“The result is a portrait that can’t be replicated in a studio and often times the memory captured is, for me, the apogee of emotion and excitement for the day. ” In this short post, Ian Norman walks us through his favorite methods for shooting simple sunset portraits.
Watching the setting sun is like the period at the end of a sentence. It gives closure to the adventure of the day and prepares us for the next. It’s no secret that some of the best light for photography is at sunset. Some photographers will stake a claim on a particular locale after some early scouting and wait there all day just to be present for the setting sun. Landscape photographers live for this daily moment, when the air is still warm from the day and the last wisps of clouds are starting to slowly fade in the pink and orange glow of refracted sunlight.
While it’s often that I’m out shooting landscape photos at the end of the day, I always try to remember to use the fleeting orange light to capture the human elements in my life: my friends and family. Sunsets are my absolute favorite time to shoot portraits. The low hanging sun cast a warm flattering light and the long shadows on the landscape deepen the scene. The result is a portrait that can’t be replicated in a studio and often times the memory captured is, for me, the apogee of emotion and excitement for the day. Every waking moment in our day led us to this point and we will forever be able to remember it by the photo that we captured.
In this short post I want to review some of my favorite kinds of sunset portraits. I’ve tried to categorize them into a few styles that I hope you’ll enjoy trying. There are various levels of complexity that I like to employ in my sunset portraits but all of them are fun activities to do at the close of the day with some friends. I’ll sum up the simple gear needed for each and walk you through the techniques for shooting.
For the most basic shots you don’t need anything other than a camera. smartphone, DSLR, mirrorless, or vintage twin-lens reflex, it doesn’t really matter. Shoot with something you feel comfortable. I usually shoot on a DSLR or mirrorless camera. The examples show here were made on a variety of cameras including the Canon EOS 6D, Fujifilm X-T1 and Sony a7II. I generally recommend a standard to medium telephoto focal length lens between 35mm and 100mm. You usually can’t go wrong with a cheap f/1.8 prime like the Canon EF 50m f/1.8 STM or Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.8G. Most of my shots here were made on a 35mm or 50mm lens. I usually shoot in Aperture Priority mode and stop down to f/2.8 to for extra sharpness while still blurring the background just a tad. If you don’t already have a fast prime lens for your interchangeable lens camera, a fast 50mm the first thing that I would recommend picking up to give your photography a boost.
The Silver Lining Portrait
At the start of magic hour, when when sun is just starting to approach the horizon and shadows are starting to lengthen is when I try to shoot what I call “silver lining” portraits. Usually direct sunlight is very hard to work with during midday. When it’s bright and high in the sky, the sun will cast harsh shadows on your subject’s face. But when the sun approaches the horizon, things start to becoming a little more flattering. A silver lining shot is when we use the low hanging sun to light the back of our model. The low warm light of the sun on your model’s back will create a bright key light (or silver lining) around one edge of their profile. Keeping the sun relatively behind your model will also keep her face out of the sun, preventing the possibility of any harsh shadows.
This style of portrait is what you will want to try shooting at the start of your sunset portrait session, when the sun is high enough to still keep out of the frame. Just keep the sun towards the back of the model and shoot away.
The Flare Portrait
As the sun starts to get lower in the sky, I love to take advantage of my lens’s flare characteristics. Normally flare is regarded as an imperfection in the design of a lens but I really enjoy using it to artistic effect. Once the sun is low enough to fit just outside the edge of the frame or completely inside the frame, we should start to see some flare. Every lens has its own unique flare characteristic when shooting in harsh light like this. What I try to look for is areas of low contrast to position near our model to help flatten out the tones around their face.
Most lenses do this best when shooting at their lowest f/number so it’s usually a good time to shoot wide-open. One of my favorite lenses for this kind of lighting is the Voigtländer 40mm f/1.4 Nokton S.C. for Leica M mount and adaptable to mirrorless cameras with the appropriate adapter. The S.C. stands for “single coated” which means that it’s less good at reducing internal reflections than a typical multi-coated lens. The result from the single coated lens is often a very low contrast image when shooting directly into the sun at f/1.4 for a hazy dreamy portrait.
A lot of “cheap” primes and vintage glass like the Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM have some pretty wild flare characteristics and should be great for this kind of portrait.
The Reflector Portrait
When shooting with the sun to your model’s back, one of the easiest ways to match the light on your model with the background is through the use of a cheap photo reflector and a friend to hold it. The thing I like about a reflector is that there’s absolutely nothing technical in its operation. With the sun on your model’s back, just like in the last two examples, simply have your friend use the reflector to project some sunlight on to your model. If you want to change the intensity of the light, simply have your friend move it closer to the subject to brighten or farther to darken.
The final result should be a subtle fill that brightens your model’s features opposite the sun. I used the simple reflector method for shooting a series of portraits for Diana’s Portraits of America article on StylishTravelGirl.com.
The Strobe Portrait
This is about as complex as we’ll get in this post. Using an off-camera strobe can make some amazing results and it’s one of the things that I’ve made a tradition every year I visit the Burning Man festival.
For off-camera strobe portraits you’ll need a strobe and some sort of triggering method. My favorite affordable setup for this kind of shot is to use an affordable Yongnuo YN560 IV flash and their compatible RF-603 II Wireless Trigger. The technique for shooting at sunset is similar to our reflector technique. Keep the sun at the model’s back and fill with the strobe.
In order to balance the light of the strobe with the sunset, I’ll usually stick with a shutter speed of 1/2ooth, ISO 100, and f/16 and adjust the strobe’s power until it’s nicely balanced with the ambient light (it will usually be between 1/1 and 1/4 depending on the strobe’s power and distance to the subject). If the sun is still visible, those exposure settings will work perfectly almost every time. As sun sets below the horizon and the scene gets darker, I’ll slowly lower the power of the strobe and lower my f/number in order to match the diminishing light.
Off-camera flash portraiture is a whole new world of photography and one of the most fun new skills I’ve learned in my personal photographic journey. If you haven’t already checked out David Hobby’s Strobist blog, head over there for the absolute best resource for learning how to shoot with an off camera flash. I tend to prefer a strobe over a reflector because it’s easier to fine tune the quality and brightness of the light and it’s also possible, with the use of a light stand (my favorite lightstand), to shoot without the need for an assistant. Furthermore, it’s a lot easier to get consistent results with a strobe versus the highly variable nature of a reflector.
The Silhouette Portrait
When the sun finally reaches the horizon and the colors of the sunset are the most intense, I love shooting silhouette portraits.
My absolute favorite is to try this at a beach or lake where the reflection of the water amplifies the intensity of the sunset. In this case, getting the camera lower towards the ground/water will increase the effectiveness of the reflection on the water and to create some separation between your model’s profile and the brightly lit sky/water. In order to achieve the deepest colors in the sunset, be sure to meter off of the sky. If you’re having trouble achieving a silhouette, make sure that your model is backlit and dial down the exposure compensation a stop or so.
In order to achieve the deepest colors in the sunset, be sure to meter off of the sky. If you’re having trouble achieving a silhouette, make sure that your model is backlit and dial down the exposure compensation a stop or so.
The Environmental Portrait
The environmental portrait is all about rebalancing the image back towards the landscape rather than just the model. Back up or use a wide-angle lens and keep your model relatively small in the frame, no more than about 1/2 the height of the frame. Remember to capture details in the foreground as well as the background. Sometimes I find it appropriate for the model to instead interact with the environment by looking or even walking away from the camera, towards the sunset or elsewhere. It’s optional but it will bring more attention to the environment.
Pay attention to the shape of your model’s body profile against the environment. Their shape tells a story of how they are interacting with either the camera or with the environment itself.
Photography is almost always about finding the best light and sunset is still my favorite time to shoot portraits. The thing I love most about shooting at the end of the day is the variety of things that you can do with the light of the low hanging sun. If you wanted to, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to try out each of these portrait styles on a single afternoon for a variety of looks to choose from. I hope this quick post was helpful at providing some fun photographic styles to try. If there’s one common theme with how I tend to suggest using the light of the sunset, it’s usually with the light to the back of the model. Backlight creates the most dramatic contrasts, sharply silhouettes your model’s shape and can add some creative flare to the shot if desired.