Skip to main content

How to Shoot a Portrait at Sunset

Learn how to shoot a portrait at sunset from professional photographer Joe Sinnott in this Howcast photography tutorial.


Hi, I'm Joe. I teach photography at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Today, we're going to talk about photographing somebody against the sunset. The problem with photographing somebody against the setting sun is that all of the very, very bright light is coming from behind them which makes this side of their body a shadow and you get a silhouette. One really easy way to deal with that is just open up.

Whatever the light meter on the camera is telling you to do, force it to over expose by one or two stops, that will open up the shadow and make your subject more visible. The background's going to get bright, but at least your subject will be correctly exposed, so because I'm in a studio today I've set up a light behind my subject to simulate the setting sun when it's low in the sky and I've got it coming right behind my subject.

If I just use the camera settings right now, I'd get a silhouette with a big sort of white highlight around them. So, at the moment the camera's set to F4 and what I'm going to do is I'm going to open it up to F2. Your mileage may vary depending on the amount of light that's coming from behind, but the point is that whatever the meter indicates is a correct exposure open up two so that the meter indicates two stops over exposed.

Then just bring it to bare on your subject. Convince them to smile a little bit and shoot your little heart out. Another thing that you can do especially if you want to preserve some of the colors in the feeling of the sunset is instead of just opening up and allowing the background to become over exposed, use some of that sunlight. Reflect it back into your subject using a reflector. You could have somebody hold this.

You don't have to have a light stand or something like that although I'm using a store board reflector which is not particularly expensive. Pretty much anything will do, a piece of white poster board or like the silver reflector that you put on the dashboard in your car to keep the inside of the car from getting to hot. Either one of those are fine and all you got to do is sort of wiggle it around into place until you see the light bounce back into your subject's face and you see that shadow open up. Then figure out what a correct exposure is for that. Just use whatever the meter tells you and once again, shoot your little heart out.

Lastly, if you don't have a reflector with you or your don't want to carry something like that around, a lot of cameras have one of these little built in pop up flash units. So, you're carrying a light with you and since this is all a shadow one way to deal with a shadow is to fill it in with light. It's kind of the same thing I did with the reflector, but I'm just using a light that's built into the camera.

In order to do this and have it work, you can't have the flash put out the same amount of light as the sun is putting out. So, you need the flash to be putting out one stop less light than you're getting from the sun and the way to deal with that with the pop up flash means you have to kind of RTFM. RTFM means, read the freaking manual. Somewhere in the directions for your camera there are instructions about how to force the flash to under expose by one stop or two stops or whatever you want.

In this case, we're going to force it to under expose by one stop. On my camera, I push a button over here and I turn this dial until it says negative one. That's going to make sure that the flash, whatever the camera thinks is a correct exposure, the flash is going to do one stop less than that. That's going to be enough to fill in the shadow without causing my subject and my background to over expose.

Don't forget to give the flash enough time to recycle between exposures. You won't be able to shoot as quickly when you're using the built in flash as you want when you're using the reflector or something like that. Those are a few simple tips for photographing a subject against the setting sun.

Popular Categories