Sunset Portrait Photography | Minute Photography
If you’re looking to add a touch of drama to your portraits, shooting during sunset can be a great option. The warm lighting and vibrant colors can create some truly stunning images. But there are a few things to keep in mind if you want to make the most of this type of photography. Here are some sunset portrait photography tips to help you make the most out of the moment.
Note: This article was originally written in 2016 and updated in 2022 to include more tips and images.
Video | Sunset Portrait Photography
In this episode of minute photography, we show you how to achieve a perfectly lit sunset portrait while throwing the temperature into a cool blue.
Step 1: Dial in Camera Settings
Set your shutter speed to 1/200th of a second and dial in the proper aperture and ISO setting that retains the detail and dynamic range of your sunset portrait. In our scene we arrived at an ambient exposure of 1/200th of a second, f/5.6, and ISO 100, and you can see from the image above, that our subject is extremely underexposed but our background has the perfect balance of brightness.
Step 2: Set your In-Camera White Balance
Throw your temperature into a deep blue by setting your in-camera temperature setting to 3600K. This is just a starting point so gauge whether or not your sunset’s color can handle more or less of a temperature adjustment. Now, with this adjustment we need to make sure that the off-camera flash color helps us retain our subject’s natural skin color and therefore we use a CTO (Color Temperature Orange) gel to balance between the ambient light and in-camera temperature throw.
Step 3: Add In Your Light
Now that you have the appropriate settings add in your hot-shoe flash to illuminate your subject. We don’t want to use direct flash in a scenario like this because it will cause extreme highlights on our subject’s face, so what do we do to create a hard, specular light that still has a diffused quality?
Step 4: Use a Reflector To Bounce Light
There is only one option to get the aforementioned quality of light: bounce. Bring out your reflector (we love using the Westcott 5-in-1) and bounce your on-camera flash onto the silver side of the reflector to create a specular light source while still softening the light so that it doesn’t create harsh highlights.
To master foundational lighting techniques, check out our Lighting 101 workshop, or stream it along with a myriad of photography and post-production education as an SLRL Premium member. For more free education, we’ve included bonus case studies below. In addition, you may be interested in the following articles:
Bonus Case Study # 1 | Sunset Candid Couples Photo
The Equipment and Settings
The Shooting Conditions
Shooting portraits at sunset is always a difficult situation. You want to capture the beautiful warm sunset, and maybe even put the sun in your frame, and yet you also want to view your subject’s faces.
The original, un-edited image looked like this:
The highlights are almost blown out, and the faces are getting pretty shadow-y. However neither are totally “clipped”, so the image has potential. Could I / should I have used flash to illuminate their faces? Maybe, but it would have taken time to set up, and in these kinds of situations I like to shoot as freely as possible. With flash I would have had to concern myself with setup, recycle speed, and since the subjects were moving I would have had to coordinate flash distance, angle, etc…
The bottom line is that I felt more comfortable relying on my camera’s dynamic range, and just going with the soft natural light that was on their faces. As the sun gets closer to the horizon it dims and softens, so I knew I could “fit it” (the scene) into a single RAW exposure.
Remember, you are not using RAW as a “crutch” because you’re sloppy with exposure, or because you’re too in-experienced or lazy to use off-camera lighting. It is a calculated decision that you make based on time, practicality, and what you know you can get out of your images in post-production.
To process the original image, I started with one of the “HDR portrait” Mixology presets from the SLR Lounge Preset System. This preset helped me preserve highlights, brighten shadows, and yet keep skin tones from getting to “grunge-y” like an HDR landscape photo usually looks.
Next, I used a vintage fade preset that affects the RGB curves only, (so as not to mess up my exposure, shadows, highlights etc.) …and finished the image off with a faint amount of burning & dodging. Oh, I also cropped the image to put the subjects’ faces just slightly off-center. When shooting wide-open at f/1.X in an active scenario, I often opt to “bulls-eye” my shot to ensure perfect sharpness, and then just add a slight crop later. This gives me better results than attempting to use an off-center focus point in low-light and risk the image being slightly mis-focused.
Case Study # 2 | A Kiss at Sunset
The Equipment and Settings
- Nikon D300
- Sigma 50-150mm f/2.8 @ 150mm (The old one, not the newer stabilized Sigma 50-150 2.8 OS)
- 1/750 sec @ f/2.8 & ISO 200
- Manual exposure, Kelvin WB @ ~5000K, RAW
The Shooting Conditions
Here’s a good example of when to “turn the whole thing around” and use the sun as your light source. Usually, photographers fear direct sun on their subjects as if it’s the plague. Entire photo shoots can go on with the sun at a subject’s back, for that flare-y, backlit look. While this can of course be beautiful as well, and it’s a very good idea for times of day when the sunlight is harsh, the “golden hour” just before sunset changes that rule in my opinion. Sunlight on a subject can be a beautiful thing, so keep an eye open in all directions and consider your options.
Especially when the weather is a little more dramatic than usual, you never know where light and color might appear!
Here are a couple additional images from the scene, as the light changed and faded:
This image is another SOOC image. (Straight Out Of Camera) Even though I shoot 90% of my photos in RAW, I still browse and sort my images in Nikon’s View NX 2 file browser, because of it’s blazing fast speed at viewing RAW files. (Similarly to Photomechanic, and in my opinion even better!) Usually I just cull my images in View NX 2 and then import them into Lightroom or use Bridge’s ACR to do actual color corrections, however sometimes an image just looks great in View NX 2 so I export it exactly the way it is!
If you look closely you can see a faint bit of color shifting around the edges of the frame; this is simply due to the in-camera saturation and contrast I applied. It goes away once you open the RAW file in Lightroom etc.