Behind the Scenes: How I Capture Photos of Amazing Sunsets

Written by
Jason Barnette
Posted on
September 12th, 2017
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Everyone loves a good sunset photo. A splash of color across a partly cloudy sky over a breathtaking landscape can brighten the worst of days. But it takes a lot more work than you might think to capture one of those amazing sunset photos. In fact I usually begin that daily ritual two hours before sunset. Have you ever wondered just what it takes to get this shot in the can?

I never really acknowledged a few facts about the sun until I became a photographer: sunrise/sunset times and the location on the horizon change daily throughout the year. I was always at least a little bit aware of the change in time considering the winter’s were ridiculously early and summer’s pleasantly late. But I had never really thought about how the position of the sunrise and sunset changed on the horizon as the Earth’s tilt changed throughout the year. All this combines to make the hunt for the sunset photo different every single day of the year.

Sunset T-Minus 2 hours

It starts with the weather. It doesn’t matter when the sun will set or what scenic overlook I can find if it’s going to be raining or completely overcast. But it’s also just as bad for the sky to be completely devoid of any clouds whatsoever. Sunsets are tricky things that require just the right amount of cloud coverage and just the right altitude at just the right time. It’s mind boggling to try to put it all together.

With two hours until sunset I pull over on the side of the road or pull into a gas station and begin the first step of my daily ritual: I check the satellite images from AccuWeather. I will also check the radar to see if a band of rain is heading my direction, but what I’m really interested in seeing is the tail end of a front with clouds just about to break up on the horizon at sunset. That creates the perfect condition for a great sunset photo.

I’ll take a little bit to scour the satellite images looking at the cloud coverage and, if the conditions look good, I’ll pick a general area to focus on next.

My absolute favorite app for photography. They have a desktop version (seen here) and apps for iOS and Android.
Sunset T-Minus 90 Minutes

The next step involves my absolute favorite app: The Photographer’s Ephemeris. This amazing app has so many different functions and uses. But for a sunset photo I’m only interested in two primary features: the direction of the sunset and that direction overlaid on a Google Map so I can pick a place to sit. I can scroll through either the standard map or satellite map while placing a pin that shows me the direction of sunset (moonset, sunrise, and moonrise as well).

Whenever I find a place on the satellite that looks promising I witch over to the new and improved Google Earth. About mid-summer 2017 the app was updated with incredible features, images, and 3d ability. It is now easier than ever before to explore the Earth, but it’s still no substitution for the real thing. I can use Google Earth to explore places in 3D, check to see if I think I’ll have a promising view of a sunset, but all that work still only gives me an idea of where to visit.

For the final decision I have to hit the road. This is why I often start this ritual two hours before sunset; if I’m in an unfamiliar area I really have no idea where to go or what anything looks like. Sometimes hitting the road looking for a sunset photo location is easy but other times I will have to explore several locations and roads before finding my spot for the evening.

What I’m primarily looking for is a composition with a clear view of the sky in the direction of the sunset with a foreground element. To me the foreground element is more important than the sky during sunset. It’s what will make my photo stand out from all the rest. Every night people upload photos of stunning sunsets but what do you see in the photo other than the colorful sky? Maybe a silhouette of some trees? The houses on their neighborhood street? Nothing but sky? I want a great foreground element to not only give my photo some additional interest but also anchor it to a specific place (view the photo slideshow at the bottom to see what I mean).

With all this in mind, an app to tell me the direction of sunset, and Google Maps with some ideas, I hit the road scouting different locations. Sometimes the first spot I find is where I stay for the night. I’ll pull out a chair and relax for a bit. Cook my dinner. Throw up the hammock if I can. But other times I’ll spend an hour or more darting from one location to the next, looping back around, and revisiting locations I had thought at first weren’t good enough. But even after finding my spot my work is far from over.

Overkill? Nevah! This is a typical setup for a sunset photo shoot.
Sunset T-Minus 30 Minutes

The next step in this time-consuming process is to prepare for the photo. If I’m lucky I will have found a great sunset location at least thirty minutes before the sun hits the horizon. Something to keep in mind about sunsets: the best photos are captured about 10-20 minutes after sunset. At this point the sun is below the horizon from our perspective on the ground, but the clouds in the atmosphere are still being struck my sunlight. As the light begins to pass through more and more of the atmosphere it will change color to vibrant reds and oranges, sometimes pinks and purples, splashing across the white clouds.

With thirty minutes to go I begin to prepare all my camera gear. Sometimes I think I go overkill but when I look at the results I know I have done exactly what I need to do for my career as a travel photographer. My goal is to capture a stunning, unique sunset photo that is different than any other but still helps establish a place on Earth. If I can do that I have done a good job.

I travel with three DSLR camera bodies, six lenses, and four GoPros almost all the time. I’m always ready for whatever comes my way. But out of all this equipment what do I use and how do I use it? Here is my typical sunset photo setup list.

DSLR #1

  • Nikon D500 with Tokina 12-24mm lens on tripod.
  • Wireless remote shutter release attached.
  • Set up in landscape orientation.

DSLR #2

  • Nikon D500 with Tamron 28-75mm lens on tripod.
  • Wireless remote shutter release attached.
  • Set up in portrait orientation.

DSLR #3

  • Nikon D300s with Nikon 300mm f/4
  • Attached to tripod with gimbal head
  • Optional Nikon 1.7x Teleconverter

GoPro #1

  • GoPro Hero 3 Silver attached to tripod with a dual-camera mount
  • Bluetooth wireless control activated and connected to my iPhone
  • Set up to capture a time lapse with one photo captured every two seconds

GoPro #2

  • GoPro Hero 3 Silver attached to same tripod with a dual-camera mount
  • Bluetooth wireless control activated and connected to my iPad
  • Set up to capture a video at 1080p 30fps

So what exactly does this complex setup get me? DSLR #1 captures a landscape, or horizontal, photo of the sunset with a wide angle lens. These are great for selling as fine art prints or using in a two-page spread in a magazine. DSLR #2 captures a portrait, or vertical, photo with a slightly less wide angle lens but still reveals plenty of sky. These are great for magazine covers. DSLR #3 is a capable of capturing HD video but I usually don’t use it in that manner. Instead I use the telephoto lens with optional teleconverter to capture detailed images of the sun as is passes through clouds, haze, fog, smoke, or crosses over mountain tops. With the gimbal head it is easy to quickly rotate between landscape and portrait and capture both with the same camera. The GoPros capture a time lapse video for showing the entire sunset in just 5-10 seconds or a standard video just in case something awesome happens like a flash of lightning from a passing storm.

The process of setting up the gear will usually take me about 10-15 minutes, depending on how much gear I set up and how far I have to walk from the car. But now that I have the gear set up the real work is about to begin: capturing the moment.

Wait for it. You’ll see why this was a bit of a bad place for a sunset photo shoot, but the photo was totally worth it.
Sunset T-Plus 10 Minutes

Now comes the part where I patiently wait for the right conditions to begin capturing photos. I never really know which moment will be the best so as soon as the conditions are right I start clicking the shutter releases. The first two DSLR’s are connected via wireless shutter release remotes I can keep in my pocket. These are absolutely invaluable because it gives me the freedom to move about, make changes to different camera, or run back to the car for something else entirely. These awesome remotes have a range of about 250′ so I have a good deal of freedom.

The GoPros are on their own. I connect one to my phone and the other to my tablet so I can see what they see just in case I need to make an adjustment. But once a time lapse has started I can’t move the camera without ruining the set up. For the most part they’re on their own and need to attention from me.

I’m not always set up in the safest locations. In the video above I was standing on the side of Highway 74 just outside Andrews, North Carolina. Most of the traffic moved over to the other lane but none of them slowed down. Cars, trucks, vans, and tractor trailers whizzed by at 60 miles per hour. One time on the Blue Ridge Parkway I found the most perfect sunset location ever but I was precariously perched on a steep drop of right at the edge of the road. I could feel the wind from passing cars as I stood beside my camera hoping nobody drifted a few inches my direction and took me out.

The first two DSLR cameras pretty much stay right where they are without any adjustment. Using the Sun Surveyor app I have a pretty good idea exactly where the sun will hit the horizon so I already have my composition complete. The third camera body is the one I work with constantly, switching between different orientations, maybe changing lenses or adding the teleconverter.

I will keep capturing bracketed photos and various videos until the last of the color is gone from the sky. At this point I begin the long break down of all the equipment. This takes about another 10 minutes.

A portrait orientated and landscape orientated photo of the same sunset so I’m prepared for however a client would want to use it.
Sunset T-Plus 60 Minutes

The final step of the day is to plop myself in front of the computer and begin downloading and processing everything I just captured. I always try to edit the sunset photos the day I capture them because I want the final photo to look just as I saw it. I try to be as realistic as possible. With the moment fresh on my mind I sit down at the computer with a sweet tea and begin the long process.

It usually takes me about an hour to download the photos and videos and create the first backup. At this point I can finally start working on choosing my first round of keepers using Photo Mechanic. Once I have created a copy of these (I never alter the originals) I start my work in Photoshop. I will use Photomatix Pro to process the bracketed photos into an HDR image, then I’ll import all the originals and HDR into Photoshop. I will use Google’s Nik Software plugins to sharpen and remove noise. I will make one final copy of the photo to crop and then I’m ready to show the world.

It takes about 2-3 hours each night to process all the photos and videos I capture of a sunset. It’s incredibly time-consuming, much more so than any other photos I captured throughout the day. This is usually the last thing I will do each night before creating a second backup of everything I did that day and finally getting some sleep.

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The Final Result

You can see the final result in the slideshow above. I have only showed the landscape oriented photos in this slideshow but as a rule I have a portrait orientation of every sunset just in case a magazine wants a cover image. A lot of my sunset photos will end up in my fine art print collection, sometimes as limited edition prints and other times as open edition. I have licensed my sunset photography to one magazine and a few newspapers over the years.

But I always share them on my Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages for all to see. I always hope it brings a little joy to everyone’s life and maybe, just maybe, helps them to sit back a moment and appreciate everything this life has to offer. There is nothing quite like an amazing sunset to make you realize this life can be amazing at moments.

And the next day I start this ritual all over again.

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