Paul Timpa Photography Blog Photography Tutorials and Tips from Paul Timpa Photography


How to Take Sunset Portraits — Indoor Portraits — About Your Camera’s Light Meter

Sunrise over Tahiti

Sunrise over Tahiti

I’m writing this brief tutorial on how to take sunset portraits, since it was inspired by a “real life” situation that occurred on a fun trip this past weekend.  Hopefully it can help some other people too.  This article also goes into detail on how your light meter works, and a technique for using flash.

This past weekend we were on a small vacation, and decided to take a sunset cruise on a sailboat around the island we were on.  A nice young couple that was on the boat with us asked me if I could take a picture of them with the sun setting behind them.  They had a D-SLR, and I took the picture with the settings that were already set up on the camera, in this case “Auto Mode”, where the camera chooses the aperture and shutter speed based on the lighting.  I took the photo and the couple looked great, but the beautiful colors of the sunset were completely gone, and replaced with an almost white / gray background.  I asked the couple if they minded if I adjusted the settings on the camera a bit, and less than a few seconds later, I took another shot that looked completely different.  The colors of the sunset were back, beautifully saturated, and the photo looked great.  The couple was really pleased and of course I showed them how I did it, and they couldn’t believe how easy it was.

So what was the problem with the first shot that caused the sunset to disappear into a white patch?  It was the use of Auto Mode.  Many of you who have read my other articles already know how much I stress the importance of learning to use Manual mode, and using it as much as possible.  This is a perfect example.  Let’s discuss why Auto mode doesn’t work here…

When you take a picture on Auto mode, the computer chip inside a camera measures the light in order to determine how bright to make the photo, but it has no idea what it is looking at.  It takes a guess.  The computer is specifically set to take all pictures at a “medium brightness” level because “most” scenes we encounter are taken in medium lighting (not too dark, not too bright).  So it automatically selects a shutter speed and aperture that will result in a medium-brightness photo.  This works in many cases, but definitely not all.  If you always used Auto mode for every photo you took, there would be many photos incorrectly exposed, as was the case in the sunset picture.  The reason in this case is this: except for the sun itself (the bright ball that is actually the sun), a sunset is fairly dark.  Think about it… it’s almost night.  When you try to take a picture of a sunset on Auto Mode, the camera’s light meter measures the light and sees that it’s fairly “dark” outside.  As mentioned before, the computer chip in the camera is programmed to take all pictures at “medium” brightness… so what does it do?  It increases the brightness of the photo!  Your beautiful golden-red sunset has now been artificially brightened into a white/gray sky because the camera thinks that’s what you want.  But it isn’t what you want, and that’s why Auto Mode is not a good mode to rely on.

So how did I correct the photo?  It’s simple, I took the picture on manual mode with the sky correctly exposed.  There are two main steps: (1) Set the proper exposure for the sunset without the people in the picture and then (2) turn on the flash and add the people, then take the photo.  Here are the detailed steps:

* Switch the camera to “M” Mode (Manual)

* Turn off the flash – at this point, we are just setting the correct exposure for the sunset

* Set the ISO to 100 (you can raise this later if necessary)

* Set the Aperture to around F5.6 or F8

* Set the shutter speed to a starting test number, let’s say 1/250th second

* Without any people in the shot, take a test shot and look at the brightness of the sunset.  If it’s too bright, increase the shutter speed to 1/500th of a second and take another test shot.  Still too bright? Increase again until the sunset looks beautiful and fully saturated.  If the original test shot was too dark, then decrease the shutter speed to 1/125th second, and take a test shot.  Play with shutter speed until the sunset looks perfect.  Once you’ve got the sunset looking just right, proceed to the next step. Note: In many cameras the shutter speed may be limited to a certain speed when the flash is on. If you've raised the shutter speed to 1/250th or 1/500th and it cannot be raised further, you can close down the aperture to F11 or F16 to darken the photo if necessary.

* Turn on the flash and ask the people to step into the picture

* Take the shot… if it looks good, you’re done!  Depending on how close to the camera the people are standing, you may want to lower the flash power if their faces are very bright compared to the sunset.  This can easily be done by using the Flash Exposure Compensation feature of most cameras (see the manual for your specific camera on how to do it).

That’s all there is to it.  That simple adjustment completely changed the picture for the better, and it took me literally less than ten seconds: I switched the dial to manual mode, checked the ISO an aperture which were fine as-is, and I set a faster shutter speed that kept the sunset a beautiful golden red.

The reason why this works is because in Manual mode, the exposure of the background (the sky and sunset) and the exposure of the people (with the flash) are two completely separate things.  The exposure of the sunset itself is determined by you with the shutter speed.  The exposure of the people is determined by circuitry in the flash unit, which generally does a fairly good job of setting the flash at the proper brightness.  This “separation” allows you to control the relative brightness of the background vs. the people in the foreground independently. The reason I went into so much detail here is not so that you can take beautiful sunset pictures, but because it’s important to understand the underlying principles of how the camera works.  Understanding that the camera’s light meter is measuring with the intent to make all pictures “medium brightness” is fundamental to getting the correct exposure.  For this same reason, a picture of bright white snow will come out as a dull gray when a camera is on Auto mode.  The camera sees the bright white snow, says to itself “this is too bright” and then artificially darkens it to a medium brightness, which in this case would be a gray.  Also, the principle that in Manual mode, the background exposure is separate from the flash exposure is also important, not just for sunsets.  For example, in indoor shots, this is very useful.  We’ve all seen shots taken with the flash indoors, where the area behind the people is completely black – informally called the “cave effect” because it looks like the people are in a dark cave.  When you understand that the exposure for the room itself is controlled with shutter speed / aperture, you can follow the steps above and (1) turn off the flash, (2) adjust the shutter speed so the room is exposed properly and then (3) turn on the flash and have your friends enter the picture. This will allow you to take much more creative photos with incredible impact. For the photo below of the couple holding hands, I adjusted the exposure for the background, and then turned on the flash to ensure their hands were not in shadow.

Holding Hands in Bora Bora
Holding Hands in Bora Bora

[Click here to purchase this photo as a Print or Stock License]

Using these techniques, you can take much more powerful photos.

I've also created an app for iPhone, Android, and iPod Touch which teaches you photography -- more info can be found here:

Photography Trainer for iPhone and Android

Photography Trainer iPhone app

Photography Trainer iPhone app

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Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa

Comments (4) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Thanks so much Paul for this nice article, I particularly like the “flash off, adjust exposure, flash on” part which was very new to me. Thanks for the whole blog actually; it’s very impressive and generous of you how you share such valuable information and techniques even though it’s part of what you do for a living! Thanks again.

  2. Thanks for the note Essam… glad you found the article useful! Regards, Paul

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