How To Take Portraits At Sunset

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Do you have trouble getting a good exposure at sunset?

It is actually one of the best times of day to take portraits but without taking the correct steps it can be tricky for some beginners.

If you are just taking regular outdoor portraits, you may be totally fine exposing the image so that the subject is bright enough and letting the sky “blow out” to white. But when there is a beautiful sunset happening, you want to include as much of that color in the frame with your subject as you can.

This is where it gets tricky for a lot of photographers. The sky is going to be much brighter than the subject (even if the sun itself isn’t in the frame) so it can be difficult to get them both exposed well in the same frame. If you darken the sky exposure (which is a great way to make sure you capture all those great colors) then the subject will be too dark.

When you are able to create an image so that none of it is blown out highlights or total black, that is often referred to as balancing the exposure.

The way to balance an exposure when the sky is brighter than the subject is to add light to the subject.

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Pay Attention To The Light

Often at sunset, you can take advantage of the colorful sky without having the sun itself in the frame of the picture. In fact, the side of the sky opposite the sunset (ake the east) will have a lot of it’s own color.

So if you can find a place where the settign sun can light your subject, then you are all set.

Even if the sun isn’t directly on your subject, just using a background that is less bright will help you balance the exposure.

Using A Reflector

If the east sky is dull looking or you just can’t find a good position where the sky isn’t so bright, then you’ll have to do something to add light to yoru subject. A reflector is the simplest and quickest way to do this.

You may also hear these referred to as a 5 in 1 reflector. They typically include reflective sides of white, silver, and gold as well as a white translucent piece and a black side. For our purposes here, we will just be dealing with the white reflective side. This is the one I use. It’s inexpensive and works great. I prefer the oval shaped one rather than the round reflector.

The goal here is to redirect some of the light onto the subject so that they are closer in exposure to that bright sky. The subject is already getting some direct light from the sky so taking more of it and focusing it on the subject with the reflective part will add even more light to the subject.

Using Flash For Sunset Portraits

If you want to really take control of the lighting in the shot, flash is the way to go.

Here are the basic steps for getting a good flash exposure at sunset.

1. Expose For The Ambient Light

When using flash outdoors, the first step should be to get the right exposure for the sky without flash (because your flash has no effect on it).

You’ll want to be in manual mode here. If you want the background to be blurred out, you can use a lower aperture like f/1.8 or f/2.8. But at sunset I usually want some detail in the sky, especially if there are clouds that are changing colors from the sun setting. So I start with an aperture of f/8.0.

From there I’ll start with the flash sync speed. You’ll have to check your camera manual to see what yours is. I use a Nikon D750 and it has a flash sync speed of 1/200. Other models might be as high as 1/250 or as low as 1/160.

An aperture of f/8.0 and a shutter speed of 1/200 is where I usually start. From there, you may have to adjust one or the other until the sky looks the way you want. This is where I can’t give you specific settings because it varies based on many factors including how much the sun has set, how many clouds are blocking the sun, whether the sun is in the frame or not, and a few others. You best bet is to use live view or take a shot and see how it looks and adjust from there.

Once you get the sky exposed correctly, chances are your subject will be pretty dark.

2. Add In Flash

To add some light to your subject, you’ll need to add some flash.

You can use a constant light source as well and the concepts are the same. But flash is the most common so we will talk about that here.

Flash works best and when it is not attached to your camera.

That used to be a lot more difficult than it is today. All you need is a flash and remote trigger that work together. The trigger attaches to the hot shoe on your camera and you can put the flash anywhere you want. Putting the flash to one side or the other of the camera helps create a more natural looking light. I prefer to place the flash at roughly a 45 degree angle from the camera on the same side of the frame as the sun.

You Should experiment with different positioning to see what looks the best to you.

3. Gel For Color Balancing

By introducing flash, you now have two different colors of light in the scene which can make it look unnatural.

If you are using a flash then you may want to use some gels on the flash to make it look more natural.

Almost all flashes give off light that has a color temperature of around 5000K (that’s similar to the light you’ll see during the day outside). But the natural light during sunset is much warmer than that. So if you use a flash by itself, it will make your subjects look almost blue compared to the ambient light.

This is very easy to fix though. All you have to do is put a gel on the flash. A gel in photography is a colored translucent piece of plastic that you put over the flash to adjust the color emitted by the flash.

For sunset portraits, you want what is called a CTO gel. CTO stands for “color temperature orange.” This adds warmth to the flash. I usually start with a 1/2 CTO (or a full CTO if the sky is particularly warm and colorful).

Bonus Tip: If you want the sky to appear warmer in color than it really is, you can use the bare flash or even add a blue gel. Then you can change the white balance in your camera (or in post) to a warmer white balance until the subject has the correct white balance. The sky will appear much warmer than it was in person.

4. Check Your Histogram

You can’t be certain the exposure is correct just by looking at the image on the back of the camera.

To be certain, you want to look at the histogram on your camera. The most important thing to check is that you haven’t over exposed the image. Most modern cameras can recover darker areas pretty well, but overexposed parts of the shot are unrecoverable.

To check this, all you have to do is make sure that the histogram is not touching the right side. This means that there is still detail in the highlight areas.

Exception: If you are shooting directly into the setting sun and the sun is in the frame, the sun itself is almost always going to be overexposed (meaning there will be part of the histogram touching the right side). That’s ok. You want to make sure the areas around the sun still have some detail in them, but the sun itself will be pure white.

How To Take Portraits Into The Sunset

So what do you do if you want the setting sun directly in the frame?

This is when you really need to add a lot of light to your subject to balance the exposure.

You might need a higher shutter speed than 1/200 to get the correct exposure for the background. This poses a problem for any flash that does not have a feature called High Speed Sync (“HSS”). HSS is a feature found in some flashes that will let you shoot at a shutter speed higher than the max sync speed.

Another way to lower the exposure of the background is by using a Neutral Density (“ND”) filter on the lens. That will let you darken the exposure without having to raise the shutter speed too much. From there you can add flash as described above. The stronger the ND filter that you need, the higher the flash power will need to be.

You need to be more aware of color differences between your subject and the background if you’re using flash shooting into the sun. Because there is going to be a bigger brightness difference between the background and the subject when the sun in in the frame of the image, the color imbalance will be even more pronounced. In this situation, using gels on your flash becomes more important.

Get Out And Practice

This guide should help you get started, but there is no way to cover every possible scenario that you will encounter when taking portraits at sunset. The best way to learn is to get out and try it.

Take a friend, a spouse, or even a stuffed animal outside at sunset and practice these techniques. Every time you practice, you’ll learn some new small detail and figure out how to deal with it.

Over time, you’ll develop your own method for creating amazing sunset portraits.

What are your best strategies for taking portraits at sunset? Share them in the comments below.

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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