Some things (many things) are just more beautiful in real life than they are on social media. Fireworks and your new boyfriend might initially come to mind, but today, we’re talking about sunsets. No photo of a sunset ever seems to reflect how stunning the sight actually was, but that’s never stopped any of us from trying—again and again. We click it, we share it, we say how it’s a shame everyone else couldn’t be there to see it because it’s even more lovely in person.
If you want a really good picture of a sunset, you know that what you probably need is a real camera, by which we mean “not a smartphone.” But unless you’re a professional photographer—or even an amateur photographer who takes pictures as a hobby—chances are the only camera you’ve got with you when that sunset lights up the beach lives in your smartphone. So let’s go with it, because hey, a smartphone can take a hell of a photo these days.
Use these smartphone features to take better sunset pictures
To start with, you should try using the grid feature on your camera app to make sure you have nice straight lines going through the shot.
“I think the biggest mistake people make is if the horizon is not straight,” said Jere Hirvonen, a photographer in Finland whose Instagram feed is full of striking photos of sunsets and nature. “Don’t zoom, because picture quality is not-so-good then.”
One cool advantage phones actually have over regular cameras is the ability to edit on the go. Play around with saturation and depth to really make your sunset masterpiece pop. Don’t let lens flare—or little specks of light that appear as a result of all that sun—ruin your photo, either. Editing apps have tools to remove it. Snapseed, for instance, has a “Healing” tool that will eliminate flare and keep the attention on the sunset, not any reflections.
Also be sure to shoot in your phone’s highest definition mode. That will create more depth, which will be pleasant enough on its own but can also be enhanced with editing.
Don’t make the sunset the subject
If you’re on the lake, get boats in the foreground. If you’re at a game, get the players in the photo. Try flowers, a deserted playground, a friend—whatever! Hirvonen advised that you should use objects for effect, but not worry too much about what the objects are. A plain sunset photo is cool, but the sky shouldn’t always be your focus. Getting a little action or an interesting item in there is a good move.
Lines are good, too. Just as the horizon should be straight across the x axis, a road, bridge, or building should be straight along the y for a crisp, alluring shot.
You can even play around with settings and angles to keep your subjects in silhouette, which will bring out the sunset and add some intrigue to the pic. To create a silhouette effect, make sure the subject is directly between you and the light source. Darken and intensify the shadows in your photo editor—whether using the one built into your phone or a third-party app—to make the silhouette even more pronounced.
Timing is everything when photographing a sunset
A photo taken as a sunset begins is obviously going to look a lot different from one just before the sun is fully down.
Experiment with timing to find what works best for you. Hirvonen said, “Take the picture as late as possible, when the sun has almost gone down.”
Too much brightness will cause flare and blow out the contrast (we’ve all been there, done that). But if you can rein your eagerness in, waiting a bit as the sun goes down will add more depth and crispness, and it give you more colors to work with, whether you edit the pic or not.
Get creative with this beauty!
Allow the sunset to inspire you. Simply seeing a sunset is not enough to justify a picture all of the time. I know you think it is! We all do! But before you start snapping away, ask yourself, “What would kick this up a notch?”
Look around for a puddle or body of water. A reflection shot is twice as cool as a straight-on sunset, and if the water is moving, you can use an app like Slow Shutter to change your shutter speed, making it three times as cool! Try to get a photo of the sunset between two buildings or otherwise plan out your location. A little extra effort will go a long way here and make the picture truly memorable.
If your phone’s camera app lets you shoot in panorama mode, you can get even more of your location in there, whether it’s a cityscape or a hillside. Hold your phone steady and use the mode to capture more depth and detail.
At the end of the day—literally—it’ll be hard to replicate or hold on to the majesty you experienced in real life, which is fine! Enjoy the sunset and let the picture-taking be secondary to living in the moment.