Creating portraits at sunset

One of the most beautiful types of light that I love to photograph portraits during is sunsets. The amazing colors in the sky and the way that clouds just soak up the array of colors is always inspiring to me. And although the sunset on its own is beautiful I love to photograph portraits when I can against the backdrop of a great sunset. But with this beauty there are some challenges when it comes to lighting so I wanted to give a quick guide to shooting portraits during the sunset. Here are some tips and information on how to get an awesome portrait during a sunset.

The key is lighting
The key to many great shots is lighting but it really is crucial when photographing portraits at sunset. When you have your subjects back to the sun there isn’t going to be much ambient light falling directly on them. The difference in light from the bright background to the light on your subjects face is going to be far greater than the camera can handle. The human eye and the camera see things much differently and the camera can only handle a limited range of light. So in order to get the right light on your subjects you need to supplement the light somehow to balance it out.

Getting the right exposure
Before even talking about lighting we need to first focus on exposure. Getting the correct exposure for the background of the sunset is key. If you have a lightmeter thats always the best way to get an accurate exposure reading. If not you can easily cheat and chimp with your camera. I will normally set my camera to an average meter reading and then take an overall shot of the background only. Use the histogram and the photo preview on camera to see how close you are to the correct exposure and then make any adjustments from there. Once I have a exposure set for the background I will set the camera to manual at this exposure to make sure that the shot is dialed in for the background.

Here is a quick shot before adding extra light to my couple. Here you can see the difference in brightness between the foreground and background.

portraits at sunset

Next add a light (or multiples)

Once you get the background exposure dialed in then its time to add a light to the image. You can try to use a reflector to bounce light back onto the subject but when the sun is getting very low and loosing a lot of its power there might not be enough bounce light to be effective. I normally will add one (or a few) lights to illuminate my couple, its always a different setup depending on the type of shoot but normally for a portrait or wedding session will use a speedlight for quickness. In this example I just used a Canon 580 flash that was off camera. Moving the flash off camera always will give you the ability to create more definition in your subjects face. Anytime you have a flash directly on camera the light falling on the person you are photographing will be very flat and make the photo seem lifeless.

sunset portrait photography

If you have a wireless system like the Pocketwizard MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 you can set your flash to ETTL and it will automatically set the flash power for you to be just right for the scene. If you are using a manual flash like a vivitar it might take a few more minutes to setup but still is a quick setup. I like to start at the lowest power and take a quick test shot to see how much light that fills in. If its not enough go up one power setting and keep adjusting until the light looks balanced.

sunset photography with flash

Here the Canon 580 is coming in about 30 degrees to the left of the camera. That will put the right side of their face in shadow somewhat but what will fill that side is the sun which is coming in from the right side. If you look at the image close you will see how the flash lights up the left side of their face fully but leaves the right side in shadow. Then the sun clips part of the right side of the couples face which creates a really nice dimension to the image. They key is getting your flash and the location of the sun at just the right angles to give a good dimension and pop to the photo.

That’s it. A quick way to get balanced lighting during sunset photo sessions. If you have some great sunset portraits let me know, leave a comment with the link below so everyone can see your work.
The final tech specs for this shot were:

Canon 5d
Canon 28-70 L lens
1-640th second f/ 4.5
Pocketwizard MiniTT1 and FlexTT5
Canon 580 flash (set to ETTL)

Also if you are looking for some crazy inspiration for landscape sunset shots check out this post. Amazing sunset images to inspire.

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Author: Mark

Mark is a fine art wedding and portrait photographer from Northern California. He has been passionate about photography since childhood and started his studio 12 years ago to bring a fresh style of photography to the wedding and portrait world.

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1 Comment

  1. Nice article. Do you have suggestions when you don’t TTL flash trigger. What is the best way to achieve a good exposure using manual flash where you can’t go over 1/200.

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