Photography Tips – 3 Ways Photograph Winter Sunsets

3 Ways to Photograph Winter Sunsets

It’s a subject we never tire of: the setting sun. How many times have you seen a line of cars veer into a scenic pullout just as the last rays exit the stage in an explosion of color across the sky, prompting a frenzy of picture taking? If this has ever been you, then you probably know sunset photos sometime don’t measure up to the experience, especially when a foreground subject is included. There’s a reason why cameras sometimes fail to shoot sunsets well, and a few simple work-arounds to overcome, even use this problem for creative effect. These 3 methods will work year-round, but are especially recommended to photograph winter sunsets, which provide photographers with such welcome colorful relief during a mostly monochromatic season.

Sunsets can be high contrast scenes. The sun, even low on the horizon, is an incredibly bright object. Cameras aren’t capable of handling such an extreme dynamic range, so when the shutter is activated, the camera’s built-in meter measures the overall reflected light and calculates exposure for whichever subject is dominant: the sky or foreground. It cannot get good exposure for both, so if more foreground is included than sky, the camera will expose for the foreground and the sky will lose texture and color. Or if more sky fills the frame, the foreground will be underexposed while the sky is colorful and detailed. There are other ways to balance out dynamic range while post-processing RAW files, but understanding how the meter works and knowing how to work within its limitations is key to capturing amazing sunsets and other high contrast scenes in camera.

winter sunset at glen alps - how to photograph winter sunsets

Sony A7RIII | FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA | 1/800 sec | f/8 | ISO 400

A Simple Sunset

Set the camera to Aperture Priority (A or AV) mode. Compose the scene so there is more sky than the foreground. This will get the light meter to bring down exposure so the sky will keep detail and color. If this doesn’t work, use the EV (exposure value compensation) control to dial down exposure as much as necessary. Also, pay attention to shutter speed. If it falls below the lens’s focal length, adjust aperture and/or ISO to bring it back up for handholding the camera – or use a tripod.

windblown willow silhouetted against sunset on turnagain arm - photography tips

Sony A7RII | FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA 1/100 sec | f/11 | ISO 100

Sunset Silhouette

Use the same settings above and compose the scene with a living or inanimate foreground subject. The camera will likely try to brighten the foreground, overexposing the sky. Use the EV control to reduce exposure 1-2 stops, underexposing foreground. Silhouettes are a great way to take advantage of the camera’s limitations. They are dramatic visuals that can be used a variety of ways from a lonely tree standing against the fading light to a person making a joyful leap into the sunset.

Couple embrace on frozen lake at sunset - winter photography tips

Sony A9 | FE 7-200mm f/2.8 GM
1/250 sec | f/3.2 | ISO 500 | Off-camera flash

Sunset Portrait

If your camera has a built-in flash, this is one of the few times it may be of use. Off-camera flash will do a much better job of casting directional light on the subject, so it’s even better if you have one available. Again, start with the same settings as above. Without using flash, expose for the sky and take a test shot (remembering to use the EV to dial down exposure if necessary). Add flash on the subject with the next shot, making power and placement adjustments as necessary. The goal is to blend the introduced and natural light in such a way it’s not obvious.

man photographing sunset at beluga point - winter photography tips

Photograph winter sunsets from Beluga Point during the Twilight Photo Tour.

Sony A7RII | FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM

1/25 sec | f/8 | ISO 400

Check out 4 Tips for Great Winter Photography in Alaska for additional photography tips and safety information.

Twilight Photo Tour is a fun way to explore the winter landscape around Anchorage. An Alaska Photo Treks guide will drive you to a variety of scenic locations and provide photographic support along the way.

2 Comments

  1. Nolan Bailey January 19, 2016 at 10:12 am - Reply

    When I hear the word “Winter” this always comes to mind.

    Condensation:
    Before you come indoors from the cold, place your camera and lenses back in your camera bag, or a large Ziplock, and zip the bag shut. Then, take it indoors. Don’t open the bag for 2-3 hours, the temperature will rise very slowly inside the bag, and you will avoid condensation. Taking a warm camera out to a cold environment will not cause condensation.

    Worked for me in Alaska and on the Greenland Ice Cap…

    • Alaska Photo Treks January 19, 2016 at 11:14 am - Reply

      Nolan, this is a great winter tip and one we Alaskan shooters use often! Business partner, Jeff Schultz photographs the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from start to finish and leaves his gear out in the cold for days, bringing only batteries and SD cards inside during the race, which is another way to avoid condensation if you’re going to be shooting in freezing temps over a long time and you have a secure place to leave your gear.

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