Photographing Winter Sunsets

Shoot Recipe | Photographing Winter Sunsets

Photograph Winter Sunsets

Ice flows coming in on high tide at Beluga Point .4 sec at f/20, ISO 50, 16mm, on tripod with slow shutter to show movement of ice

In a mostly monochromatic season, sunsets can provide photographers an abundance of colorful relief.

The setting sun is certainly not a photographic subject limited to the far north or even winter. Every place on earth has its own special kind of sunset and although I’ve never seen a study on their popularity, based on casual observation, it would seem they rank right there at the top of the list for most photographed subjects. How many times have you seen a line of cars veer into a scenic view point just as the sun makes it’s final bow in an explosion of color across the sky, prompting a frenzy of picture taking? If you’ve ever been among them, then you probably know the results often don’t stack up to the experience. This installment will explain why cameras fail to capture one of nature’s best offerings and how to work around photographic limitations, even effectively exploiting them for creative effect.

First and foremost, it’s important to know sunsets are high contrast scenes, especially if foreground is included. The sun, even low on the horizon, is an incredibly bright object. Cameras aren’t capable of handling such an extreme dynamic range. When the shutter is activated, the camera’s built-in meter measures reflected light in the overall scene and calculates settings to expose for whichever value is dominant: brights or darks. It cannot get good exposure for both, so if more foreground is included than sky, the camera will expose for the foreground, brightening it up while the sky gets washed away. Or, if more sky is included, the foreground will go to black while the sky retains detail and color. There are other ways to balance out dynamic range while post-processing RAW files, but understanding how the meter works and having an ability to work within its limitations is key to capturing sunsets and other high contrast scenes at their best, in camera.

You Will Need

  • a sunset (preferably with textured clouds and vibrant color)
  • foreground subject (rocks, trees, people etc.)
  • camera with manual settings
  • fully charged batteries and formatted memory card with adequate space
  • built-in or off-camera flash (optional)
  • tripod (optional but recommended)

A Simple Sunset

Photograph Winter Sunsets

Sunlit clouds over Turnagain Arm 1/800 sec at f/11, ISO 640, 134mm

Set the camera to Aperture Priority (A or AV) mode. Compose the scene so there is a lot more sky than the foreground. This alone should tell the camera’s light meter to bring down exposure so the image maintains its detail. If this doesn’t seem to help, then use the EV (Exposure Value Compensation) control to activate the light meter and dial down exposure 1/3 to 2/3 stops. Also, pay attention to shutter speed. If it falls below the lens’ focal length, then widen the aperture and/or increase the ISO. For example, if the shutter speed is 1/30 sec, and the focal length is 55mm, then increase the f-stop and/or ISO until the shutter speed is at least 1/60 sec. If the shutter speed is 1/125 sec, and the focal length is 55mm, you’re good to go. This rule helps keep the image crisp with no trace of camera shakiness.

Sunset Silhouette

Photograph Winter Sunsets

Ice flows coming in on high tide at Beluga Point 1 sec at f/20, ISO 50, 22mm, on tripod

Starting with the same settings as above, compose the frame with a animate or inanimate foreground subject. The camera will then likely try to brighten the foreground, washing out the sky. Use the EV control to dial down exposure 1-2 stops, making the foreground go black. Silhouettes are a wonderful way to take advantage of the camera’s limitations. They are powerful design tools and can be depicted a variety of ways, from a lonely tree standing serenely against the fading light to someone making a joyful leap into the setting sun.

Sunset Portrait

Photograph Winter Sunsets

Turnagain Arm 1/160 sec at f/4.5, ISO 500, 70mm with built-in flash for fill light

If your camera has a built-in flash, this is one of the few times I recommend using it. Off camera flash will do a much better job of casting directional light on the subject, so even better if you have it available. Regardless, instructions will be given for the on-camera flash with the aim of balancing it with available light. In other words, fill flash. Again, start with the same settings as above. Without your subject in the frame, expose for the sky (remembering to use the EV to dial down exposure). Activate the flash and set it on manual, 1/4 power, rear-curtain sync (consult your camera’s manual if necessary). Take a test shot with your subject and make power adjustments until the flash is there, but not obvious. The sky should retain rich color, while lighting on the subject is blended with natural light.

Happy snapping!


Be sure to review 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.


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

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

    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.

Leave A Comment