Taking Better Sunset Photos – Photography Basics

The “Pretty Sunset, Bad Photo” Syndrome

Raise your hand if you’ve taken this type of sunset picture:

Sunset photosGreat sunset, huh? I know, because I took this. It was an awesome sight. My first night in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico and out of the sub-freezing temps in Seattle.

On top of that, SUN! And relaxation (of a sort). A memory I want to keep so…click!!  Time to post it on social media.

No!!!  Please don’t.

Sunsets don’t have to be boring

Please don’t post pictures like this on social media or force your friends look at them. Shots like this are memories for you and that’s awesome (believe me, sunshine in February is fantastic).

But you can do better!  Yes you can, and it’s simple. It’s about composition.

For a refresher, take a look at the Rule Of Thirds, that’s what we’ll be going over here and applying it to sunsets.

First, taking a shot of the sun setting over the ocean can be one of the most boring subjects. Water, sky, sun. Not many elements. And putting the horizon in the middle of the image is often what most people do, like the image above.

But remembering what you read in the Rule Of Thirds, let’s change things a little.

Sunset PhotosOk, now we’ve moved that horizon down to the bottom third and opened up the sky. Fantastic clouds, include them! One step further:

Sunset PhotosMoving the sun over to the intersection of two of those meridian lines helps balance things better. It gives us a direction to go in the image, out to sea to join the sun.

Let’s try exaggerating things a bit now and throwing caution to the wind (which was warm and welcoming this night, might I add):

Sunset PhotosMeh. I’m not sold.

Let’s move the other way

There are enough clouds, but let’s see what we can get going back to the Rule Of Thirds with the foreground:

Sunset PhotosWell now, that’s more exciting! Waves and sun and sand.

With the on rush of the waves, I don’t want the sun too far off to the side, so I’ll bring it ever so slightly back toward center, but not all the way. This gives the sunlight a chance to light up the sand that the waves are not yet attacking. I also GET LOWER! Just crouching down helps change perspective.

Sunset PhotosThat’s more like it. Can you see the difference in the composition in the last two? The foreground is more prominent and that works for me.

Throw in a little more editing and here you have it:

Photo Sunsets and things

Now go outside and play, shoot then share

Mind you, this is just one option, but it is so easy and people will want to look at your vacation photos more often.

All I did was to crouch down closer to the water, put the horizon near the top third (not even to that point in the last image) and clicked away, waiting for the waves to make something pretty to shoot.

Try it! The next time you’re on vacation, take a stab at this simple technique. And post your results here, I’d like to see them.


If you’re looking for some sunset inspiration, I have various images below in various rules of composition.

Questions?  Pop ’em like Pez in the comments section below. or email me at peter@peterwestcarey.com.

Photography Basics – A 43 Day Adventure, and its companion 40 Photography Experiments, are series written by professional photographer Peter West Carey. The series are designed to unravel the mysteries of photography, helping you can take better pictures. Subscribe here to receive all the updates and bonus material. Your comments are always welcome.

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