Best Techniques for Shooting a Long Exposure Sunset

by Elidio Ismenghi

Browse any outdoor photographer’s Instagram feed, and you are likely to find photos of the sunset. The color and direction of evening light are eye-catching and translate well into a photo.

Composition is an important part of any sunset image, but exposure is vital to both color and texture. Long exposures are an effective tool in this category.

What Does Long Exposure Mean?

While there is no clear definition, I categorize long exposure as any shutter speed that I cannot handhold. This includes anything from 1/15th of a second up to multi-minute bulb mode exposures. 1/15th is long enough to blur for fast-moving water. That’s my threshold for longer exposure.

When the conditions are too dark for standard shutter speeds, you may opt for a long exposure rather than increasing your ISO. High ISOs create noise, which reduces image quality. This may be particularly important late in the sunset, around dusk, when the light is very low. In this case, with a good tripod, a long exposure will be preferable to a high ISO.

Tools for Long Exposures

First, you need a camera equipped with manual mode. You need control over settings like shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.

Next, you’ll need a lens. Wide and mid-range lenses are the most useful focal length for sunset and landscape photography. You’ll also need a sturdy tripod. A good tripod will not shake or be easily blown around in the wind. This opens your creative options and the conditions under which you can shoot.

Some additional accessories that may help you get long exposure shots are neutral density or ND filters. ND filters reduce the amount of light entering your lens, like a pair of dark sunglasses. As the incoming light is reduced, you need to start increasing your shutter speed to make up for the change. When going for long exposures, that’s exactly what you want.

ND filters come in a variety of different types. Square filters that require a holder attachment for your lens are common. You can also get round ND filters, that screw onto your lens. My choice is the variable ND filter.

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