The secrets of taking good pictures: Better sunsets

Photography expert Tom Langford gives advice on how to capture a picture-perfect sunset.

Sunset 390 (photo credit: Adrian Whittle)
Sunset 390
(photo credit: Adrian Whittle)
Tom Langford is an event and commercial photographer, professional retoucher, and a website designer.
This is a popular time of the year for family vacations. Among the mountains of snaps that have been taken will be some dramatic sunset pictures - often the most impressive pictures from the holiday.
Pointing the camera at a bright light source, such as the sun, causes the rest of the picture to be underexposed - this automatically creates a more dramatic picture. Sunset snaps may impress family and friends, but most lack the basic elements that all good pictures have in common. Here are a few simple tips that will help you take really good sunset pictures that will impress more than just your family circle.
Backgrounds and foregrounds
Most of the sunset pictures sent to me for feedback are what I call “backgrounds” – they are not interesting enough in themselves but could be effective behind a suitable foreground subject. Good pictures have depth, both physically an emotionally, and sunsets are no exception.
Let’s take a look at a typical “background” sunset and see how it could have been improved by applying some basic principles of photography.
One layer sunset (Tom Langford)One layer sunset (Tom Langford)
This is a typical snap. If a picture is worth a thousand words then the snapper would have to supply the nine hundred and ninety words missing. The simplest way to go about improving it is by adding depth through including some foreground detail as in the next example.
Two layer sunset (Tom Langford)Two layer sunset (Tom Langford)
The shot now has two layers, a background and a foreground. It’s beginning to take shape and is more interesting. But it still lacks a vital element - it needs a strong focal point to draw the eye into the picture and add some emotional and as physical depth.
Focal points
Before photographing a sunset try to spot an interesting or appropriate focal point to include in the shot: You could use a sign, a fence, some flying birds, the silhouette of trees, a boat or even a landing stage. In the example below I have included a bather looking out to sea.
Three layer sunset (Tom Langford)Three layer sunset (Tom Langford)
The picture now has three layers that combine together to give it some depth. When shooting try to include at least three layers that interact together and add a little complexity to attract and hold the viewer’s attention. Following these simple principles will improve not only your sunsets, but every picture you take.
Constructive Feedback: If you are aspiring to develop your photography skills, send me a picture and I may use in one in my articles with some constructive feedback. Send one picture only, at a small size to suitable for emails to

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Tom Langford is an Event and Commercial photographer, website designer, and professional retoucher. He teaches photography courses for beginners and improvers. Details of his courses and field trips at: