A great sunset photo needs a subject or setting that isn’t the sunset. Adding a subject will help you share the excitement you felt when you saw the sunset by adding contrast and story. And one of the easiest ways to add a subject is to shoot silhouettes at sunset.
A reason to include a silhouette
We’ve all done it. We’ve all pulled out our mobile phones and taken a sunset photo to remember how beautiful it was. The problem is that there is nothing in the photo to hold your attention. When you show the photo to a friend, they agree that it was a nice sunset, but that’s all.
A good photo will record what you saw. A great photo will share the feelings you felt when you took the shot. It might even tell a story. Most of all, it will draw your viewer in and make them experience the moment.
Tip 1: Include people when you shoot silhouettes at sunset
People make a great prop when you’re shooting sunsets.
You might be lucky.
I took this photo when I was on a trip to Maui. Late in the afternoon, I’d wandered down to the harbor in Lahaina to explore. As I was hunting around for details to shoot, I realized that the sunset was going to be a good one. My problem was that I wasn’t in a great place to get an interesting shot of it. All I had in front of me was the beautiful blue water and the brilliant orange sunset. I needed a subject and was hoping to shoot a silhouette in front of the sunset.
Then I noticed a boat being launched on my right. As I waited, these two men paddled into the scene and made the photo for me.
This was a lucky shot! Without the men and the boat, it wouldn’t have been very interesting. With them included, the photo tells a story.
Sometimes you plan your luck when you shoot silhouettes at sunset.
On a trip to Bali, I was hoping for a beautiful sunset so I could include a reflection in the photo. Late in the afternoon, I noticed that people were coming out to enjoy the cooler air. Soon, a group of boys appeared with a soccer ball and started an impromptu game. I tried taking a few shots, but I felt like the action didn’t match the tranquil scene.
As I wandered along the beach, looking for a better subject, I saw these two men walking towards me. I quickly got into position to capture them with a reflection and took the photo. Their slow gait matched the calm scene perfectly.
Sometimes you have to supply the subject.
When you are shooting silhouettes at sunset, you might need to supply the subject.
I was with a group of friends in Camps Bay, in South Africa, when I captured this shot. We were out scouting a location for shooting the next morning. One idea we had was to use this seawall in a photo. To test it out, one of my friends walked out and started jumping. Most of my other friends were to his right, standing on the seawall. I had remained on the beach. Lucky me! He made the perfect subject in front of a beautiful sunset.
Tip 2: Include your surroundings when you shoot silhouettes at sunset.
Some of my best fine-art photos use the surroundings as the silhouette.
If you’ve been to Bali, you’ve probably visited the famous Hindu temple, Tanah Lot. It’s built on a rock and is surrounded by water at high tide. It would make a fabulous silhouette, but sadly, it’s not easy to take sunset photos of it anymore. The area where you could stand and take them has become a private golf course.
All is not lost, though. Close by, in the same temple complex, you’ll find the less well-known temple, Pura Batu Bolong.
It, too, is built on a rock, but in this case, there is a hole in the rock. The intricate details of the outline of the temple as well as the hole below it make it the perfect silhouette when the sun goes down. To shoot it as a silhouette at sunset, you’ll need to arrive early and set yourself up along the cliff. You’ll be standing at the same level as the temple and shooting over the cove below.
Tip 3: You might need a tripod so bring one along.
For the photo of Pura Batu Bolong, I had to use a tripod. The sunset itself was overcast and grey. But I waited and was able to capture the reflection of the sun on the clouds after it had set. This required a slow shutter speed, so a tripod was a must.
If you are not planning to return to a location, a tripod is a good thing to bring along.
I also used a tripod to shoot this photo of a watering hole in the Cedarburg Mountains in the Western Cape of South Africa.
On our safari, we had stopped just before sunset for a sundowner. Before I took a sip of my drink, I set up my tripod and camera, hoping to get a photo of the sunset. As the sun slipped below the horizon, I captured this peaceful photo of the last light of the day over a watering hole.
Including the water and the grasses around it as a silhouette gave the photo a story.
Now it’s your turn.
First, you’ll need to know when the sun is going to set. I use the PhotoPills app to research this.
It helps to know where the sun is going to set, too. And yes, there’s an app for that. I use the Compass app that came on my iPhone. You can also use a map app.
Blue Hour comes after sunset. Why not read my post about shooting during the Blue Hour so you can capture some more shots after you’ve shot silhouettes at sunset?
Are you interested in learning more about Pura Batu Bolong? You can read about it and Tanah Lot here.