Watching the setting sun is like the period at the end of a sentence. It gives closure to the adventure of the day and prepares us for the next. It’s no secret that some of the best light for photography is at sunset. Some photographers will stake a claim on a particular locale after some early scouting and wait there all day just to be present for the setting sun. Landscape photographers live for this daily moment, when the air is still warm from the day and the last wisps of clouds are starting to slowly fade in the pink and orange glow of refracted sunlight. While it’s often that I’m out shooting landscape photos at the end of the day, I always try to remember to use the fleeting orange light to capture the human elements in my life: my friends and family. The low hanging sun cast a warm flattering light and the long shadows on the landscape deepen the scene. The result is a portrait that can’t be replicated in a studio and often times the memory captured is the apogee of emotion and excitement for the day. Every waking moment in our day led us to this point and we will forever be able to remember it by the photo that we captured.
How to Plan for a Successful Sunset Portrait
Plan ahead for a successful sunset portrait
Many photographers feel overwhelmed when they start photographing portraits, professionally or for fun.
Where should I shoot? How should I pose people? What lens should I use? What settings should I be using? When should I move them to/from a great spot? What should I say to get great emotion?
A plan will give you confidence and help alleviate some of the immediate pressure of decision making. It’s not restrictive because often the best shots are unplanned, but rather something to give you confidence and a direction to fall back on when you aren’t feeling inspired.
Here is our rough plan for all of our sunset shoots, whether it be an engagement, part of a wedding, family portrait, maternity, or outdoor newborn session. Our sunset portrait sessions are always planned approximately one hour before sunset.
This plan’s purpose is twofold – it not only helps you have more confidence and direction, but will also help you make the most of your location and sunset lighting.
STEP ONE: ARRIVE EARLY TO SCOUT
Plan to arrive at least 20-30 minutes early to scout a new location. You never know what amazing little lane or spot may be just around the corner, so it’s worth taking some extra time to explore. It’s also nice to arrive before your client so that you can make them feel welcome upon their arrival.
STEP TWO: ASSESS THE LOCATION
Start to assess the location by asking the following questions:
Where are some nice shady spots to begin? Shady spots are perfect to start off with while the sun is still bright and harsh.
What is the highest point at the location? If you are at a hilly location, this is where you will be able to capture the final moments of sunset and make the most of the golden light.
Where is the most impressive spot for sunset? This is where you want to end up – so it should be last on your route.
With these questions answered, you can very roughly map out a planned route. This means you’ll always have a direction to head and will be able to lead the clients confidently around the location.
STEP THREE: SHOOT FOR THE BEST LIGHT
To make the absolute best of the sunset lighting, you can follow the same sort of pattern every shoot (in this order):
Filtered Light shots
Let’s put your plan into practice, assuming sunset is 6 pm:
4:40 pm – Arrive, scout the area and assess the location.
5:00 pm – Your client arrives and is briefed about the fun time they are going to have!
5:10 pm – SHADE SHOOTING
Get straight into shooting in the nice shady spot you already found. We love to knock out some more formal shots like these here, as usually these are photos clients love, but don’t want big on the walls. Save the more impressive lighting for landscape shots.
5:25 pm – FILTERED LIGHT SHOOTING
You can then move on to any shots where you want the sun in the photo, but you can filter the light through the trees. (Read our past article on four different ways to filter sun flare in this article: How to Control Sun Flare in Your Photos). Photos such as these:
5:40 pm – SILHOUETTE SHOOTING
Roughly 10-20 minutes before sunset is usually the best time to try a silhouette. As silhouettes require you to shoot at a very low angle, you won’t be able to match up the height of the sun with the clients’ feet if you wait any longer. You can read our article on capturing silhouettes here.
5:50 pm – SUNSET SHOOTING
At this point, the light will be golden – so you want to be at your final spot. Do all you can to make this most of the beautiful soft light – you can even position your clients out in the open if you know how to control sunflare. We try to take a variety of photos at this time – a landscape, waist-up, and close-ups. That way, we can create wall art sets that all have the same sunset colouring.
6:00 pm – DUSK SHOOTING
The sun has set, but you still have a glorious window of 15 minutes where you can capture the gorgeous colours of dusk. Because the sun is no longer emitting harsh light, you can now use the whole other side of the location! Areas that were previously too lit by the sun can now be shot in the soft light of dusk.
6:10 pm – DONE!
This plan is designed to give you some structure if you are lacking confidence and direction for your sunset portrait photo sessions. It will help you get the most from the sunlight, and effectively manage your time during the shoot. Of course, being photographers, we’re all for creativity, so breaking the rules is great once you have more confidence.
10 Tips for Better Sunset Portraits
Sunset Portrait Tip #1: Use off-camera flash if you have the equipment. Since sunset portraits are always back-lit, a little fill flash will make all the difference between muddy and dark faces without the flash, compared to beautiful soft light with the right flash.
Sunset Portrait Tip #2: Although most sunset portraits use flash, you can also capture a beautiful and trendy look by correctly exposing the subject and overexposing the background. This look is really in style lately. Learn more about it in this previous post.
Sunset Portrait Tip #3: After shooting the classic shots, try also shooting a few silhouettes of the subject’s shape in front of the sunset in the background.
Sunset Portrait Tip #4: Try to find a balance between aperture and shutter speed. You will probably want an aperture of at least f/5.6 so that the clouds in the sunset are relatively sharp, but you’ll want a low enough aperture and long enough aperture to gather enough light during this low-light situation. I shoot most of my sunset portraits at f/8.
Sunset Portrait Tip #5: If you can use off-camera flash to illuminate the subject, then use a faster shutter speed to underexpose the background. Underexposed sunsets are more rich in color.
Sunset Portrait Tip #6: If shooting without a flash, I prefer to shoot aperture priority mode while the sun is still above the horizon, but I switch to manual as soon as the sun dips below the horizon. Aperture priority is handy when the sun is in the sky because it will automatically adjust the exposure when your subject moves slightly to block more or less of the bright sun. Even slight movements of the subject can drastically impact the correct exposure.
Sunset Portrait Tip #7: If shooting with a flash, consider using a CTO gel to warm the light. Sometimes it looks strange to have a daylight balanced white light to illuminate the subject when the light produced by the sunset is usually warm. If you haven’t used gels before, you can buy them for REALLY cheap on Amazon.
Sunset Portrait Tip #8: To make sure you haven’t overexposed the sky, point the camera up to the sunset to meter, and then recompose the shot to include the subject.
Sunset Portrait Tip #9: Ditch the auto white balance. I have never seen a camera nail the white balance for sunsets consistently. For sunsets, you’ll probably want a white balance between 3,000 and 4,000 kelvin. If you shoot in RAW, then have no fear because you can change the white balance after the fact.
Sunset Portrait Tip #10: Don’t forget to apply all the general sunset photography tips that aren’t necessarily specific to portraits. If you missed the post a few weeks ago, check out this post entitled 30 tips for sunset photography.