How to Photograph Perfect Sunsets

Master exposing these high-constrast scenes to capture the outdoors at its best.
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Master exposing these high-constrast scenes to capture the outdoors at its best.
Ruby Basin, Wiminuche Wilderness, Colorado Specs: F /32, 1 sec, Graduated Neutral-Density Filter, Tripod. Photo by Glenn Randall

Ruby Basin, Wiminuche Wilderness, Colorado Specs: F /32, 1 sec, Graduated Neutral-Density Filter, Tripod. Photo by Glenn Randall

Get Ready

Figure out when and where the sun will set. Best bet: The Photographer’s Ephemeris app ($9 iOS/$5 Android/free for desktop) will tell you the exact angle for any spot and date. The iOS version includes an option to forecast if the clouds will light up (this usually happens after the sun is down). Low- tech version: Guess with a compass, and look for high clouds with a clear horizon. Start getting in position to shoot an hour before sunset.

Get Set

Compose a wide shot to include points of interest such as flowers, a tent, or a lake, but avoid framing any of them (or the sun itself) smack
in the center. If conditions are right for colorful clouds, fill two-thirds of your frame with sky. Otherwise, compose with more land.

Shoot

Use a tripod, as light will be low. Expose for the brightest part of the scene (on smartphones, tap the sky). It’s OK that the land will seem really dark. Keep shooting; the colors will evolve up to 45 minutes after the sun is down. Later, use the shadows slider in photo-editing software to lighten the dark sections until the images look like what you remember. App: Try Adobe Photoshop Express (free; iOS/ Android/Windows).

Don't Forget Sunrise

The technical details and end result are very similar, except the best colors are often just before the sun rises

Key Skill: HDR

High dynamic range (HDR) imaging combines multiple shots with different exposures into one image to help capture scenes with a big spread between dark and light spots, a common challenge with sunset scenes. Using a tripod, take three to seven images at varying exposures, capturing color in the brightest areas and full detail in the darkest. In a photo-editing program like Adobe Lightroom (easiest), choose Photomerge > HDR, then fine-tune. Avoid adding so much brightness to the shadows that it looks like full daylight; halos where dark and light meet; or ghost effects where something moves between images. Shortcut: Use a smartphone HDR app such as the built-in iPhone option.

Practice

Improve your skills by shooting at least one sunset per week, even at home. On Instagram, tag your best shots #bpPhotoSchool to share your results and for a chance to be featured on the @backpackermag account.