7 Ways to Avoid a Cliche Sunset Photo

Just admit it — you can’t help yourself from taking sunset photos. We all do it. The problem is that (since we all do it) sunset photos can be extremely cliche. So when the sun starts going down, you’ve got to think outside the box to get unique photos. Here are some tips to get your creative juices flowing.

Be sure to read the note at the end of the post!


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1. GO WIDE

While you might be tempted to whip out that super-telephoto lens and get up close on the sun as it goes below the horizon, you might consider going the opposite direction with your lens choice. The sky is pretty big and sunsets can cover a large portion of it. My lens of choice is the Sigma 10-20mm pulled all the way back to 10mm. This gives me over 100 degrees angle of view and it makes for some stunning landscapes and sunsets.

Sunset Flames

2. GET COLORFUL

Sure, sunsets can be really colorful and great on their own, but they can often look the same (especially when you live in an area with very infrequent cloud cover). My solution: shoot some slide film and get it cross processed. The blueish-green photo was shot with Velvia 50 while the pinkish-purple one was shot with Velvia 100.

Darkness Creeps In

Purple Skies

3. WAIT AROUND

If you’re with a group of photographers you’ll hear the shutters rev-up just as the sun begins to cross the horizon — this is when the colors are most obvious to our eyes. But wait around for another 10 or 20 minutes and shoot some long exposure stuff with a tripod. Even though you can’t see the colors, they’re still hanging around. After the sun sets, the upper sky will tend to turn a deep blue, almost purple.

Another Day Ends

4. TAKE TWO

Play around with double exposures and see what you can come up with. If you’re shooting digital, you could probably come up with all sorts of ways to combine your sunset photos to create alien landscapes. If you’re shooting film, just remember that areas of shadow will show the double image more strongly.

Alien Sunset

5. TURN AROUND

We’re programmed to shoot right into the sun at sunset — that’s usually where the fun stuff is happening. But take a second, peel the camera away from your face, and look around. Maybe that sunset is creating a brilliant lighting situation right behind you.

Colors of the Canyon

6. USE PROPS

Take the ramp, bike, and board out of this photo and you now have a beach sunset pic that looks just like 50% of every beach sunset photo ever taken. Look for things to place in the foreground in order to add more interest to the scene.

End of the Watch

7. FORGET THE COLORS

Sunset photos are generally known for their great colors, but sometimes pulling the color out can make the photo a better one. Focus on lines and shadows while you’re shooting the sunset, in addition to the other black and white photography tips.

Into The Sea

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Post your own sunset tips and photos in the comments! I’d love to see some tip/photo combos down in the comments. You can use the “img” hmtl tag to display images or click on the link below the comment box if you’re unfamiliar with html (please limit the photos to 500px or smaller). After the comments slow down, I’ll pick out some reader tips and photos for a follow-up post!

[UPDATE]: I’ve posted a follow-up article on this topic highlighting all the great sunset photos and tips from the readers — check it out! Definitely worth the read!

48 thoughts on “7 Ways to Avoid a Cliche Sunset Photo

  1. Brian Auer Post author

    Great stuff so far! Remember to link your photo by wrapping it with html or just leave the link in the text above or below the image so people can visit your photos on Flickr or your personal websites.

    If you have photos on Flickr, just click on the “All Sizes” button, pick an appropriate size image (like 240px), and copy the html code into the comment box here. That code will show the photo and it will be linked back to your main Flickr page for the image.

  2. Brian Auer Post author

    Awesome!

    Just a quick note on the comments… apparently Askimet doesn’t like the comments with images very much because every one of them was kicked to the spam bucket. I had to pull it out of the spam, but it had removed the image tag. So I put the images back into the comments for you guys.

    I’ve installed a different spam catcher and turned off Askimet, so we’ll see how it works from now on. Let me know if you have any problems making comments or posting images.

  3. Gary

    Great photos, both in the article and the comments!

    Here is my tip… Look to shoot the sunset reflected in an object. It can help to make the shot more abstract, and gets the viewer more engaged in the photo as they try to figure it out.

  4. Brian Auer Post author

    Hmm… still having issues with the images being stripped out. Not sure what’s causing it. Just keep submitting them and I’ll fix them as they come in.

  5. Chris

    I’m more of a sunrise person (as you can see by the last 2 pictures on my blog) but I was quite pleased with this one for one of my first shots with the 400D:

  6. Brian Auer Post author

    Still having problems with photos coming through. Maybe it’s best to use the link at the bottom of the form to insert the photo and just wrap that inserted code with a link. I think WordPress isn’t happy with the img tags still. We’ll fix it soon — I’m seeking advice from another photography blogger.

  7. Neil Creek

    Try HDR. One commenter above mentioned it, but I wanted to emphasise tonemapping for realism, not effect. Halos and dirty clouds aren’t attractive.

    [img]http://farm1.static.flickr.com/221/500738693_4e238a6537_m.jpg[/img]

    Shoot landmarks or icons against the sunset. Locals will recognise them and those from elsewhere can discover a beautiful new scene.

    [img]http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2150/2155746385_8e8659e30f_m.jpg[/img]

    Strobe it. Wait till after the sun has set and use the fading sky as a backdrop for some strobe action.

    [img]http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2408/2192596840_d53cc615f7_m.jpg[/img]

    Get experimental. I took a full spherical panorama of an iconic church in New Zealand, and remapped it into a “little planet”. Here we can see both the last of the setting sun, and the golden-lit church opposite.

    [img]http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3262/2451914586_0c5b66dfd1_m.jpg[/img]

    Thanks mate, great post idea and excellent community interaction! Well done :)

  8. Brian Auer Post author

    I’m pretty sure I got the image-in-comments thing figured out. So you can either post straight-up html from Flickr or use the link below to add the correct BBCode.

  9. Steve Berardi

    Great tips! Just one quick one to add: don’t put the horizon in the center–you’re photographing the sunset, so the sky should take up the vast majority of the frame.

  10. Zig

    Look for the unusual. Sometime certain weather conditions will throw interesting lighting out, even after the sun is below the horizon. For example this shaft of light.

    3234086031_d07371f6fd_m.jpg

  11. Jeremy Brooks

    And for the exception to the "the sky should take up the majority of the frame" rule, here’s one I took that is mostly railroad tracks and train cars, but with the light of the sunset at the top of the frame and reflected from the tracks.

    2595073653_9f46e4b110_m.jpg

  12. Antoine Khater

    Wonderful article buddy and the followups are just as great.

    I will add my grain of salt to the discussion

    Get low pickup a low view point

    Do not include the sun specially if you follow your tip "Go Wide" with a wide angle the sun will look just like a small spot in the picture and will loose interest and would rather look like a dust bun or something

    Use a foreground as focal point Include an object relatively big in the foreground to serve as the picture’s focal point

    3188623049_75411fba49_m.jpg

  13. Martin

    There’s no need to get the sun in the frame if you’ve got something interesting in the frame….particularly a silhouette against the sunset sky.

    1441753267_b5d75ead9c_m.jpg

  14. Devansh

    Hanging around long enough, say about half an hour, after the sun disappears below the horizon gives you the opportunity to take some long exposures, and lets you include some painting with light techniques.

  15. Maureen Bond

    I like the tip about turning around. I’m trying to use this tip with all of my photography outings. As for sunsets and sunrises I like to look for elements if possible for framing. This shot is a sunrise.

    3000065448_4eaec823f6_m.jpg

  16. Phil Lane

    Silhouettes are a good idea I agree – you can get something stark to stand out against the background.

    2890185667_1e1c784794_m.jpg

    Also, using a flash is a good ldea to let you balance the subject and the sunset

    2969609907_00a287e987_m.jpg

    I think you can get some nice effects.

    This is a god topic, with a lot of very good responses.

  17. Eric Gitonga

    Sunset images taken in Zanzibar

    [img]http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3517/3261717293_f18b6900b7_m.jpg[/img]

    [img]http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3463/3261717289_66ca0ce1dd_m.jpg[/img]

    [img]http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3330/3261717287_66a215e1c4_m.jpg[/img]

  18. Jamie

    A great article and some very vailid options for others to consider. I like the way this article forces you to "LOOK OUT OF THE BOX" and consider some other factors.

    I guess my effort is a typical cliche ;)

    3111149578_da35757d97_m.jpg

  19. jeff

    I love the sky a half hour or so after sunset, in this image I found something that might be pretty boring during the day, but has a whole different feel in the evening.

    3226186121_854b13581d_m.jpg

    This one might be somewhat cliche, but I tried to get silhouette’s of a couple mosque towers along the banks of the Nile, coupled with a relatively wide angle to capture as much of the clouds as possible.

    3178433987_18ecf5aaee_m.jpg

  20. Gary

    I put my tip above, but I as I was reviewing the tips here I wanted to restate how important I think Brian’s #5 is. Turn around is a terrific way to get the out-of-the-box shot, and it is also SO MUCH easier to do, because you don’t get contrast issues and such….

    This shot is from a sunrise, but I think its a good example…
    2304064437_8f704544dc_m.jpg

  21. Siva

    This is a shot i took some time back from my balcony in Kuala Lumpur. In fact there was a plane passingby during the 30" long shutter. Created a cool streak along the sky.

  22. Stevie G

    These pictures unbelievably cliche. If you want to be a good photographer don’t take pictures of things like sunsets because the idea it self is already cliche. Get original and photograph something nobody has seen before.

  23. Lois Elling

    I’m late to the party, but here’s one thing that I don’t think has been mentioned. Pay attention to the weather. You’ll get more interesting shots when interesting things are happening with the weather. This is an example of a shot of a sunrise while we were having fires in the area. The smoke and smog not only turned the sun redder, but cut down on the light which gave me more time available for shooting into the sun that morning.
    1336796865_496aba5aa8_m.jpg

  24. Albert

    Wow the pictures of the sun is just amazing, and the sun sets, so beautiful. Lois, the one with the plant and the sun in the back is just glamorous. I love the feel to it. This is a photo of the only sun we can see with our naked eyes, and look how splendid the photos look.

  25. Nikita Buida

    Another great idea would probably be to use small strobe with umbrella with green filter on the strobe. Of course strobe is used to light a person in the foreground for example. Then (this is for digital) you set your white balance to make person’s face look real not green and whole sunset goes wild with saturated purple colors!

  26. jeremy

    2509328110_7108c759af_m.jpg

    I went for the way the sunlight was caught by the undergrowth, and a little lens flare

  27. Tony Lee

    I favor the “Use props” image, as it gives the photographer more flexibility to add to mother natures beauty.

    Great shots!

  28. fdtate

    Clouds can add much to a sunset photo. The setting sun’s light is more interesting when it’s bouncing and playing off of available clouds. Much more interesting than a sunset on a picture perfect cloudless day.
    3263186574_00a984539f_m.jpg

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