How to use this epic light to your advantage and create magical sunset portraits that will boost the value of your work
How do you shoot amazing Golden Hour portraits on the beach with no on camera or off-camera flash? Golden Hour is that pocket of time just after sunrise but most popular about an hour before sunset. Sunset photography sessions are the most highly sought after portraits because the Golden Hour is the most optimal time to create glowing, magical portraits that will create the soft portraits everyone is in love with.
Before I start my post about how to create sun-kissed portraits using natural light only, I wanted to add a short personal story, because this blog is a mix of personal and work experiences that have set my career on this path and brought me where I am today.
Almost 9 years ago, my family and I drove down from Charleston, SC to Miami to say good bye to my aunt and Sarah before transferring to Kodiak, Alaska with the Coast Guard. A few months after our departure, they also made a decision to start a new life in Paris, France, so they packed their bags, sold everything and off they went. Because military life is difficult at times, with relocations in places you don’t necessarily want to be, being transferred to Alaska, in a remote, cold and rainy place like Kodiak Island made it even more difficult to fly out and visit family and friends.
This past weekend, I ran away from the Seattle rain and flew 8 hours with my 10 year old son to Miami, Florida for a long weekend getaway, to meetup with Sarah, who came visiting from Romania, where she lives now. I can’t believe I haven’t seen her in almost a decade and how many changes have happened, how many turns our lives took. Of course, she is no longer little, she is now a beautiful young woman, full of vibrancy and joy of life. So I made a point to capture that and thought this was a wonderful opportunity to share how I photograph sunset portraits with just a camera, two lenses, and no on-camera or off-camera flash this time.
1. Make your choice: What should you meter for?
What we see with the naked eye is not what the camera will see, so if you shoot in Manual mode, you’ll have to choose what you meter for depending what you’re actually photographing – is it a landscape or a portrait?
Since my focus is portrait or wedding photography, I always have a subject in front of my camera, so I meter for the skin. To me it’s important that the skin is properly exposed and I put little emphasis on the sky being blow out. Sunset photography is challenging because the dynamic range of a scene (highlights vs shadows) is very wide and will often vary with each camera.
Keep in mind that if you’re exposing for the sky, you’ll be underexposing the shadows. If you’re exposing for the shadow areas, you’ll be overexposing the highlights. If you want both properly exposed, then you’ll have to use a light or a fill flash. Also, I found that the spot metering mode is the best, and I usually adjust the exposure compensation half a stop or more to get the look I want.
2. Camera Settings
If you have the ability, you definitely want to shoot RAW files. That way you can change the White Balance in post work and play with the settings without altering the root file. My Canon 5D Mark IV does a really good job on setting the proper White Balance in Auto Mode when I shoot in natural light, so I don’t generally mess around with that much. However, I always carry an ExpoDisc with me and use that in different lighting situations for more accuracy.
As far as depth of field, before the sunset when I prefer not to use a light, I keep my aperture settings between f1.8 and 2.0. My ISO stays at 100 or as low as possible. I love the softness of the light, the purposeful flares coming through the lens and the even skin tones that are achieved with these settings.
3. Best Photography Lenses for Sunset
I’m a huge fan of the Canon 85mm 1.2 and the Canon 35mm 1.4 lenses – those are usually my go to. I shot this session with just these 2 lenses and I didn’t feel I needed anything else. The 85mm is absolutely stunning and it creates gorgeous creamy toned photos. The compression is out of this world and it almost has a 3D effect on the images. The 35mm is super fast and does amazing in low light situations. The aspherical lens element inside helps correct aberrations and improve contrast and sharpness. The autofocus is quick and the images are very sharp.
All in all, all Prime lenses are great and have extremely nice bokeh at low apertures. The two above are just the ones that I always find myself reaching for.
4. Backliting and Rim Light
Backlighting is when you put the subjects between you and the sun. This creates a warm glow and looks so beautiful. Exposing for your subject’s skin tones is a must. This is also an opportunity to create a silhouette, and in that case you should expose for the sun.
Shuttermuse defines Rim Light as a lighting technique where the image subject is backlit and the image is exposed to hide the subject’s features in the shade. The technique gets its name from the fact that lighting a subject in this way produces a thin line or ‘rim‘ of light which appears to cling to the subjects outline. In other words, it really helps the subjects pop out in the image, drawing attention to them, adding separation of subject from the background.
5. Planning the Location
Location and timing are everything when your goal is to take amazing sunset images. Pre-planning is important in order to have the best chance capturing the range of images you’re looking to get. Scoping ahead of time and arriving at the location earlier is advised. Check the sunset time prior and share that with the people that are involved in the photo shoot. I usually start my Golden Hour sessions an hour before, to get those gorgeous soft images, and wait until the sun goes down to get some dramatic images using my off-camera flash.
In conclusion, no matter what type of golden hour lighting you use, you are bound to get some awesome images. Experiment with various locations and techniques. Also go back to the same location at various times of the year and track how golden hour lighting changes – you will learn to gauge, judge, and use light as a key element in your portrait photography.
Do you have suggestions, tips, anything useful to add? Send it my way HERE!
Until next post! And here’s the rest of the gallery! Cheers! 🥂
A lover of all things beautiful, classic and authentic, Adina’s journey into wedding photography has taught her to adapt to all surroundings and allowed her to capture timeless, creative photographs that reveal raw connection and emotion. You can follow Adina on Instagram or Facebook below for more inspiration.
I'm just a girl devoted to her work, getting her excitement from helping people preserve their memories. My motto: Be Sassy, Classy and a Little Badassy. My Mission: Build Photo Legacies that Last Forever in the Hearts of Families. How? By traveling wherever I'm needed and photographing extraordinary love stories needed to be told. Is yours ready to hit the world?
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