Shooting the ocean at sunset

Few photo opportunities are as iconic as shooting a sunset over water. And whether you’re lucky enough to live near an ocean or you simply visit one while on vacation, you'll have the chance to capture this scene for yourself at some point. Armed with a few tips, you can shoot sunset photos that rival what you’ve seen in art galleries and on film.

You have about an hour to capture the rich, golden sky caused by the setting sun—so keep shooting even after the sun drops below the horizon.

Before I go any further, there’s one piece of equipment that I recommend bringing to the beach: a tripod. Since sunset photos can rely on slower shutter speeds—anywhere from 1/30 second to 30 seconds—you’ll get better results when you steady the camera.

You probably aren’t thrilled at the thought of lugging around a tripod, so I'll give you some good news: The wonderful thing about sunset photos is that there’s no single correct exposure setting. You have a lot of freedom to experiment. However, one setting that will often give you disappointing results is simply leaving the camera on Automatic, since most digital cameras have a habit of underexposing sunsets—especially when the setting sun is the primary subject in the frame.

Exposure experiments

So how should you set your exposure? The easiest approach is to put the camera in Program mode, take a shot, and review the result in the LCD screen. Then, depending on what you see, you can use the camera’s exposure compensation control to try again, increasing or decreasing the exposure to taste. Most cameras have an exposure compensation feature that lets you increase or decrease the exposure by up to three stops from what the program mode would ordinarily recommend. If you are pointing the camera more or less right at the setting sun, the camera will probably underexpose the shot; try overexposing by a couple of stops (set it to +1 or +2) and see if you like the result.

I prefer to shoot sunsets with my camera set to Manual exposure. I find it easier to set a small aperture (like f/22) and then try a shutter speed (say, 1/15 second). I’ll check the result, and gradually increase the shutter speed until I get the right blend of rich sky colors and detail in the foreground.

You might want to capture a few typical kinds of sunset shots. First up is the easiest: a classic sunset with a richly colored sky. To snap this photo, set the camera’s Program mode and see what you get. After reviewing the shot, you might want to overexpose a bit and try again.

 The classic sunset is easy to get, even with your camera set to Program mode.

Another common sunset shot is a little more interesting because it includes silhouettes. This shot is easy to take; the bright sun in the frame is likely to underexpose your photo anyway, so any objects between you and the sun will be in shadow and come out quite dark. If you’re letting the camera set the exposure, be sure that the camera is measuring the light in the sky, not the dark profile of your subject. One way to do that is to press the shutter halfway down while pointing the camera at the sky, and then recompose the shot and press the rest of the way down. Just remember that to get good silhouettes in the foreground, you’ll need to underexpose them—so these kinds of sunsets have shorter exposure times.

Check your results in the LCD screen and reshoot, varying the exposure compensation or shutter speed until you see something you like.

You won’t even need a tripod for a shot like this, which was captured at 1/250 second.

My favorite kind of sunset shot is a very long exposure—often several seconds long. When you do this, wave motion in the water blurs together to create a moody, romantic haze, almost like mist or fog.

It took a 25-second exposure to capture this sunset, complete with misty ocean waves.

To get this kind of photo, usually you’ll have to wait until the sun is very low in the sky, or even just below the horizon, so you don’t overexpose the scene. For these photos, the longer your shutter speed, the better the result. Anywhere from 1 to 30 seconds can produce very cool results. To keep the shutter speed open that long, you’ll want to stop down the lens as small as it will go—typically around f/22.

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