Africa, the continent of perfect sunsets – and as it seems, every single evening. The term sunset photography must have been coined in Namibia, where light and shadow merges in the red glow of the sun.

Sunset Photography
Pentax K5; 39mm; F22; sec 1/50; ISO100
Quiver trees, Gondwana Canyon Park
Lens flares can occur in a classic sunset picture. These reflections are caused when light is scattered in a lens system. They can be prevented by changing the image detail or the angle to the sun. If applied as a stylistic element they tell the viewer that it is a particularly bright source of light. There are many programs to create flares later. I just added the small spot.
Editing: adjusted gradation curve, stamped flare spot, resharpened

On a typical sundowner tour you drive, in your private car or in the open vehicle of a lodge, to a beautiful spot, usually an elevated one for a good view of the landscape. Accompanied by oohs and ahhs a bar is set up.

Sunset Photography
Pentax 645Z; 28mm; F22; sec 1/80; ISO1600; -1,3eV
A typical sundowner situation. I took several pictures in burst mode to select the best one later on. In this case the posture of the woman was important to me, as she stands at the table and is illuminated by the sun. The picture says much about the location: e.g. the footprints in the sand and the cooler box reveal to the viewer that we were traveling by car, while the fence in the background suggests a private game farm.
Editing: adjusted gradation curve, resharpened, person brightened, sun darkened

Then, enjoying a drink, everyone waits for the silent event that works its magic on the sky and gently envelopes the landscape in darkness. Cameras are at the ready at the exact moment, settings are checked, pictures are compared… and there is some ranting about technology.

Sunset Photography
Pentax K3II; 50mm; F22; sec 1/80; ISO100
A real selfie with a reflex camera. I put the three chairs in the right position, set up the tripod and camera, had my family sit down and then rushed to my place before the shutter release went off. Due to the low position of the camera, the mountains and the people appear unobstructed against the backdrop of the sky. The chairs could have been positioned more towards the sun, to increase the harmony in the image.
Editing: adjusted gradation curve, straightened, cropped

That done there is usually some haste to get back to camp in time for dinner. On the way you often find that the sky is turning absolutely magnificent right then, with delicate clouds like pink candyfloss on velvety dark blue.

Sunset Photography
Pentax K 1; 310mm; F29; sec 1/30; ISO100; -1eV
A sunset that could have occurred almost anywhere. Nothing hints at the location where the photo was taken. The picture totally depends on the clouds which are illuminated only from below.
Editing: adjusted gradation curve, increased contrasts and definition

What to do better? I always drive to the sundowner location ahead of time, look for a good spot with an interesting foreground silhouetted against the sky and set up my camera well before sunset. I take the first pictures before the sun touches the horizon and then, while changing position, again and again until the last colourful beam of light has disappeared.

Sunset Photography
Pentax 645Z; 28mm; F9; sec 1/160; ISO400
Namib, Elim Dune
Since a picture taken against the light of the setting sun left only darkness for the beautiful dunes, I opted for a low position and chose one of my fellow travellers to get the attention. The dune grass close by and the large distance to the person change the proportions for the viewer. I made sure that the person stands freely in a gap while clouds and grass direct the gaze to the middle.
Editing: adjusted gradation curve, resharpened


You don’t do anything wrong if you choose the sunset auto mode. Small cameras rarely offer much possibility to adjust the settings manually. But you stay in control by taking a picture in sunset mode and checking the settings afterwards. Then set the same aperture, shutter speed and ISO in manual mode and change the individual parameters. That way you can gradually feel your way to the perfect image. The changes can be seen directly in Live View.

My settings

  • I usually use maximum aperture closure (e.g. F22/) to prevent overexposure of the sun. This way I capture beautiful rays, caused by the closely positioned blades in the lens. It also gives me a wide focal length.
  • In order to prevent noise in my image, I choose a very low ISO setting (ISO 100-400). Sometimes I use a tripod because exposure becomes longer as the sun goes down. The shake reduction of the camera or lens should be switched off, as it can counteract the steadiness of the tripod and pictures can become blurred.
  • If I want the sun to have the typical yellow-red colour, or if moving objects such as people, animals or grass swaying in the wind are silhouetted against the sunset, I always try to underexpose the image. As a result of shorter exposure the image does not blur so easily, the colours become more vivid and the sun does not turn a burnt-out white. Parts of the picture can be brightened up again on the computer with an editing program. PLEASE NOTE: If the image is overexposed in just one spot, there is no image information and colours and structures cannot be recovered. I use only one focus point, usually the one in the middle, to be able to decide for myself which part of the image should be the sharpest.
  • Interest is created if a foreground feature stands out against the bright sky. It can also give the beholder a clue as to where the picture was taken and it sets the tone and provides depth.
  • Also in sunset photography the most harmonious images come about if the rule of thirds is taken into consideration: usually two thirds for the sky, while the very dark ground in the fore is sometimes reduced to a sort of frame for a paper cut.

Photography with the light

These days I rarely aim my camera directly at the setting sun.
While everybody is watching the sunset, I study the fellow travellers, the vehicle, rocks or animals illuminated in warm shades by the wonderful soft light which sometimes makes them look as if they shine from the inside.

Sunset Photography
Pentax K3; 39mm; F7.1; sec 1/80; ISO200;
Plateauberg, Damaraland
A look away from the sun into the surroundings illuminated in red always shows a lot of possibilities; in this case in particular, mountains blocked my sunset-view.
Editing: adjusted gradation curve, saturated red

When you are on a trip you have the opportunity to practice every evening. Make time to do so, it’s worth it.

Additional information:

At sunset the light changes from bright white to various shades of red and all the while it is fading steadily. The intensity of red depends on the atmospheric density. In Africa the air contains more dust particles than in Europe. The evening sunlight hits the earth at an oblique angle and travels a longer distance through the atmosphere. Since blue light scatters more than the longer wavelengths, we only see the red light.

Author: Lambert Heil

Sunset Photography

He has been photographing wildlife, nature, people and typical situations on trips in Africa and Europe for many years. He portrays the space in which the life of people and animals happens. Usually it is nature and sometimes urban surroundings which provide the backdrop for the motif. Heil works at Hellabrunn Zoo in Munich as a zoo educator. A former travel editor, he has organised nature tours for almost 30 years. As a result he is well-versed in people, nature and animals. During photography courses in game reserves and enclosures as well as on photo journeys he shares his practical knowledge with other photographers. Being a passionate wildlife photographer himself he leads several photo tours to destinations in Africa every year. He also gives talks on nature in general and Africa in particular.


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