10 Tips For Better Sunrise or Sunset Photography

Eagle Photo by Scott Bourne

10 Tips For Better Sunrise or Sunset Photography

And Bonus Tip: How I got the shot

Sunrise/Sunset photographs are very, very popular on social media. They’re very popular just about everywhere. Once in a while I like to write a quick tips sheet for sunrise/sunset photographers in the hopes that I’ll help someone get a real keeper.

This is NOT an exhaustive list – it’s just a starting point.  (And stay tuned at the end of the story for a special HOW I GOT THE SHOT section on eagles and sunset photography.)

Sunset Photo by Scott Bourne


1. Use a tripod. You’ll be dealing with low light situations. This means that you’ll need some help avoiding camera movement since your shutter speed will have to be lower. The use of a tripod eliminates the blur caused by camera movement keeping your sunset photo sharp.

2. Find a compelling foreground object to include in the photo. A picture of the sun setting with nothing else in the photo for scale or reference can be pretty boring. Include an interesting foreground object such as a bird, tree, a pier an arch, etc. This adds depth to the scene.

3. Read your camera manual and find out how to set a manual white balance. This will give you the chance to warm up the colors your camera is capturing. Alternatively, pick the “shade” or “cloudy” setting on your white balance which should warm up the scene.

4. Start early. While the best color comes right after the sun has set, you can still capture interesting scenes in the 30 to 45 minutes before sunset. There are some things you can do to make this more fruitful. Use a ND filter to cut down the existing sun. Or try stopping all the way down to say, f/22 – and make sun flares.

5. Hope for clouds. Bald, blue skies don’t yield many great sunsets. It’s the clouds in the sky that light up as the sun drops below the horizon. On cloudy days, there can be sun breaks at sunset that offer amazing images. On clear sky days, avoid the sunset images and go for something else.

Sunset Photo by Scott Bourne

6. Reflections matter. If you can find a beach or a pond or a lake in the foreground you can make cool reflection shots at sunset. Go down near the water. If possible get in the water or at least near the water’s edge. This brings the reflection into the shot in a meaningful way.

DOUBLE BONUS TIP: Water can often generate clouds due to the increase in humidity so you get the bonus of water AND clouds.

7. Composition matters – even in sunset photos. Don’t put the horizon dead center. Try to consider leading lines that take the photo’s viewer into and out of the picture. Remember that the eye goes to the brightest spot in the scene so try to put that point in a place that is visually interesting. Use the rule of thirds. (It’s okay to break all these rules if you have a creative reason in mind.)

8. Use your camera’s spot meter. You’ll have better control over the color in the scene if you don’t rely on matrix or evaluative metering. Meter a spot 25 degrees to the left or right of the sun. This will usually give you the best overall exposure for a sunset photo. Bracket just to be sure you’re seeing all the different possibilities.

9. Try HDR. Even though HDR is usually best applied in scenes where the dynamic range exceeds the camera’s ability to record data, HDR can bring about some very interesting results in sunset photography.

10. Vary your focal lengths. Use a wide angle AND a telephoto lens to vary your angle of view. A long lens will make the sun larger in the scene. A wider angle lens will make any foreground object more prominent.


Sunset photography can be fun and will help you create images that your friends and peers want to see again and again.


Sunset Photo by Scott Bourne
Eagles by Scott Bourne

On my trips to Alaska we typically have some great sunsets. On the day I made the image with the eagle and the sunset, we had a beautiful orange glow in the sky.

I saw this Coast Guard supply ship in the distance and I realized that it was going to pass right under the sun. I also saw a flock of eagles fishing nearby, so I asked the captain of our small boat to position us so that I could shoot directly into the sun in an attempt to line up the boat with the sun’s reflection.

Because there were lots of eagles in the vicinity, I also knew there was a slight chance that if we were lucky, an eagle might pass through the shot. I was prepared to make the photo either way.

I was using a 300mm lens to narrowly focus on the scene in front of me. As far as my camera settings went, I wanted to enhance the natural color so I underexposed the shot by one stop by setting the exposure compensation dial to -1 EV.

I was shooting RAW and set the white balance to cloudy – I knew I could play with it in post in any event, but the camera appeared to be getting a nice WB anyway so it was no problem.

I wanted to have as much detail in the foreground and back ground as possible so I set a large depth-of-field (using a small aperture – in this case f/19.) I used continuous AF so I could track any birds flying through the scene.

I then made a few test shots and checked my histogram. I liked what I saw and decided to get busy. I knew Id only have a few minutes before the sun set completely, and while I would have preferred the eagle fly directly through the sun, I saw this guy creep into the right side of my view and let go with a three-shot burst. This was the best of the bunch with the eagle flying directly for the sun and the mountains, the ship and the setting sun in the distance.

As is often the case, I picked my background before I settled on my final subject. This approach has served me very well over my photographic career and it’s something you might try, no matter what subject matter you shoot. Finding a suitable background that ADDS to the story rather than distracts from it is key to a winning image.

Text and photos Copyright Scott Bourne, All Rights Reserved.

One Response

  1. This was a very helpful explanation of settings – many thanks. I will try out these tips as I live near a lake over which the sun sets.

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