How to Take Better Sunset Photos With an iPhone

Many of us are captivated by the beauty of a sunset. How often, too, are we driving home from work, not in a place where we can leave, or have we left the "big camera" at home? Fortunately, the iPhone sports a powerful camera with capabilities that expand with every new iPhone release; plus, many powerful apps are available to enhance shooting and editing. Here are some tips for capturing better sunset photos.

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Make Sure Your Horizon Is Level

Sunset
Paul Marsh

Many sunset photos posted on social media have a common issue that is relatively easy to correct: Crooked horizon lines. Many camera apps have a toggle switch for grid lines, including the built-in camera app. In the Photos & Camera menu in your iPhone settings, you can find the grid toggle. This will overlay a rule-of-thirds grid on your screen when you are using the camera. When you are shooting, simply pay attention to the horizon lines in your scene, and keep them straight against the grid lines.

For photos that you've already taken that are crooked, most photo apps have a straighten adjustment. It's included in the editing functions of the built-in iOS Photos app. To use that, tap Edit while viewing the photo in the camera roll, and then click the crop tool. Swipe left or right on the angle scale, and a grid will overlay atop your image to help you straighten the horizon lines in your image.

Keeping your horizon lines straight in the first place allows you to get the best of your composition without having to crop important parts of the image out when you edit the photo to straighten it. It also keeps your image well-balanced and more pleasing to the eye. 

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Shoot to Edit

Blue sky over water
Paul Marsh

Technology has come a long way, but no camera can capture the depth of what the eye can see. When we shoot photos, we have to make choices. Even back in the film days, the darkroom was all about editing. Ansel Adams used to say that the negative is the score, and the print is the performance. When the App Store became available and photo editing apps started arriving in our pockets, the iPhone became the first device that allowed you to shoot, edit, and share your photos without having to upload them from a memory card to a computer.

While sunsets often don't need editing, planning on some editing is wise, even before you shoot the photo. Capturing details in the clouds can be difficult, for example, if you're not careful what you choose when you expose in the image. Many apps, such as Camera+, ProCamera, and ProCam 2, allow you to separate focus from exposure so you can tap on one part of the scene to focus on, and another part to set the exposure. Even the basic camera app allows you to tap on the part of the image you want to expose. If you set the exposure in the bright area of the sky, the darker areas often turn completely dark. If you pick a dark part of the image, then your sunset sky will wash out. The trick is to pick something close to the middle and then use an editing app to make the colors and contrast really pop. If you have to choose, then aim for the sky; expose for the sky, and edit for the shadows.

Black and White Equals Drama

Black and white sunsets can be very compelling. A monochrome sky can be just as dramatic as one in color.

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Try Some Editing Apps

Nowadays, we have lots of free editing apps for iPhone and Android to choose from, including powerful photo-editing tools such as SnapSeed and Filterstorm. There's even an iPhone version of Photoshop. These give you capabilities we could only dream of a few years ago.

Snapseed works particularly well for sunset photos; the drama filter enhances the contrast and textures in the light. You might find that this is the only adjustment you need to do to a sunset image.

Explore apps like Rays & SlowShutterCam, too. The setting sun is always fun to play with in Rays, and if you're near water, SlowShutterCam can give you an effect similar to a long exposure on a more sophisticated camera. The softening effect can yield beautiful results at sunset and can give your image a nice painterly feel.

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Try HDR

Sunset over marsh
Paul Marsh

A common method for expanding the range of tones in an image is to combine two or more images in a process called "High Dynamic Range" or HDR. Simply put, this process involves combining an image exposed for the shadows with an image exposed for the highlights into one image with both areas properly exposed. Sometimes, the results are very unnatural-looking and unsettling — but when done properly, sometimes you can't even tell that the HDR process was used.

Many iPhone camera apps, including the built-in camera, have an HDR mode, which often delivers much better sunset results. For the best results, though, a dedicated HDR app like ProHDR or TrueHDR gives you the most control. You can either shoot the HDR photo from within the app, or take a dark photo and a bright photo and manually merge them in the HDR app.

While sunset silhouettes can be pleasing, sometimes, the details in the dark areas can provide context. HDR gives you the ability to show the color and detail in the sky and the details in the dark shadow areas. Since you're combining two or more images to make one HDR photo, a tripod or a something to support your iPhone can be helpful in keeping the edges of the merged photos clean. Or, you can deliberately capture the movement creatively, knowing that you're taking two photos and merging them.

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Explore the Light

blurry tower
Paul Marsh

Be patient: The best light and color often arrives after the sun disappears behind the horizon. Watch for the best color several minutes after the sun sets. Also, explore the way the low angle of the setting sun lights up the world around you. The rim light and back light effects can lead to some powerful images. Sunsets aren't always about the sun and clouds.