Pro Tips For Beautifully Exposed Sunsets

Photos & Text by Chuck Place

Have you ever been frustrated with a badly underexposed photo of a beautiful sunset sky? Everything had fallen into place. Interesting clouds had built up over your favorite piece of shoreline and with the sun on the horizon, color was developing in the clouds. But no matter how you played with the auto exposure setting on your camera, every shot was underexposed.

There is a simple pro technique to cure this problem, but guess what—you have to set your camera to manual exposure! I know, I know, manual exposure is more complicated. It’s a little scary too. When the light source, in this case the sun, is in the scene, however, manual exposure is definitely the way to go.

Once you switch your camera to manual exposure, set your aperture or f-stop for the amount of depth of field that you will need. If you are shooting a landscape, you probably want good depth of field so shoot at f16 or f22. If it’s a person, you may want shallow depth of field with a setting of f4 or f5.6.

Stormy beach sunset

Shift camera angle to left for proper exposure reading

The next step sounds complicated but is really quite simple. Swing your lens left or right horizontally until the sun is on the edge of the frame. Adjust your shutter speed until your meter indicator, or needle, is centered on the exposure scale. This is your final exposure. Recompose your shot with the sun in the original position, do not change the exposure setting and shoot.

Your camera meter will be complaining that you are overexposing, but you will definitely like the results. Because the meter is reading the actual sun, it is trying to properly expose the light source and typically underexposes everything else. Taking control of the camera’s meter is the only way to overcome this nasty habit.

The beauty of this technique is that it automatically corrects for the lens focal length. You must swing your lens further when shooting with a wide angle lens and less if you are shooting with a telephoto.

Fisherman on beach at sunset

Place sun just outside frame for proper exposure reading on subject in foreground

You can also fine-tune the exposure by whether you leave the sun just visible on the edge of the frame when you set your exposure or place it just outside the edge of the composition. Leaving the sun in the frame during metering gives you a more saturated sky with subjects often silhouetted. Place the sun outside the frame for the meter reading and your subjects have more visible detail but the sky is a little lighter. It just depends on whether the subject or the location is more important.

Woman on lifeguard tower at sunset

Place sun just inside frame for proper exposure reading of environment

Maybe this will become your first step in taking over full control of your camera or maybe it’s just a trick that eliminates a problem when you have set your camera’s exposure mode to “P”. In either case, it’s good to remember that “P” does not stand for professional. Only your brain can shoot at that level, not your camera.