Since sunset photos is my favorite category, I thought I would write about what you could do to improve your sunset (and sunrise) photos. This is quite basic stuff but I feel that quite many sunset photos here in dA could be improved with these ideas. I'm not going to cover all the basics of photography though. If there are some terms that you're not familiar with, I would suggest going to your local library and getting a book about the basics of photography. Or you can also read something from the internet, here's a link list from my previous news-article: [link]
There are far too many sources to name any specific, since I've taken stuff from everything I've read and I think quite many guides cover these things. But this information is something I think might help a beginner, at least it helps me and I use it constantly.
Also don't take the photos, make them. Improving your skills is about mentality. Taking photos is easier to view as just walking suddenly to some random place, seeing a nice view and snapping a photo. Many good sunset photos are planned well, so don't just take snapshots, plan the image and then make it carefully. Perhaps this is one of the things that has suffered in digital age, since it's easy to just shoot bunch of photos and then see if any of those succeeded.
I have used some photos as examples here. They are from my collection, I'm just too lazy to go look for suitable images from other deviants and at least in with my photos, I now what I was thinking when I photographed it.
Planning is everything
Like I previously stated, planning is really important with sunset photos, as it is with all the photography. Do you think that all the great landscape photographers just happen to walk to interesting and beautiful places by accident? For the best of them, it might be few weeks of walking in difficult environment searching for good places.
Getting the nice sunset photo is all about timing since the sun sets on certain moment. Ever noticed a beautiful sunset from your window and ran to take a photo out of it? Unless you're living in really beautiful area (and this one area would get old anyway quite quickly), you'll most likely end up with beautiful colors and something really uninteresting in the foreground (what ever happens to be next to your house). The time it takes you to travel to a nice location is usually long enough so that you'll miss the sunset if you react only when you see the sunset.
I saw a beautiful sunset outside when coming home from work. I grapped my camera and ran to nearby hill and found this scene. I was late and the most beautiful part was already gone. Also how many photos do you think I could take from this small hill and keep them still interesting?
So first find out when the sun is setting (check your local weather services for example). Make sure you're ready in location well before the moment since usually the time given is the moment when the sun disappears below the horizon. So if you want to have the sun in the image, be there earlier. Also make sure you have time for scouting and finding the good spot so when the moment is right, you're ready and not just setting the tripod in a hurry. If you have to hurry, it usually results in shots that are not that well planned and not getting the full potential out of the image.
Photo taken before the sunset while sun was low in the sky.
Find out the direction where to sun is setting
Sun rises from the east and sets into west? Wrong, not accurate enough. It naturally depends on where you live, but here in Finland, for example, it varies quite a lot depending on time of the year. Unfortunately I haven't found any good services yet that could provide this information but there are some compasses that enable you to find out this information, for example. The direction of sunset helps you to think that what things you will have in the frame when the sun is setting.
Scout location(s) from map
Map is one important tool for all the landscape photographers and so it is also sunsets. You can find interesting locations easily from map that you can then scout either before sun is setting or on some other time. This is also when you need the information about the direction of the sunset. Also if you're going to scout the locations some other time than you're going to photograph them, bring a compass with out.
Also one handy tool here is Google Earth. This lets you to see more details and what place looks like (like places of forests and plain ground). But naturally to be of any use, it needs to have detailed enough photos of the area. Check and see if it's usable.
Sunset photos can be taken with any camera. Some might be better than the others, but by knowing your gear and its limitations you still can take beautiful photos with point-and-shoot cameras. Personally I would say though that having the possibility to use manual settings is really beneficial. At least you need the ability to correct the exposure.
I always carry a tripod with me when I'm going to photograph something. With sunsets, it has few important purposes. First of all, you don't have to worry about depth-of-field/shutter speed. Just choose the aperture that seems good for you and then select shutter speed according to that and don't worry about the camera shake. So you can always get pin-sharp images (with good tripod, remote and still weather I just did one minute exposure in night and got really sharp results).
Not a sunset, but still a 68 second exposure during night. I had the camera on a tripod, a good lens and used remote.
Also another benefit is that with tripod, you can make more careful compositions. You can do small tweaks to it and don't have to worry about your hand getting tired.
If you don't have tripod yet, I would recommend saving some money and getting a good one, especially for SLR. Around 200/$ should get you a nice tripod and head. Make also sure that you can work with it nicely without raising the center column. Raising center column makes the tripod more wobbly and could compromise the sharp image.
After getting my filters, I haven't photographed sunsets without them. There is one filter type you really need: neutral density graduated filter. I would go so far and say that without ND grads you'll only get silhouettes. Then there also are some other filters that might bring nice results, like colored grads or normal colored filters.
The ND grad is used to even the exposure differences between the ground and sky. Normally if you photograph towards the sun (even though it might be low), you'll get completely blown out sky (white) if you want to have some details in foreground. Or you'll have nicely exposed sky and black ground (that is nice if you want silhouettes, but remember, you want more than just silhouettes for every shot).
ND grad is half grey (neutral, so it shouldn't paint the scene in any way, just let less light to pass) and half clear and between them, it has gradual transition. This way you can either hold the filter in your hand in front of the lens or then have a filter holder attached to the lens. You can rotate the filter and move it up and down to get the transition to be in right place.
Another interesting filter is neutral density filter. This makes less light to get into sensor and forces you to use longer shutter speeds. The effect might be really interesting especially with water.
With filter system you'll attach the filter holder into lens (usually with adapter, so you need only one holder for different size lenses) and put the square filter into the holder. You can move the filter up and down to get the grad transition to right place and rotate the holder.
One system that has also ND grads is Cokin system. Personally I've used the P-system, but it has one drawback: the neutral density filters aren't exactly neutral. They tend to bring in a slight red hue that might be a problem when you'll stack them. But you can read more about the system from their website and also see some examples: [link] Other brands that I know are Lee filters (should be excellent and quite expensive) and Hitech (between Cokin and Lee in quality). Currently I have Cokin P-system with few filters and for my Nikkor 14mm f2.8 I had to get Cokin X-system since it was only system where I found an adapter that could fit the lens.
Left: ND grad filter to even the exposure of the sky and ground while ND filter made me to use longer exposure to get the water smooth.
Middle: Instead of traditional use of filters I had them sideways here. I used two ND grads to make the transition longer than normally.
Right: Using ND grad filter darkens the sky preventing it to be blown out and making the scene more dramatic.
Remote controller is nice thing to have, even though it's really just fine tuning. Even if you have the camera on tripod, once you press the shutter, you'll make some vibrations and it might affect the sharpness of the image. With remote, you can shoot without touching the camera, so you'll have sharper images again.
Also you can use the self-timer of the camera, if you don't have remote. Just set the self-timer to 10s for example, press the shutter release and wait.
Compass is necessary especially if you scout the are before the sunset. This way you can know exactly where the sun is setting. Let say, for example, that you're walking in beach and see interesting thing in horizon (a mountain etc for example) that you want into the image. With compass, you can find the right spot so the sun will be where you want it to be in the frame. This way you don't have to hurry when you come into the place for the sunset.
Protect yourself too
It's not enough that you protect the camera. Make sure you're wearing proper clothing for the weather, since sometimes you'll have to wait a while for the sun to be in the correct height. Also stones are usually interesting in sunset photos. So if you're walking on stone, it might be slippery, so be careful not to slip and break the camera or you.
Composition in photography is always important. Don't forget it with sunset photos either. I'm not going to cover the basics of composition here. If you're not familiar with at least rule of the thirds, read it first from here: [link] If you're more experienced photographer and want to learn more about composition, read The Photographer's Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos from Michael Freeman, for example.
One interesting thing you can use to boost your sunsets (and landscapes in general) is having something interesting in the foreground. It might be a pool of water, some kind of plant or anything you find. This usually requires you using the ND grad filter because of exposure differences.
Quite traditional approach would be having the camera in vertical position and putting the foreground interest into lower part of the frame. Usually having something in the foreground also gives the photo more sense of depth.
Left: A pool of water is an easy choice for a foreground interest.
Right: Rocks give the photo a nice focal point in the frame that would otherwise be empty. Also notice the use of ND and ND grad filters.
You can take sunset photos before or after the sun has set down. If the sun is still high enough, you need to decide where to place it. One, usually safe, option would be placing it in some 1/3 spot (like explained in the article about rule of thirds for example). Or perhaps you could place it center if you want to emphasize the symmetry of the scene? There is no right answer, but it's important that you'll keep this in mind and pay attention to it.
Left: Since the scene isn't symmetric, I decided to place the sun on one of the vertical 1/3 lines. The right side was better choice in this scene since the balance of foreground is to left side. This way I was able to still have a balanced image.
Right: In this scene I wanted to emphasize the symmetry (dark silhouettes coming to middle from both sides), so I placed the sun into middle of the frame.
Tilted horizon vs straight horizon
This one is mostly a matter of taste. My personal view is that you should go for a straight horizon if there isn't anything in the scene that would require tilted horizon when it comes to composition. A tilted horizon can bring some dynamic into image, but usually the overall mood of the sunset photo usually doesn't benefit from this. Also if you're using a tilted horizon, make sure it's clear enough, since if it's modest, usually it doesn't bring anything into image, just makes it look like careless snapshot (personally I usually comment this).
Left: A bad example of tilted horizon. There's really nothing that would require it in this scene. Somehow it seems to work a bit here but afterwards, I think I should have gone for straight horizon.
Right: I wanted to fit the pool into image better, so I chose tilted horizon. Also the dramatic lighting in this scene benefits from the extra dynamics in my opinion.
Silhouettes can also be interesting element in the image. Just find some interesting shape for the photo (and be creative, it doesn't always have to be a tree). Also here you have to think about the composition. Don't just place the silhouette randomly somewhere in the frame, but think about it. For example use the rule of thirds.
Composition is only one part of the process of creating a beautiful photo. Getting the correct exposure is another. Here's few tips that might help you. Most of these are suitable also for other landscapes, but I've seen many sunset photos that could benefit from these. Here's really simple explanation about these things I'm talking here, in case you're not familiar with the terms: [link]
Quite basic thing about the photography: lower aperture (larger f-number), longer the depth-of-field is. In general you want the depth-of-field to be as wide as possible in landscapes (and hence in sunset photos too). Personally I usually use something like f8 (or f5.6 with my Tamron f5.6 since it's the sweet spot of the lens). This is usually enough since with wide focal lengths the DoF is quite wide anyway. This is true especially with compact cameras, where the real focal length is usually under 10mm.
Also remember that since you have the camera on tripod, you don't have to worry less light getting to sensor because of the smaller aperture.
Another recommendation would be not having too small aperture. There's a phenomenon called diffraction (I won't go into details). After a certain aperture, the quality of the image suffers if you'll use smaller aperture. On the other hand, with most of the images, the best results are usually few stops darker than max aperture. So basically every lens has a best aperture where it produces sharpest possible images. If you don't need lower or higher aperture for some other reason, I would recommend using that aperture. You can usually check the best aperture from lens reviews for example.
Expose to the right, if possible
One technique important with digital cameras "exposing to right". This means that you should have most of the histogram on the right side (while making sure that there aren't that many burned out areas in the image). I won't go into details of this technique here, you can read more for example here: [link] Once you have the image exposed to right, you can correct the image in post-processing to look like you wanted.
Bracketing isn't a bad idea, especially if you're a bit unsure about the exposure. So just take few photos with different shutter speeds (remember that you have the certain aperture set for the best results). But my personal approach is that I try to get the exposure correct but first, using zone system, and then tweaking the exposure with the help of the histogram.
Long vs. short exposure
Long vs. short exposure is matter of artistic opinion. Especially with water shots, having the "plastic" look in water can be really interesting and good looking effect but on the other hand, it might grow old quite quickly. Quite often long exposure photos might need neutral density filter to lower the amount of light that passes to sensor.
Left: Long exposure makes the water look smooth that goes well with the peaceful scene in the image.
Right: Shorter exposure makes the waves visible and supports the rugged view that foreground brings into image (but otherwise this image isn't good example of composition, especially with the sun... I also should have used ND grad filter here).
Learn to use histogram
Histogram tells you what kind of exposure you got far better than looking at the photo from the small screen of your camera. If you have the chance to use it, learn to use it. Read more from here: [link]
Ever tried taking a photo of a sunset that had really beautiful colors and ended up with photo that had really boring washed out colors? This is where the post-processing comes in. The goal is not to change the picture, but to get most out of the picture. I'm not going into details of these things, just few general words about them. Read more about these from here: [link]
One thing to do always, if possible, is to shoot in raw format. Not just with sunsets, but always. Raw gives you far better control over the image in post-processing. You can for example tweak the exposure a bit and change the white balance. Read more: [link]
Curves and levels
Curves and levels are a good way to improve your final image. With slightly s-shaped curve it usually makes the contrasts higher and colors stronger. Read about them from cambridge in color -site.
One good way to affect the mood of the image is to change the white balance. This can be used to correct the image colors (in case the camera didn't get the white balance right) or perhaps change the colors to be a bit more dramatic. By changing the white balance to lower (colder), you'll get colder (blue) tones and by changing the white balance higher (warmer) you'll get warmer (orange) tones.
You can either change the white balance in-camera or better yet, if you shoot raw, set it afterwards in post-processing.
The scene was a bit yellow (and with reddish sky after stacking Cokin filters), but by changing the white balance into colder I was able to make the scene more dramatic.
High Dynamic Range images (HDR)
HDR is a bit controversial subject. While it seems to be extremely popular with the candy colors here in dA, there also are some people who mostly dislike it. Personally I always prefer using filters but there are some occasions where I use HDR myself. If the scene is difficult and there isn't any horizon line, you often have difficulties with filters. Also sometimes I'm just in the mood I want some of the effects HDR brings, so I'll use it. Naturally if you don't have filters, HDR might be your only way to get the balanced exposure between ground and sky.
If you shoot HDR, I would give you three quick advices: Avoid the dull gray HDR's... increase the contrasts with curves if needed. Avoid the overdone HDR-look, especially with colors. I grows old really quick. And last point: remember that it's still photography. Same "rules" still apply: the scene must be interesting enough and composition good (so avoid a situation where the whole idea of the image is the HDR effect).
Left: Unfortunately I didn't have ND grad filter for my 14mm f2.8 lens yet (it has huge front element) so I had to shoot this as HDR.
Middle: Bad use of HDR from me. I could have nailed this view easily with filters and gotten rid of that blue hue in foreground as well.
Right: Wanted to have the surreal HDR look here, also applied strong contrasts with curves tool and some warming filters in Photoshop.
So here you have it, a basic guide to shoot at least a bit better sunsets (well, there might naturally be some areas that I've overlooked). As you can see, it's not rocket science and doesn't require years of experienced (I've been photographing myself for a year only). Anyone can use these with a bit of planning. Also I think there's one message that I didn't state yet but you perhaps can read it between the lines: good sunset photos aren't just sunset photos. They're land/waterscape photos taken during sunset, where the whole scene is interesting and the sunset just gives the finishing touch.
Also if you want to see more sunset photos, check #sunsets club. And if you have any questions, you can contact me directly or ask from photography forum: [link]