Digital SLR Photography

How to shoot winter sunsets

By Ross Hoddinott . Posted

It is no secret that dawn and dusk are the best times of day to shoot landscapes. While there will always be exceptions to this rule, at either end of the day, the light is typically at its very best due to the sun’s low position. Not only is the light warm, soft and flattering, but during the so-called golden hours there is a good chance that the sky will light up with colour. Just prior to the sun rising and again after the sun disappears below the horizon, colour can radiate across the sky if gaps in the cloud allow it to do so. This can produce spectacular conditions for landscape photography, with the sky turning pink, orange or deep scarlet. Nature can do things that Photoshop will never be able to achieve!

Unfortunately, the best conditions occur at the least convenient time of day – dawn and dusk. During summer, you need to get up crazily early to capture colour, or stay out unsociably late. This is just one reason why winter is the best time of year to shoot sunrise and sunset. During the winter months, dawn is normally between 7am and 8am. Even allowing sufficient time to reach your location and set-up in advance of the sun rising, you will rarely need to set your alarm earlier than 6am – a comparatively civilised time of day.

To capture the setting sun, you should get to your chosen location around an hour beforehand to allow you time to identify the best viewpoint. It will be dark again by 4-6pm, allowing you time to capture great shots, but still be home for dinner! Not only that, but the winter months have a habit of producing some of the best skies and conditions for landscape photography. Frost or snow can add a seasonal feel to your dawn shots, while dramatic skies are more common, making this the perfect time of year to shoot seascapes. So what are you waiting for? Wrap up warm and get out with your camera soon!


This is essential for success. Knowing the sun’s position in advance will help you visit the right location at the right time, saving you from wasting opportunities, and there are plenty of apps to help you do this. I regularly use one called The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) – one of the most useful and popular applications for planning shoots. It is available for desktop use and as a smartphone app.

Step2 - Location choice

Choose a viewpoint

Having looked at TPE, I knew that the sun would be setting out to sea. However, from my intended viewpoint, I calculated the sun would be hidden behind the headland when it set. With the sun hidden, it wouldn’t cause any exposure issues or flare. And as I would still be shooting in its direction, any colour filling the sky at sunset would enhance my shots. All I had to do was wait and hope for a colourful sunset.

Step3 - Without ND grad-8785

Step3 - With ND grad-8786

Use filtration

When shooting towards a bright, colourful sunrise or sunset, you will typically encounter a light difference between the bright sky and darker foreground. The level of contrast can be beyond the camera’s dynamic range, making it tricky to correctly expose the scene. You could bracket and blend exposures in Photoshop, but I prefer to use graduated ND filters. Here I used a soft-edged three-stop graduated ND.



A colourful sky alone will not make a great landscape; you still need a strong, well-balanced composition. Scenes with water work well as they reflect the sky’s warmth, so I got close to the water’s edge. I opted for a simple composition, including a large amount of sky and water to make the most of the colour and reflections. The onrushing waves added further interest.

Talisker Bay-8804

Keep on shooting

The colour doesn’t last long (which is why careful planning and anticipation is key to a successful shoot), so you need to keep shooting. In this instance, the sky’s colour lasted no more than ten minutes, but at sunset, warm oranges and pinks soon gave way to cooler shades of purple and blue, which have their own individual quality and beauty.

Talisker Bay-8822