Shooting and editing the perfect sunset photo can be a really easy process once you have a solid understanding on what you should be doing. I will first start discussing some favorable camera settings which I recommend to be used, which align perfectly with my editing style and methodology. Capturing the perfect in-camera photo is half the battle to a good edit. One of the most essential parts of shooting the perfect sunset or sunrise, is properly exposing the sky. While most people will not be using a graduated ND filter to expose landscape photos, there are ways around it by combining the power of the right shot with the right edit.
Most modern DSLR cameras have come a long way with being able to recover shadow detail from underexposed areas of images, but not quite as good at recovering details from highlights in overexposed areas. For this reason I recommend underexposing any sunset or sunrise image by a bare minimum of 1 stop. If you’re shooting with any top of the line DSLR like the Canon 5D or 1D series, Nikon D750, D810, D5, or the Sony A7Rii, you have the flexibility to underexpose by a far greater deal.
The recommended settings will vary slightly depending on how much light is available, but I recommend starting at a medium aperture of at least f/4 or higher, up till around f/8 or f/9. The narrower apertures will give you more flattering sun bursts for landscape photos, and arguably better colour. In terms of shutter speed I never shoot any slower than 1/200- 1/250s, but depending on how much light you have that value will differ slightly. Lastly we will be setting our ISO value.
Most cameras have their optimal dynamic range performance in ISO values between 100-400, so use an ISO value around there to compensate with need for extra light. You can check what ISO values you should use for your camera in an optimal scenario on DXOmark.com https://www.dxomark.com/Cameras/Canon/EOS-5D-Mark-III—Measurements. I’ve included the link in the description to the ratings for my camera.
Once you snapped your picture it should look something like this. As you can see there is still nice details in the sky with the clouds. The image could have been underexposed even more than this, as a point of reference for you guys.
Before I start doing any colour toning to this image I want to make sure I have a clean image that is exposed properly. For starters I am going to reduce the exposure by half a stop or -0.50. As RAW photos are generally pretty flat out if camera I also add a little bit contrast into the image, around 25 or so will do the trick. The next 4 settings will differ from image to image, but I will explain the purpose of each slider to help you understand how to adjust them for your own image. For starters we have Highlights. Increasing the highlight value will blow out your highlights, something that is viable and could be aesthetically pleasing for a sunset or sunrise photo, but not something I personally do in my style of editing. At this point I crush my highlights to get nice detail and colours in the sky and make the sun not seem so overwhelming and bright. As a tip I would normally would never crush highlights to the full -100, I would stop around a maximum of -90 or so. Reason being is that in some images you might get some ugly ghosting effects around certain highlights.
In the case of this ghosting your better off lowering your exposure a little more to get the same effect. Next step is recovering your shadows, as you can see the image is rather dark. In this picture I wanted to bring back enough detail into the foreground to make the nice wet surface and legs look visible. A value of around +90 seems to do the trick for my picture. The next step is adding some clarity to the image. This will increase the sharpness of the image and add more contrast as well. Like the highlights, where some people prefer boosting them to give this ethereal feel to the picture, they might kill the clarity to give in this softer look. I however prefer increasing the clarity, but only slightly. I never go above a value of +20. Next I take away some of the vibrance and saturation, because I will be adding colour later through some of the other tools. In this picture I used a value of -5 and -7 for vibrance and saturation. Moving onto the Tone Curve, I add a little bit of contrast through a standard S curve, and I give it that slight faded look through raising the blacks, on the Y-scale.
Moving onto the next step, we find ourselves at details. Again my editing philosophy revolves around sharp images. I boost the sharpness to around 110 in this picture. If your picture has a lot of grain sharpening will completely ruin your image. This is where the Masking slider comes into play. To ensure that you don’t accentuate your noise with the sharpening tool, you can control the areas which you sharpen with the masking slider. By holding down ALT or Option on a mac while using the slider, it will visually show you what is being selected. Each image will be wildly different, but I like selecting just small areas of the outlines of elements in the image, to help make them pop.
Once we have our image exposed the correct way, we move onto the colour correcting. We start off with the Hue, Saturation and Luminescence sliders. The theme of this image is 2 strong tones. Blue and orange. To achieve this look we want to make the yellows from the sunlight looking more orange, by adding more orange in the Oranges slider, over by about -15, and turn the Yellows completely all the way to -100. We then want to pump up our greens and aquas by +50 and +25 respectively. As you can see the aquas help give us a nice realistic colour in the sky.
Moving over to saturation we need to give more colour to our oranges and yellows, so we can going to pump those up, by +20 and +25. The we want to take a bit of saturation away from the blues. As you can see in this image specifically there blues are spilling into the white on my shoes and that just looks awful like that. So i reduced the aquas and blues by -30 each. Lastly on the luminescence sliders we take some luminescence away from the aquas and blues, by -40 and -50 respectively.
Next comes one of my favourite colour correction tools in Camera raw and Lightroom, the Split toning. Split toning will help bring your edit to life. Essentially this is how I am able to cast this colour tone to all of my photos to help keep them consistent on Instagram.
How I generally use the split toning curve is I set my balance point. Since landscape photos generally have a 60/40 split between land to sky ratio, I skew the balance more towards the shadows, so I can focus my toning more on the larger portion of the image. In this particular case my balance was at -50. Next step I choose my Hue. Highlights will be a warm hue, and 30 in this case, with a saturation of 40, and the shadows a colder colour, of 225 with a saturation of 15.
Personally i skip over the lens corrections. I don’t like using the Profile Corrections as it makes the images look lifeless, and I don’t generally have any chromatic aberration issues at apertures of f/2.8 or higher. I will however use some transformation features, mostly to make sure my horizon is straight. There is a few options to use here, but the automatic upright usually does the trick in most images.
The last part is totally optional, whether you want to make the image look more natural, or more obviously edited like my image. To do this, I used the camera calibration. This feature changes the colour pallet which your camera uses. This can be a very powerful tool, but can also be easily misused. I use the Red Primary slider to turn the sky more towards that final orange colour I had in the original photo. I set this to +50 to achieve that look. Saturation stays at 0, and it should usually stay at zero as these can really mess with your pictures. Next, the Green Primary helps me suppress the orange hue a little, where it is looking a little more realistic. I put that up to +90. Then I finally adjust the Blue Primary to gives me a nice blue in the water and sky at around -85.