Finding The Right Sunset Photography Settings

Everyone wants to shoot epic sunset photos, but if you aren’t experienced in that kind of photography then finding the right sunset photography settings can be tricky.

In this article, I’m going to share with you the settings I start with for almost all my sunset photos. If you want to see my entire process for taking a photo at sunset, then check out this video below…

Starting Sunset Photography Settings

Of course, every sunset is going to be different based on cloud cover, time of year, location, etc., but here’s where I start with the settings on my camera to get me close and then adjust from there.

  • Exposure mode: Manual
  • Focus mode: Auto and Manual
  • Shutter speed: 1/50sec to start
  • Aperture: f/10 to f/13
  • ISO: 100 or lower
  • Lens: 18-24mm
  • Drive mode: Single-shot
  • White balance: Daylight or Auto

White Balance

White balance is very important in the final result, but if you are shooting in the RAW format, it can be easily changed in your photo editing software, so it is not critical to get perfect in the camera.

When shooting sunsets (or almost any landscape images for that matter), I will set the white balance to either “auto” or “daylight.” Either one of these will usually be close enough that I can see a reasonably close representation of the colors on my camera’s screen.

ISO

Setting the ISO for a sunset photo is the easiest part of the process. Keep it at the lowest (or base) ISO for your camera.

In most cameras, this will be 100. However, some cameras have a base ISO lower than 100.

But don’t use the “low” ISO settings that are below your base ISO, they won’t give you the highest possible image quality that the base ISO will.

Aperture

If you’re shooting a sunset landscape photo, then you want a smaller aperture (which is a larger f-stop number on the camera) so that you can get more of the scene in focus.

When shooting a sunset, I start with an aperture between f/10 and f/13.

There’s two reasons for this.

First, a smaller aperture will give you more depth of field, meaning more of the scene will be in focus.

Second, most lenses are at their sharpest right around the middle of their aperture settings. So I rarely go above f/13 because any gains I make by increasing depth of field might be offset by some loss of image sharpness from the smaller aperture.

Shutter Speed

It is pretty difficult to give you a specific shutter speed value for shooting sunsets. This is the one setting that you can play with depending on how much light there is in the scene without affecting the image quality or depth of field.

But, for those of you that want a starting point…I will often start at 1/50 second.

That usually gets me close in most sunsets and then I’ll adjust from there, keeping in mind that I want to protect those highlights in the sky to maximize the colors.

Focus Mode

For most landscape photos, I will use a combination of autofocus and manual focus.

To start, I set the camera on single shot autofocus and choose a spot in the area of the image that is most important. Usually this is in the foreground or midground of the image.

After I use autofocus to set the focus, I switch the camera into manual focus.

Then, I zoom in on the live view screen as much as possible to confirm that the critical part of the image is in perfect focus and fine tune it manually. For me, this is the best combination of speed and accuracy.

I leave the camera in manual focus so that it doesn’t try to re-engage the autofocus.

Drive Mode

Unless I am shooting fast moving action, I leave the drive mode on “single shot.”

There’s no reason to shoot fast frames when photographing a sunset unless there are birds or other wildlife in the scene.

Shoot In RAW

You may not think of this as a “camera setting” exactly, but if you don’t have your camera set to take photos in the RAW file format, then you are going to make sunset photography very difficult.

When you shoot in RAW, the camera captures a lot more information and allows you to brighten dark areas and darken bright areas when you are editing them in a program like Lightroom.

RAW files do require a little bit of work after the fact. You can’t share them right away like a JPEG file. Adobe Lightroom is the most widely used RAW editor out there and is an excellent choice. If you want to learn the basics, check out my FREE Lightroom Launch Course for Beginners.

The reason that I always shoot in RAW is because there’s almost always a big difference between the brightness of the sky and the foreground. With a RAW file, I can brighten the foreground and darken the sky to bring out much more detail in both.

Expose For The Sky

Similar to shooting in RAW, this is another thing I do when shooting sunsets to ensure that I can get the most detail out of the image, even with drastic differences between the brightness of the sky and foreground.

Most modern cameras will handle shadows better than they handle highlights.

That means that the end result, after editing, will be better if you let the foreground go a little underexposed and ensure that you are not overexposing the brightest parts of the image.

This is especially important when there is a lot of color in the sky. Controlling the highlights will make sure all that vibrant color is captured by your camera.

Also, be sure to take a few different shots at different exposures for each composition that you use. That will ensure you have options to choose from when editing and will even let you blend multiple exposures together if necessary.

Best Lens For Sunsets?

There’s not a definitive “best lens for sunsets” because it all depends on your creative vision for the shot.

But I can make some suggestions.

Personally, I love wide angle lenses when there is a lot of color and interesting clouds in the sky. The lens I used in the video above was a Tamron 17-35mm and I shot it at 22mm for the shot you see in the video.

If you want to read more about lens recommendations check out my picks for the Best Landscape Lenses For Nikon and the Best Landscape Lenses For Canon.

When the sky is less interesting, try using a longer lens and finding a foreground subject that you can isolate in front of the sunset like a mountain, tree, lighthouse, or even a person or animal. That can make for some interesting photos even if the sky itself isn’t that interesting.

Pete LaGregor

Pete LaGregor

Pete is a photographer in New Jersey and specializes in portraits and commercial photography, but loves shooting landscapes and video for fun. You can check out his work on his website.
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