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 is a powerful camera, and with many powerful apps available to enhance our shooting and editing, we can take amazing photos and preserve those moments forever! Here are some tips for capturing better sunset photos.

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Make Sure Your Horizon is Level

Paul Marsh

Many sunset photos posted on social media have a common issue that is relatively easy to correct: Crooked horizon lines. It's best to shoot the photo level in the first place. 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 may be 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. Here you can swipe left or right on the angle scale and a grid will overlay atop your image. This grid will help you straighten any 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 important parts of the image unintentionally cropped 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

While this is 2015 and technology has come a long way, no camera can capture 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 photo without having to upload photos from a memory card to a computer. Many years later, the App Store is full of powerful photo editing tools like SnapSeed, Filterstorm, and there's now even an iPhone version of Photoshop.

While sunsets often don't need editing, sometimes it helps to plan on a little bit of editing even before you shoot the photo. When shooting sunsets, often it can be hard to capture details in the clouds -- if you're not careful what you choose when you expose in the image. Many apps like Camera+, ProCamera, and ProCam 2 (my preferred camera app) allow you to separate focus from exposure so you can tap on one part of the scene to focus on, and another to set the exposure. But 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 around you will 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.

Editing photos is an important process and a great avenue to explore. There are many primers on how to edit photos, and that's outside the scope of this article. To get you started, though, here are 11 free editing apps for iPhone and Android: here. I find myself using Snapseed a lot for sunset photos - I like carefully using the drama filter to really enhance the contrast and textures in the sunset light especially. It's often the only adjustment/editing I do to a sunset image. I also like to explore sunset photos in black & white. A monochrome sky can be just as dramatic as one in color. Also explore apps like Rays & SlowShutterCam at sunset. 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 be really nice at sunset and can give your image a nice painterly feel

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Sunset over marsh
Paul Marsh

As mentioned above, the camera cannot capture what the eye can see. You can capture and edit photos to compensate for this, but 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 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. This mode can give better sunset images than the normal mode. For the best results, though, a dedicated HDR app like ProHDR, TrueHDR, or several others give 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 nice and pleasing, sometimes the details in the dark areas can provide a nice context. HDR gives you the ability to show both 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 really helpful in order for the edges of the merged photos to be clean. Or, you can deliberately capture the movement creatively, knowing that you're taking two photos and merging them, just as I did with the sunset image of the dancers by the fountain here

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Explore the Light

blurry tower
Paul Marsh

Be Patient - The best light and color can come 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 clouds.

Hopefully these tips will help give you some tools for capturing amazing sunsets better and will allow you to explore the power of the iPhone as a tool for excellent photography.