Two of the biggest advantages of digital cameras is that you don’t have to wait to see if you “got the shot” and it costs nothing to experiment with different settings. Sunsets are a great place to try some different settings – just to see what happens.
Here’s a few general tips to get great sunsets.
1. Set your camera to a low number ISO (200 or 400) and use a tripod. The low ISO gives you finer grain and less noise. The tripod is necessary because your exposures may be longer than you can successfully hold steady by hand.
2. Set your White Balance to Cloudy or Shade. Auto WB may or may not give you the rich colours of the sunset. But setting the WB to Cloudy or Shade will emphasize the warm colours.
3. Set your exposure manually and be careful where your meter is pointed. If you are using Spot metering or Centre-weighted metering, you may over or under expose and not get the colours you want. If the sun is in the metering area, the camera will under-expose giving you dark blobs with limited dark colours (Example 1)
If the meter is reading a darker foreground area then the opposite will happen and the colours will be washed out. (Example 2)
By setting your camera to M (manual) you can play with the shutter speed or the aperture until you get the effect you want (Example 3)
If your camera does not have manual exposure, you can force the camera to over or under expose by using the Exposure Compensation button. This allows you to tell the camera to over/under expose on purpose. Try a few settings to see which one works best. Don’t forget to reset your camera to “Normal” when you are done.
Rule of Thirds
Notice in the above example the use of the rule of thirds. The horizon is set in the lower third of the picture (and it is level). This is more visually interesting than being dead centre. If the sun is in the picture, it doesn’t need to be in the centre either. Try moving it off to one side (usually the right works best).
Other Sun Effects
If you are waiting for a sunset, there may be some other interesting photo-ops. My wife Lianne took this shot with her Point-and-Shoot Panasonic Lumix camera and captured the rays of sunshine streaming through the clouds. Notice how she also framed it in the camera by including some of the shoreline.