Sunrises and sunsets offer some of the most striking natural light available to us as photographers, but they can be challenging to shoot in.
The low light and high dynamic range conditions means most auto modes are a poor choice. Moreover, manually choosing the settings for sunset photography can be tricky and time consuming.
There’s nothing worse than wasting time fiddling around with your camera while the beautiful golden light becomes dimmer and the sun sinks into the horizon. In my early days I missed a few beautiful sunsets this way, but I’ve since learned the right settings and gear to help with my shots.
Below I’ll explain the settings and tools I use to make the most of my sunrise and sunset shots, along with examples of my own. I’ll also give you some extra tips and things you think about, so you can jump into your next golden hour with confidence.
The Best Camera Settings For Sunrise/Sunset Photography
When capturing a sunset or sunrise and shooting directly at the sun, you’ll have to deal with an enormous amount of dynamic range — from direct sunlight to dark shadows — so it’s best to shoot in manual mode to get the exact look you want from the image.
For exposure, we basically have two choices:
- Exposing more for the shadows
- Exposing more for the highlights (a.k.a ‘underexposing’)
Exposing for the highlights at a higher shutter speed and/or a more narrow aperture (f/8-f/16) will lead to richer shadows and colors and more details in the sun’s light and color. I find that this also gives more depth in clouds and more saturated colors.
The trade off is that you might lose some details in the shadows. However, sunsets and sunrises are all about light and color, so the details in shadows might not be missed.
For more details in the shadows, choose a lower shutter speed and wider aperture to allow more light in. This will depend on personal preference and stylistic intention, but below are some other points to consider when determining your exposure settings.
My advice for ISO is simple—keep it as low as possible. While there are a few digital cameras that have attractive ISO noise, most will produce unattractive noise at higher ISOs.
As the sunset or sunrise progresses, the light will change, but try not to change your ISO unless absolutely necessary. If you do change it, keep it below ISO 400, unless your camera handles higher ISOs well.
For sunset or sunrise photos, many photographers will suggest keeping your aperture on the higher end to maintain maximum sharpness. The truth is, this decision should be based on the content of your photo and the style you want.
For example, you may have a sunset or sunrise against a natural landscape with natural elements in the foreground, and you want as much as possible to be in focus. For this, a narrow aperture (f/8-f/16 or higher) would be best.
However, if you have something distracting in the foreground and you want to reduce its visual power and create more depth, choose your widest aperture and focus on the sun in the background. Some examples are when there are people or man-made objects in the foreground of your shot that you think will detract from the sunset if they were in focus.
Once you’ve set your ISO and aperture, set your shutter speed to something that will give you the exposure you want, whether it’s more for highlights or shadows.
Keep in mind that, other than proper exposure, shutter speed also affects visible camera shake in your image. This is important during the later hours of sunsets (or early hours of sunrises) when there is much less light. Choose your shutter speed based on your stabilization (tripod, in-camera/lens stabilization, etc.) and focal length — wider lenses can allow lower shutter speeds without camera shake, while longer lenses require higher shutter speeds.
For white balance, the ‘Cloudy’ or ‘Shade’ setting (around 5700k) will usually give accurate colors for sunsets. Here I sometimes try creative alternatives — experimenting with different settings and temperatures can give me control over the kind of feeling I want.
Raw Vs. JPEG
I like to shoot in both JPEG and RAW, so I can have a JPG ready to share out of camera and RAW to experiment with and develop further. I’ve had great results pushing RAW sunset photos into unconventional white balances and exposures in post.
Saving Settings As A Custom Profile
Once you have your settings dialed in, save them as a custom profile on your camera for easy recall.
Most modern cameras have this option — for example, on the Fujifilm X-H2, the left top dial has 7 customizable presets. I use one of these for my sunset/sunrise settings, so I can quickly switch to it and be ready to capture sunsets right away.
Best Camera Accessories For Sunrises & Sunsets
Aside from providing stabilization needed for low-light sunsets, tripods also help you slow down and choose more intentional compositions.
I’m a strong advocate of the value of composition in a photograph, and sunrises and sunsets are certainly no exceptions. Using a tripod will encourage you to make small, incremental adjustments to your composition so that your shot is well-aligned and visually balanced.
Be careful, though — it’s easy to keep your tripod anchored in one spot. Try repositioning your tripod every so often for more variety in your compositions.
Weather And AR Apps
A weather app that tells you the exact time of sunrises and sunsets helps to time your shots well. Your phone’s built-in weather app is good enough for this, but there are also third-party apps that offer more helpful information and features.
I use PhotoPills, which has an AR feature that shows the trajectory of the sun so I can plan my sunset shots more precisely. It also gives me exact times for golden hour, blue hour, and twilight based on my location.
Neutral-density (ND) filters decrease the intensity of light reaching your lens while maintaining color. Regular ND filters have even coating across the filter, dropping your exposure by one or more stops depending on the strength. While this is good for some situations, it’s not particularly useful for sunsets or sunrises.
However, graduated neutral density (GND) filters have their coating on only half of the lens. The neutral density is strongest at the top of the filter, with an even gradient to clear. They are designed to reduce the exposure of the sky by X stops and keep the foreground normally exposed. GND filters work well for sunsets by evening the exposure of the brighter sky and darker landscape.
There are other types of specialized ND filters, like reverse-graduated and center-graduated, but they require specialized equipment and deeper explanation. If you want to see how filters can improve your sunset photos, I recommend starting with a graduated neutral density filter.
Polarizing filters don’t typically show up on a list of camera accessories for sunset photography. However, I was shooting sunsets with one recently, and I found a situation in which they can make a huge difference.
I live in a big city, so I don’t often get the chance to shoot sunsets in natural environments. For me, the best place to get a clear view of the horizon is usually from inside a tall building, shooting behind glass. However, the interior lighting of the room can reflect in the glass and ruin my shot.
This is where a polarizing filter comes in. Among its effects, one is glare reduction. With a polarizing filter, I can reduce the reflections from interior lights. Ideally, you’d be shooting your sunsets and sunrises outside, but if you find yourself inside behind glass, a polarizing filter can improve your shots.
However, don’t use polarizing filters if there’s a body of water in your shot. Because these filters reduce glare, you’ll lose some of the beautiful sunset reflection in the water.
The Best Cameras For Sunrises & Sunsets
The right camera can make a difference when shooting sunrises and sunsets. One important thing we want to consider here is the camera’s capabilities in low-light situations. Good ISO performance and in-camera stabilization are two things that can help significantly.
Ideally you want to keep your ISO low to minimize noise — but there are times when you’ll need to increase the ISO, such as when shooting at narrow apertures or without a tripod. In these cases, it’s good to go with a camera with minimal or attractive noise at higher ISOs and/or good in-camera noise reduction.
Full-frame cameras like the Nikon Z6 II and the Sony a7S III perform exceptionally well at high ISOs, but some crop-sensor cameras like the Sony a6600 and Nikon Z50 also give good results.
In-body image stabilization (IBIS) can also help the issue of low light. For example, with my Fujifilm X-H2, I can shoot handheld at shutter speeds as low as 1/15 without any noticeable camera shake. This allows me to capture low-lit sunsets and sunrises without the need for a tripod or higher ISOs.
Most modern mirrorless cameras will have IBIS, but some of the best right now are Fujifilm’s X-H2 and X-T5, Sony’s a7R V, and the Olympus E-M1 III, all of which boast +7-8 stops of exposure. Other notable cameras include the Sony a7 IV and the Pentax K-3 Mark III.
There are other features to consider when choosing the best camera for sunrises and sunsets, such as in-camera filters and styles, or the overall look of the image from the sensor. I love the look of Fujifilm’s sensors and Film Styles, but others might prefer the sharp, digital look of Sony’s sensors. If you’re not sure, spend some time looking at photos taken by the cameras you’re considering — Flickr’s camera finder is a great tool for this.
Sunrises and sunsets give us almost unlimited variations of color and light for us to capture every day. They come and go quickly, so you need to be ready. Now that you have a good understanding of the settings and accessories needed, you’ll be able to jump into your next sunset and start shooting with less guesswork.
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.