and you’ll need to use longer exposures and higher ISO values. It will become challenging to hold your camera as still as needed. A good tripod will help you take beautiful long exposures that really bring out the blue sky.
- Find out how high ISO values affect your shot. Most cameras have an ISO setting, that allows you to adjust the sensor sensitivity to capture brighter picture with less light. The problem is that high ISO values can often look more noisy (especially with older and smaller cameras). If you know which values still look acceptable for the shot you want to take, you can focus on the moment, instead of trying out different settings all the time. For many modern cameras, ISO values of up to 1600 will often give you images with an tolerable amount of noise.
- Get the best equipment for night shots. Larger sensors and Full-Frame cameras help. The more light your sensor can catch, the less noisy your pictures will be. You can photograph for longer without a tripod, and long exposures will have less noise to them. A lens with a large aperture (i.e., a small f-stop) also helps. Small f-stops, like f/1.4, will allow you to get much more light onto your sensor. While zoom lenses with large apertures can be really expensive, you can get a 50mm prime lens with an aperture of f/1.8 or f/1.4 for most cameras on the cheap.
Night. When the sun sinks further below the horizon, the blue sky slowly becomes black, and even more stars become visible. With long exposures (but beware of star trails and light pollution), you can capture the tiniest hint of blue that’s still there in the sky.