Every sunset is different.  However each year, there are a few of them that you remember forever!  This was certainly one of those sunsets!  As Galen Rowell once said, “You only get one sunrise and one sunset a day, and you only get so many days on the planet. A good photographer does the math and doesn’t waste either.”  In the follow article, we’ll teach you how to create a sunset panoramic photo for incredible results.

The Sunset Panoramic Photo


The Equipment and Settings

The Shooting Conditions

This particular shade of pink does not last long, so you have to move quickly to capture it.  Especially if you are doing something complex such as a panorama or other type of composite.  Also, often times, the most beautiful colors show up in the sky *opposite* the actual sunset, especially in colder conditions.

Anyways, I kept my eye on the clouds in a 360 degree direction, because I knew that great color could show up practically anywhere.  When I saw these clouds just barely begin to light up, I had only a couple minutes to decide on my composition, get into position, set my tripod and check the “swing” of the panorama, and fire off the images at peak color.

The resulting un-edited frames looked like this:

separate frames-clip

Picking an exposure is always the toughest part of capturing a panorama such as this where you have extremely bright highlights in one area, and deep dark shadows in another.  Such a scene can easily pass the 10-stop mark, if you were to grab a spot meter and take a reading off a bright cloud and a shadowy tidepool.  Usually, since I shoot Nikon and therefore trust my shadows a little more than my highlights, I try and expose my RAW images so that the highlights are just barely preserved.  Sometimes it’s okay to just barely clip your highlights because you know you can recover them, but be careful.

Anyways I picked my exposure, and just let the shadows be deep and dark, knowing that I would certainly be able to find plenty of detail in them later, albeit with a little noise.  I could have attempted to HDR bracket the entire panorama, however I felt that time was of the essence and also that the scene was just barely within the dynamic range that I could pull off without bracketing.

Post-Processing for Sunset Panoramic Photos

As difficult as it is to gauge your exposure for such a dynamic scene, the images actually come together pretty nicely without much fuss.  I used an SLR Lounge Preset for Lightroom 4 for HDR type images, and then tweaked it on each frame separately until they all looked as similar as possible, yet without losing highlights in the brightest frame nor any shadows in the darkest frame.

Then I merged the images into a panorama using Photoshop CS6’s “Photomerge” tool, and the result looked like this:


With a little bit of the warp tool in Photoshop, I was able to reduce the loss of clouds due to eventual cropping, and also straighten out a slightly wobbly horizon:


Finally, I saved this relatively flat looking image as a PSD, returned to Lightroom, and did final basic adjustments and burning / dodging to ensure that the image regained some pop…



And, that’s about it!  Please feel free to comment here with any questions, or join our Forum and participate there if you’d like!