For many new photographers shooting beautiful sunsets is a 'target', it's something they really want to achieve. That wonderful golden light and maybe even a few crepuscular rays with a foreground comprising a dark silhouette of almost anything. The good news is that such an image is quite straightforward to capture, simply expose for the brightest part in the frame, compose and shoot, your camera will take care of the rest.
Many such sunset shots will be captured spontaneously like the adjacent image which presented itself as I sat on my balcony eating dinner one evening. There's absolutely nothing wrong with a spontaneous capture, after all that is what photography is all about, right place right time.
You can get yourself in the right place at the right time more often with a little forward planning which will improve your chances of making the images that you have imagined. When chasing sunrise and sunset I always refer Sunset WX which predicts the forthcoming sunrise and sunset to help you see if your location is a good choice for that particular time. You'll also need to keep an eye on the weather for your location, while clear skies will often produce huge blankets of colour, clouds will add drama, water will add reflection and smoke or dust will dull the light from the sun and make an interesting change as the examples below demonstrate.
If you are seeking more detail in the foreground of your shot rather than silhouettes you will need to manually overexpose as the camera will read the light coming from the sun and very often underexpose everything else in the image. It's good to experiment with sunset exposures, shoot some long and some short to see what result you like the most. If you are struggling you can always try the exposure lock method, simply point your lens at a darker area of the image and press the exposure lock button, this will give you a longer shutter speed and bring some light to the darker areas, but if you overdo it it will blow out your highlights. You can also use bracketing if you are familiar with the technique.
If there's movement in the frame you can also add a neutral density filter to bring something different to the image. A neutral density filter causes a much longer exposure (depending on the strength of the filter in use). When shooting moving water it will flatten out the movement resulting in a soft blur.
The adjacent images of a beach in California show the difference with and without an ND filter. There is no 'better' image just different approaches to the same shot.
Some other things to consider when shooting sunsets:
- Camera white balance can be switched to the 'shade' or 'cloudy' setting and it will warm the image considerably (sometimes a little too much).
- A tripod would be useful for sunrise and sunset shots just because the shutter speed tends to be lower and unintended blur is a real possibility.
- Manual focus may also be required as the very bright sunlight can cause some cameras to struggle finding focus automatically.
- Always remember to check behind you, often a the best colour is opposite the sunrise/sunset.
- Don't rush away, always stick around and wait for the very last light, it is often the best.
- Shoot in RAW to get the best from the images you capture.