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Want to learn how to shoot portraits at sunset? It's sometimes tricky, but the outcome is worth it.
If you’re here, then you likely already agree that shooting at sunset is a wonderful time to capture portraits.
The sun is low on the horizon, which offers flattering shadows on our subject’s faces. There's also brilliant and beautiful rim lighting in the background.
The brilliant hues of yellow, orange, and even deep reds can be breathtaking. This ideal evening hour is what photographers lovingly deem the ‘golden hour’. It’s the hour right before sunset.
However, even as dynamic as these shots can be, you do have to understand exactly how to shoot them. It's the only way to avoid the sun glaring directly into your lens. Without just the right positioning of your subject and your background, your shots can appear hazy, blurry, or over-exposed.
These rules can be applied no matter what type of camera you’re using. And they can also be applied for both photography and video.
If you're brand new to photography, I highly encourage you to check out my post for beginner photographers.
It will teach you all the basics about mastering manual mode, so you can get the perfect settings for shooting at sunset.
Before we even begin, the number one rule is to know the ideal time to start shooting.
If it’s too early in the afternoon, when the sun is still straight up above your head or very high in the sky. No matter what you do, it’s going to be hard to avoid the light simply being too harsh in your camera.
There are ways to work with this scenario, of course, and we’ll get to those momentarily. But for now, let’s just assume that you have the freedom to shoot at any time. What time should you pick?
Depending on where you live in the world, the exact timing is going to vary. This will be the case throughout the seasons as well.
My family sessions typically last about 1 hour in total.
From the start of my session I’m getting ideal sun. And by the time we are wrapping up it’s nearing the horizon. I give myself 30 minutes of buffer just in case it’s cloudy or we need a little extra time.
When trees, people, or other tall objects are casting long shadows on the ground, then it’s likely a great time to shoot.
Next let’s talk about where to place your model in relation to the sun. This is probably the most important factor to consider, so pay attention here.
There are times of course when you can break this rule and we’ll talk about those cases in just a moment. Just trust that for almost all of your sunset portraits, you’ll want the sun directly behind your subject.
To achieve great portraits at sunset, you’ll be practicing a technique called backlighting. As the name implies, your subject is ‘back lit’. The majority of the light that is in your photo with come from the back.
If your subject happens to turn or move while you are shooting, you’ll need to move with them. This way you maintain that proper relationship with the sun directly behind your subject.
Imagine you are connecting a straight line between your camera and the sun with your subject always in between.
If you’ve ever tried to take photos at sunset, you may already know how difficult it can be to shoot directly into the sun. This is especially true at sunset with the sun is low and aimed straight into your camera.
The key here is that you will need something to block the harshness of the sun coming in to your camera. This is a concept that you’ll likely have to practice.But you’ll quickly get a feel for how much sun your camera can handle directly into the lens.
Here are a few techniques you can use to properly block some of that sunlight coming through in the back.
If you are shooting close up portraits, you can frame your subject’s face close enough where the edge of your frame just barely crops out the sun.
Notice in this example, I'm shooting when the sun is still very bright and a bit high in the sky.
With a wider angle lens, I may have a hard time capturing the details in her face and the picture might be overexposed and very hazy.
However, by cropping in with my lens, I can block the majority of the bright light from the sun. But I can still maintain nice light on her face and rim light around the back of her head and ear. This gives that nice light and airy style that so many photographers love.
You can use the subject itself or something in the background, like a tree or leaves to rotate yourself just enough to block all or some of the sunlight coming through. This is one of those things that you’ll need to practice.
There are times when you can let all the sun come through and you’ll get the desired effect. This is often the case where you are capturing a lot of motion or action as a burst of sunlight often feels fun and vibrant.
However, there are times (often with portraits) where you want to make sure that your subject’s face is soft and well-lit with all the details visible. In this case, you’ll likely want to block most of the harsh backlight either with the subjects face, cropping, or a tree in the background.
You’ll notice the difference in this example between the photo on the left, where a good amount of sun is allowed to come through. It feels vibrant and bright, but there is detail lost in the forefront of the photo. The photo on the right completely blocks the sun in the back and results in a more crisp portrait. All the details are left in her face and correct exposure on her skin.
Neither photo is ‘correct’ necessarily. They both serve a purpose. They both have a different feeling that they convey. It’s more about understanding those fundamentals and being able to capture what exactly what you want with your portraits.
When I’m shooting, I actually purposely try to capture a bit of both because you never know which you’ll end up liking more in the end. It never hurts to experiment a little. There are many cases where you won’t care as much about crisp details in the face. But you will care about the action of what’s happening and the feeling of the image.
Let’s talk about some of the technical camera settings for shooting portraits at sunset.
Since you will be shooting outdoors into bright sunshine, in most cases your white balance will need to be set to at least at 5600. But it will probably be even closer to 6000. Or if your camera has a preset, you’ll want to choose the sunshine or shade option. You will need to push it even warmer than normal to capture the correct colors of the sun.
I also believe that editing the photo to look a little more ‘warm’ even on skin tones is perfectly acceptable in this scenario. Because your viewers almost expect it to be warm with all that sunshine in the background.
Because we are focusing on capturing great portraits, you’ll want to use a wide open aperture. This means your lens will be wide open and your f-stop will be in the range of f/1.2-f/4 depending on your lens.
This doesn’t have so much to do with our lighting as it has to do with depth of field. A shallow depth of field is when your subject is in sharp focus and the background behind is blurry, often referred to as bokeh. In order to achieve a shallow depth of field, your aperture will need to be wide open.
With our aperture being as wide open as possible, you’ll likely need to have a fast shutter speed to counter all the light coming in through the lens. This is perfectly fine with still photos, and in fact I prefer it when shooting people. Set your shutter speed as high as you need to in order to achieve correct exposure with your aperture being wide open.
Make sure that you are keeping an eye on your exposure as you start clicking away.
Often times if you have your camera set to auto mode or any program mode other than manual, your camera will find its exposure based on the background. Because we are shooting into the sunshine, this results in a photo that is properly exposed for a bright background, but very underexposed on the subject’s face. We want to avoid this happening.
You want to expose correctly for your subject’s face. If the background is way overexposed, then it’s time to use some blocking techniques to cut that light down a bit.
Another issue that will come into play is your camera’s ability (or lack of ability) to grab focus when shooting directly into the sun.
Many times with harsh sun in the background, you will end up with a hazy, over exposed photo and your camera will have a hard time auto focusing.
You have two options here. If you want your photo to have this look to them, then you will need to shift over into auto focus mode.
However, this could be an indication that you are shooting in too bright of a scene and you need to use some blocking or shift to another shooting location.
Where I live the sun doesn’t set until about 8 or 9pm during the summertime. When shooting families with small children, that often lands right at bedtime. We can all guess what happens when you try to make a sleepy toddler smile for photos.
So there are absolutely times when I have to shoot earlier. The good news is, there are still plenty of ways to shoot in the early afternoon and get great shots.
It may seem obvious, but this is the easiest way to ensure that your pictures will be properly exposed without harsh sunlight interfering.
Make sure to place your subject in full shade, not dappled, as you don’t want weird shadows ending up on their faces. You also want to make sure the your subject and the background are evenly lit.
Don’t place your subject under one tree and then take a wide shot with a bright field around them. You’ll end up with a very dark subject under the tree and an overexposed image around them. Fill up your entire shot with the same lighting - shaded face with a shaded tree in the background.
This probably won’t be the best option for portraits, but it can work for other shots if you need a few wider, landscape type shots. Shot with the sun behind you or at an angle to your subjects. The light and shade will be much harsher. However, it creates a nice, dynamic look to your photos that will help at a lot of variety and life to your gallery.
When I first began trying to shoot in the sun, my photos looked terrible. Really, really awful. They were either under exposed or over exposed, way too harsh, out of focus, etc.
It takes some practice before you start to really get a feel for exactly where you need to be. To understand where your subject needs to be, and where the sun needs to be at all times.
Don’t be afraid to go take a few hundred (or more) awful photos. You’ll soon find yourself learning all the things that I learned about positioning yourself and your subject.
It’s absolutely worth the time and effort, because those golden hour, sunset photos are dynamic and gorgeous.
If you’re a family photographer like me, you’ll no longer be intimidated by unknown light or locations for your shoot. The more you practice, you’ll develop the confidence to shoot in any and every type of lighting. And with that ability, you can always find backgrounds that will compliment your subject and have the correct lighting behind them.
I hope this helps. Do leave me a comment below if you have any more questions about shooting portraits at sunset.
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