Photography 101: A Beginner’s Guide – Lesson 7

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Sunsets and silhouettes can be some of the most breathtaking photos we see. Everyone wants to capture all of the oranges, reds, blues, purples, and yellows of the sunset coupled with the perfect cardboard cutout silhouette of the palm trees or kids playing on the beach. Now that you know how to use manual mode on your camera, you can capture these scenes!


The sun is bright; we know this. At this point, we know how to get a properly exposed image using your camera’s built in meter; you can review this in Lesson 4. The problem with allowing your camera’s meter to determine the proper exposure for a sunset is that the resulting photo can appear faded (i.e. lacking in the vibrant array of colors you saw with your eye). Instead of placing the exposure indicator in the center, we are going to adjust the shutter speed until the indicator is to the left of the center, up to one stop.  By doing this, we are purposely underexposing our image so the sky is a little darker. I would use an ISO of about 400 for this if you are taking your photo right at sunset.

If you want to capture a sunset with a dark foreground, then point the camera at the sky when you adjust the exposure. If you want to get the sunset and the foreground, then point the camera towards the ground to set your exposure. Either way, make sure you are underexposing a bit. Depending on how much light you have, you may need to take this shot on a tripod with a slow shutter speed.

Sunset on the beach
For this image, I set the exposure for the water. I kept the f/stop high so the entire scene would be in focus. I adjusted the ISO and shutter speed as needed, but made sure to keep the meter underexposed in order to bring out the colors of the sky. I did make minor adjustments to the image afterwards, something I will describe in a video later.


If you have a person in your foreground, you can expose the sunset just at I described above, except you will use the flash so the person doesn’t appear too dark. Make sure your f/stop is high for this one. It will help keep your subject from being overexposed from the flash.


You can create a silhouette as long as your subject is brightly back-lit. In order to get the effect, simply place your subject in front of a very bright light; the sun will do nicely. Set your exposure for the bright sky and then drop the exposure using the shutter speed so that it is slightly underexposed. A silhouette, after all, is just an underexposed foreground with a properly exposed bright background.

If you can get the angle right you can hold the sunset in your hand.
If you can get the angle right, you can hold the sunset in your hand.
For this shot I exposed for the sky so everything else is silhouetted. The water is not dark because it reflects the brightness of the sky.
For this shot, I exposed for the sky so everything else is silhouetted. The water is not dark because it reflects the brightness of the sky.


Your homework, should you choose to accept it, involves capturing the beauty of sunsets using what you have learned in this lesson and the previous ones.   I encourage you to post your sunset photos on our Facebook page.

Next Lesson

The next lesson will be a video on how to edit your photos to give them that extra pizzazz once you have taken them.

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