Best Techniques for Shooting a Long Exposure Sunset

Browse any outdoor photographer’s, and you are likely to find photos of the sunset. The colour and direction of evening light are eye-catching and translate well into a photo.

Composition is an important part of any sunset image, but the exposure is vital to both colour and texture. Long exposures are an effective tool in this category.

What Does Long Exposure Mean?

While there is no clear definition, I categorize long exposure as any shutter speed that I cannot handhold. This includes anything from 1/15th of a second up to multi-minute bulb mode exposures. 1/15th is long enough to blur for fast-moving water. That’s my threshold for longer exposure.

When the conditions are too dark for standard shutter speeds, you may opt a long exposure rather than increasing your ISO. High ISOs create noise, which reduces image quality. This may be particularly important late in the sunset, around dusk, when the light is very low. In this case, with a good tripod, a long exposure will be preferable to a high ISO.

Tools for Long Exposures

First, you need a camera equipped with manual mode. You need control over settings like shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.

Next, you’ll need a lens. Wide and mid-range lenses are the most useful focal length for sunset and landscape photography. You’ll also need a sturdy tripod. A good tripod will not shake or be easily blown around in the wind. This opens your creative options and the conditions under which you can shoot.

Some additional accessories that may help you get long exposure shots are neutral density or ND filters. ND filters reduce the amount of light entering your lens, like a pair of dark sunglasses. As the incoming light is reduced, you need to start increasing your shutter speed to make up for the change. When going for long exposures, that’s exactly what you want.

ND filters come in a variety of different types. Square filters that require a holder attachment for your lens are common. You can also get round ND filters, that screw onto your lens. My choice is the variable ND filter.

A Variable ND filter is adjustable. As you rotate the two elements in the filter, the view gets darker or brighter. In a single filter, you can often accomplish 8 or more stops of change. Quality is inconsistent between brands. High-end ND filters are expensive, but there are some deals out there if you keep your eyes peeled.

Use a Small Aperture to Create Depth of Field

Strong foregrounds are a key to success in wide-angle landscape and sunset photography. Often (though not always) you’ll want both your foreground and background to be in focus. If that is your goal for the image, you have to use a small aperture to create a sufficient depth of field.

The small aperture (f11 and higher) will require you to either crank up your ISO, or use long shutter speed. As long as I have a good tripod, I usually opt for the longer shutter speed to maximize image quality.

I can’t emphasize how important the depth of field can be. During a recent sunset shoot in the mountains of Colorado, it was stormy. The last of the afternoon thunderstorms were blowing off, and the sky was dark and ominous. I wanted to use that to create an image with a threatening mood. The rough and spiky desert vegetation was just the trick. A deep depth of field was absolutely necessary to retain detail as well as the mountains in the background.

When creating your image, consider your needs and the final image. Use your camera settings as one of the tools to create that image you envision. Long exposures may be just what you need.